Essays Learning Lesson

Bring in a few print copies of a newspaper, whether The Times or a local or school paper, and have your students work in small groups to contrast a news page with an opinion page and see what they discover.

Though this piece, “And Now a Word From Op-Ed,” is from 2004, it still provides a useful and quick overview of The Times’s Opinion section, even if the section then was mostly a print product. It begins this way:

Here at the Op-Ed page, there are certain questions that are as constant as the seasons. How does one get published? Who chooses the articles? Does The Times have an agenda? And, of course, why was my submission rejected? Now that I’ve been Op-Ed editor for a year, let me try to offer a few answers.

This 2013 article, “Op-Ed and You,” also helps both readers of the section, and potential writers for it, understand how Times Opinion works:

Anything can be an Op-Ed. We’re not only interested in policy, politics or government. We’re interested in everything, if it’s opinionated and we believe our readers will find it worth reading. We are especially interested in finding points of view that are different from those expressed in Times editorials. If you read the editorials, you know that they present a pretty consistent liberal point of view. There are lots of other ways of looking at the world, to the left and right of that position, and we are particularly interested in presenting those points of view.

After students have read one or both of these overviews, invite them to explore the Times’s Opinion section, noting what they find and raising questions as they go. You might ask:

• What pieces look most interesting to you? Why?

• What subsections are featured in the links across the top of the section (“Columnists”; “Series”; “Editorials”; “Op-Ed”; “Letters”; etc.) and what do you find in each? How do they seem to work together?

• How do you think the editors of this section decide what to publish?

• What role does this section seem to play in The Times as a whole?

• Would you ever want to write an Op-Ed or a letter to the editor? What might you write about?

If your students are confused about where and how news and opinion can sometimes bleed together, our lesson plan, News and ‘News Analysis’: Navigating Fact and Opinion in The Times, can help.

And to go even deeper, this lesson plan from 2010 focuses on a special section produced that year, “Op-Ed at 40: Four Decades of Argument and Illustration.” It helps students understand the role the Op-Ed page has played at The Times since 1970, and links to many classic pieces.

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2. Know the difference between fact and opinion.

In our lesson plan Distinguishing Between Fact and Opinion, you’ll find activities students can use with any day’s Times to practice.

For instance, you might invite them to read an Op-Ed and underline the facts and circle the opinion statements they find, then compare their work in small groups.

Or, read a news report and an opinion piece on the same topic and look for the differences. For example, which of the first paragraphs below about the shooting in Las Vegas is from a news article and which is from an opinion piece? How can they tell?

Paragraph A: After the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, the impulse of politicians will be to lower flags, offer moments of silence, and lead a national mourning. Yet what we need most of all isn’t mourning, but action to lower the toll of guns in America. (From “Preventing Mass Shootings Like the Vegas Strip Attack”)

Paragraph B: A gunman on a high floor of a Las Vegas hotel rained a rapid-fire barrage on an outdoor concert festival on Sunday night, leaving at least 59 people dead, injuring 527 others, and sending thousands of terrified survivors fleeing for cover, in one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history. (From “Multiple Weapons Found in Las Vegas Gunman’s Hotel Room”)

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3. Analyze the use of rhetorical strategies like ethos, pathos and logos.

Do your students know what ethos, pathos and logos mean? The video above, “What Aristotle and Joshua Bell Can Teach Us About Persuasion,” can help. We use it in this lesson plan, in which students explore the use of these rhetorical devices via the Op-Ed “Rap Lyrics on Trial” and more. The lesson also helps students try out their own use of rhetoric to make a persuasive argument.

In the post, we quote a New Yorker article, “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You,” that explains the strategies in a way that students may readily understand:

In 350 B.C., Aristotle was already wondering what could make content — in his case, a speech — persuasive and memorable, so that its ideas would pass from person to person. The answer, he argued, was three principles: ethos, pathos, and logos. Content should have an ethical appeal, an emotional appeal, or a logical appeal. A rhetorician strong on all three was likely to leave behind a persuaded audience. Replace rhetorician with online content creator, and Aristotle’s insights seem entirely modern. Ethics, emotion, logic — it’s credible and worthy, it appeals to me, it makes sense. If you look at the last few links you shared on your Facebook page or Twitter stream, or the last article you e-mailed or recommended to a friend, chances are good that they’ll fit into those categories.

