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I Don't Think So: Writing Effective Counterarguments

Amanda Christy Brown
New York Times
February 12, 2015

Overview | How do writers analyze subjects and ideas to make a claim using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence? How does incorporating counterarguments in persuasive writing strengthen one’s claims?

In this lesson, students analyze the work of winners of the Learning Network’s 2014 Student Editorial Contest as well as professional models from the Times editorial pages to learn how writers effectively introduce and respond to counterarguments. Then they write their own position pieces, incorporating counterarguments to strengthen their claims. Finally, they are invited to submit their finished essays to this year’s Student Editorial Contest by March 9, 2015.

Note: This lesson builds on, and thus works well as a companion to, this 2014 lesson on crafting evidence-based editorials.

Background The Common Core emphasizes writing arguments as essential to student success beyond the classroom, but, as the educator Grant Wiggins points out, the kind of writing those standards demand goes beyond what students typically see as argumentative. In his post, Mr. Wiggins quotes Gerald Graff, the author of “They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing”:

Theorist and critic Neil Postman (1997) calls argument the soul of an education because argument forces a writer to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of multiple perspectives. When teachers ask students to consider two or more perspectives on a topic or issue, something far beyond surface knowledge is required: students must think critically and deeply, assess the validity of their own thinking, and anticipate counterclaims in opposition to their own assertions.

Indeed, some of the best editorials in last year’s Learning Network Student Editorial Contest do exactly this by not only anticipating, but also effectively incorporating counterarguments into their pieces.

Materials | Computers with Internet access, Debatable Issues handout

Warm-Up | If your students have ever successfully negotiated anything with their parents, friends or teachers, chances are they already know something about counterarguments. Connect to student experience by opening your investigation with a role-play activity. Distribute the following scenarios to pairs of students. First, students should brainstorm possible arguments to be used by each side and use what they come up with to create a script of the ensuing conversation. Explain that to get what they want, each party needs to understand the other’s position well so that they can use it to strengthen their own position.

  • Scenario 1: Two friends outside a movie theater. Each wants to see a different movie. (Feel free to come up with the selections!)
  • Scenario 2: A parent and a child. The child wants a later curfew to attend a party with friends.
  • Scenario 3: A student and a teacher. The student wants an extension on a paper.
  • Scenario 4: Two friends. One wants the other to let him or her copy his or her homework.
  • Scenario 5: A parent and a child. The family has planned a trip during school vacation. The child wants to do something with friends instead.
  • Scenario 6: A parent and a child. The child wants a smartphone. The parents feel he or she isn’t old enough.
  • Scenario 7: A parent and a child. The parent wants the child to attend college close to home; the child wants to go across the country.

When students are ready, ask for several groups to perform. At the conclusion of each role-play, ask the audience which party had the more convincing argument and talk about why. How did the “winner” incorporate counterarguments? What role did counterarguments play in the victor’s success? Explain that just as happened in these scenarios, writing an argument is really about completely understanding all aspects of an issue, so that you can take an educated, logical stance and anticipate rebuttals.

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