Take the New Yorker’s advice and invite them to choose viral content from their social networks and identify ethos, pathos and logos at work.

Or, use the handouts and ideas in our post An Argument-Writing Unit: Crafting Student Editorials, in which Kayleen Everitt, an eighth-grade English teacher, has her students take on advertising the same way.

Finally, if you’d like a recommendation for a specific Op-Ed that will richly reward student analysis of these elements, Kabby Hong, a teacher at Verona Area High School in Wisconsin, who will be our guest on our “Write to Change the World” webinar, recommends Nicholas Kristof’s column “If Americans Love Moms, Why Do We Let Them Die?“

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4. Identify claims and evidence.

The Common Core Standards put argument front and center in American education, and even young readers are now expected to be able to identify claims in opinion pieces and find the evidence to support them.

We have a number of lesson plans that can help.

First, Constructing Arguments: “Room for Debate” and the Common Core Standards, uses an Opinion feature that, though now defunct, can still be a great resource for teachers. Use the archives of Room for Debate, which featured succinct arguments on interesting topics from a number of points of view, to introduce students to perspectives on everything from complex geopolitical or theological topics to whether people are giving Too Much Information in today’s Facebook world.

We also have two comprehensive lesson plans — For the Sake of Argument: Writing Persuasively to Craft Short, Evidence-Based Editorials and I Don’t Think So: Writing Effective Counterarguments — that were written to support students in crafting their own editorials for our annual contest. In both, we first introduce readers to “mentor texts,” from The Times and elsewhere, that help them see how effective claims, evidence and counterclaims function in making a strong argument.

Finally, if you’re looking for a fun way to practice, we often hear from teachers that our What’s Going On in This Picture? feature works well. To participate, students must make a claim about what they believe is “going on” in a work of Times photojournalism stripped of its caption, then come up with evidence to support what they say.

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5. Adopt a columnist.

We have heard from many teachers over the years that a favorite assignment is to have students each “adopt” a different newspaper columnist, and follow him or her over weeks or months, noting the issues they focus on and the rhetorical strategies they use to make their cases. Throughout, students can compare what they find — and, of course, apply what they learn to their own writing.

For example, here is a sample assignment we found online called “Summer Reading Columnist Project.” If you would like to try it with The Times, here are the current Op-Ed columnists:

Charles M. Blow

David Brooks

Frank Bruni

Roger Cohen

Gail Collins

Ross Douthat

Maureen Dowd

Thomas L. Friedman

Michelle Goldberg

Nicholas Kristof

Paul Krugman

David Leonhardt

Andrew Rosenthal

Bret Stephens

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6. Explore visual argument-making via Times Op-Art, editorial cartoons and Op-Docs.

The New York Times regularly commissions artists and cartoonists to create work to accompany Opinion pieces. How do illustrations like the one above add meaning to a text, while grabbing readers’ attention at the same time? What can students infer about the argument being made in an Op-Ed article by looking at the illustration alone?

In this lesson plan, students investigate how art works together with text to emphasize a point of view. They then create their own original illustrations to go with a Times editorial, Op-Ed article or letter to the editor. We also suggest that they can illustrate an Opinion piece or letter to the editor that does not have an illustration associated with it.

Recently, Clara Lieu, a teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design, told us how she uses that very idea to help her student-artists to create their own pieces. To see some of their work, check out “Finding Artistic Inspiration in The New York Times’s Opinion Section.”

If your students would like to go further and create their own editorial cartoons, we offer an annual student contest. Invite your students to check out the work of last year’s winners for inspiration. This year’s runs through Oct. 17, and we have a lesson plan, Drawing for Change: Analyzing and Making Political Cartoons, to go with it.

Another way to use visual journalism to teach argument-making? Use Op-Docs, The Times’s short documentary series (most under 15 minutes), that touches on issues like race and gender identity, technology and society, civil rights, criminal justice, ethics, and artistic and scientific exploration — issues that both matter to teenagers and complement classroom content.

Every Friday during the school year, we host a Film Club in which we select short Op-Docs we think will inspire powerful conversations — and then invite teenagers and teachers from around the world to have those conversations here, on our site.

And for a great classroom example of how this might work in practice, check out Using an Op-Doc Video to Teach Argumentative Writing, a Reader Idea from Allison Marchetti, an English teacher at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, Va. She details how her students analyzed the seven-minute film “China’s Web Junkies” to see how the filmmakers used evidence to support an argument, including expert testimony, facts, interview, imagery, statistics and anecdotes.

Ideas for Writing Opinion Pieces

7. Use our student writing prompts to practice making arguments for a real audience.

Does Technology Make Us More Alone?

Is It Ethical to Eat Meat?

Is It O.K. for Men and Boys to Comment on Women and Girls on the Street?

Are Some Youth Sports Too Intense?

Does Reality TV Promote Dangerous Stereotypes?

When Do You Become an Adult?

Is America Headed in the Right Direction?

Every day during the school year we invite teenagers to share their opinions about questions like these, and hundreds do, posting arguments, reflections and anecdotes to our Student Opinion feature. Last year, we created a list drawn from this feature of 401 Prompts for Argumentative Writing on an array of topics like technology, politics, sports, education, health, parenting, science and pop culture.

Teachers tell us they use our writing prompts because they offer an opportunity for students to write for an “authentic audience.” But we also consider our daily questions to be a chance for the kind of “low-stakes” writing that can help students practice thinking through thorny questions informally.

This school year, we’ve also begun calling out our favorite comments weekly via our Current Events Conversation feature. Will your students’ posts be next?

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8. Participate in our annual Student Editorial Contest.

What issues matter most to your students?

Every year, we invite teenagers to channel their passions into formal pieces: short, evidence-based persuasive essays like the editorials The New York Times publishes every day.

The challenge is pretty straightforward. Choose a topic you care about, gather evidence from sources both within and outside of The New York Times, and write a concise editorial (450 words or less) to convince readers of your point of view.

Our judges use this rubric (PDF) for selecting winners to publish on The Learning Network.

And at a time when breaking out of one’s “filter bubble” is more important than ever, we hope this contest also encourages students to broaden their news diets by using multiple sources, ideally ones that offer a range of perspectives on their chosen issue.

This school year, as you can see from our 2017-18 Student Contest Calendar, the challenge will run from Feb. 28 to April 5, 2018.

And, as we mentioned above, we have published two lesson plans to help guide every step:

• For the Sake of Argument: Writing Persuasively to Craft Short, Evidence-Based Editorials and

• I Don’t Think So: Writing Effective Counterarguments

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9. Take advice from writers and editors at the Times’s Opinion section.

How can you write a powerful Op-Ed or editorial?

Well, over the years, many Times editors and writers have given the aspiring opiners advice. In the video above, for instance, Andrew Rosenthal, in his previous role as Editorial Page editor, detailed seven pointers for the students who participate in our annual Editorial Contest,

This summer, the Times Op-Ed columnist Bret Stephens wrote his own Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers.

And on our Oct. 10 webinar, Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof suggests his own ten ideas. (Scroll down to see what they are, as well as to find related Op-Ed columns.)

Finally, if you’d like to get a letter to the editor published, here is what Tom Feyer, the longtime head of that section, recommends. Right now, from Oct. 9-Oct. 16, 2017, that section is offering a special letter-writing challenge for high school students. Submit a letter to the editor in response to a news article, editorial, column or Op-Ed essay in The Times from the past week, and they will pick a selection of the best entries and publish them on Sunday, Oct. 22.

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10. Use the published work of young people as mentor texts.

Last year, five students of Kabby Hong, the teacher who joined us for our Oct. 10 webinar, were either winners, runners-up or honorable mentions in our Student Editorial Contest.

How did he do it? First, he helps his students brainstorm by asking them the questions on this sheet. (The first page shows his own sample answers since he models them for his students.)

Then, he uses the work of previous student winners alongside famous pieces like “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to show his class what effective persuasive writing looks like. Here is a PDF of the handout Mr. Hong gave out last year, which he calls “Layering in Brushstrokes,” and which analyzes aspects of each of these winning essays:

•“In Three and a Half Hours, an Alarm Will Go Off”

•“Redefining Ladylike”

•“Why I, a Heterosexual Teenage Boy, Want to See More Men in Speedos”

Another great source of published opinion writing by young people? The Times series “On Campus,” where you can read essays by college students on everything from “The Looming Uncertainty for Dreamers Like Me” to “Dropping Out of College Into Life.”

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Update: Oct. 10: Links from Our Oct. 10 Webinar

On our Oct. 10 webinar (still available on-demand), Nicholas Kristof talked teachers through ten ways anyone can make their persuasive writing stronger. Here is a list of his tips, along with the columns that relate to each — though you’ll need to watch the full webinar to hear the stories and examples that illustrate them.

Nicholas Kristof’s Ten Tips for Writing Op-Eds

1. Start out with a very clear idea in your own mind about the point you want to make.

Related: Preventing Mass Shootings Like the Vegas Strip Attack

2. Don’t choose a topic, choose an argument.

Related: On Death Row, but Is He Innocent?

3. Start with a bang.

Related: If Americans Love Moms, Why Do We Let Them Die?

4. Personal stories are often very powerful to make a point.

Related: This is What a Refugee Looks Like

5. If the platform allows it, use photos or video or music or whatever.

Related: The Photos the U.S. and Saudi Arabia Don’t Want You to See

6. Don’t feel the need to be formal and stodgy.

Related: Meet the World’s Leaders, in Hypocrisy

7. Acknowledge shortcomings in your arguments if the readers are likely to be aware of them, and address them openly.

Related: A Solution When a Nation’s Schools Fail

8. It’s often useful to cite an example of what you’re criticizing, or quote from an antagonist, because it clarifies what you’re against.

Related: Anne Frank Today Is a Syrian Girl

9. If you’re really trying to persuade people who are on the fence, remember that their way of thinking may not be yours.

Related: We Don’t Deny Harvey, So Why Deny Climate Change?

10. When your work is published, spread the word through social media or emails or any other avenue you can think of.

Related: You can find Nicholas Kristof on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, his Times blog, and via his free newsletter.

Continue reading the main story

“Doing homework” by Predi is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

 


In this power lesson shared by high school English teacher Cynthia Ruiz, students write their own personal statements of belief. The essay pushes students to write about something that matters to them and helps them get to know each other on a deeper level.


 

I used to assign a “Letter to the Teacher” at the beginning of every year to get a snapshot of how a student writes while simultaneously learning background information. Being completely honest, this assignment is also an easy way to get the first few back-to-school days started when a 90-minute class period feels like 900 minutes, because everyone is typically on their best behavior and not talking much. Although I enjoy reading the letters, the assignment doesn’t lend itself to revising and is written only for a specific, one-person audience.

I know building relationships with students is important and a way to get to know them is through their writing, so I did some research to see what other teachers were trying. I came across the “This I Believe” site and immediately liked the concept better than an introduction letter for a teacher.

Assignment Guidelines

The first time I assigned a “This I Believe” essay was in the fall of 2014, during the second week of school. I planned it as a year-long endeavor, something we could work on as a distraction from other essays required to prepare for state testing. This past year, I did not assign it until late April; it would be our last major writing task. I wanted to give everyone plenty of time to write but held them to a firm deadline of having four weeks to work.

This time, I crafted my writing guidelines according to those posted on the NPR site that hosts hundreds of This I Believe essays from around the world. My rubric still has some typical writing conventions, but overall I think it focuses more on student voice than structure. I made it clear that students had a lot of choice regarding both content and format. The biggest restriction came directly from the This I Believe site: a 500-600 word limit. I know a lot of writing teachers are divided when it comes to word count, but I figured it was still better than giving a specific number of required paragraphs and sentences.

One other requirement was that students use at least three “vocabulary devices.” This may seem like a restriction, but it actually supported student voice. Over the spring semester, we spent a lot of time reviewing both rhetorical and literary devices (anaphora, hypothetical questions, simile) and I told students to focus on the devices they genuinely felt comfortable using.

Helping Students Choose a Topic

Because the rubric leaves room for a lot of choice, I encouraged students to visit the featured essays site and not only read, but listen to real examples. I wanted them to see that this wasn’t just another run-of-the-mill assignment, that what they believe is important and writing is just one way to share those beliefs. I also made it a point to tell them our end goal was to share this essay with their entire class by way of a gallery walk.

After giving students time to explore the site, I had them “rush write” in their notebooks to see what immediate ideas they captured to help start the brainstorming process. Here’s the prompt I used:


This I Believe
For 2 minutes:
List words or ideas that you think about when you think of YOUR LIFE.
(Can be feelings, symbols, names, events, etc.)


After students generated this list, I asked them to consider what they wanted to write about and share with others. I wanted them to imagine a larger audience and think outside of meeting my expectations.

For some, deciding what to write about was easy and they began drafting immediately. However, the majority of students struggled not so much with what they believe, but how to write about it. Even though they appreciated having so much choice, they still needed some direction to get started.

We continued the listing strategy by focusing on “most memorables”: most memorable events in life so far, most memorable stuffed animal, most memorable friends, family experiences, life lessons learned, and so on. I asked them to focus on why they remember what they remember, and whether or not it impacts any of their beliefs. One student remembered a saying his grandmother always told him that still provides comfort as he’s gotten older. Another focused on her family not having a big house when they first moved to America and how she’s learned to be satisfied with opportunities instead of possessions. While this strategy helped a lot of light bulbs go off, it didn’t work for everyone.

Another strategy I tried was using involved sentence stems: I know I am the way I am today because______. I know I think about things the way I do because _______. I think most people would describe me as ______. I emphasized that these phrases did not have to be included in their final products, but should help generate ideas. I talked with a few frustrated students about this strategy and they told me it made them realize they’ve never really had to think about themselves in this way, but ultimately, it gave them direction for their essays.

Drafting and Revising

Because of block scheduling, I gave students about a week and a half to complete a working draft, which required having at least two paragraphs of their essay done. I only gave a portion of two to three class periods to actually write in class; students were expected to write on their own time.

On the day drafts were due, I set aside class time for revision. I asked students to refer to the rubric and focus on voice and vocabulary strategies. Questions I told them to consider were: Does this sound like me? Do I talk like this to my friends or family? I gave students the option of reviewing their own essays or partnering up with someone to peer edit. Again, this was the end of the year, so we had already established a pretty firm community of trust in class. I don’t know if peer editing would have been as easy had I done the assignment early in the year.

Overall, draft day didn’t feel like the usual “revising and editing” days we’ve had with other essays. Students were very concerned with whether or not they were making sense, if they should add more, or if they were being too repetitive, rather than only being concerned about capitalization, spelling, and grammatical errors.

Sharing the Finished Essays

The culmination of this assignment was when the essays were shared in a gallery walk. The gallery walk is my answer to having students write for a larger audience, and it really helps this essay become about what students have to say instead of just another grade. I can’t count how many times I have returned tediously graded essays only to have a kid immediately walk over to the recycling bin and trash it! Sure he read the comments and suggestions I made, or saw the cute smiley face I left by an excellent word choice, but it didn’t mean much to him because the paper is graded and finished, and he is now done thinking about it. With a gallery walk, not only are students thinking about what they wrote, but they have the opportunity to think about what their classmates wrote as well.

I printed each essay without any names, and made sure any identifying statements were revised. However, there were quite a few students who said they were proud of what they wrote and had no problem if others knew which essay belonged to them. Because not every student turned in a final copy, I printed additional copies of some completed essays to ensure every student had something to read during our gallery walk, instead of drawing attention to the two or three students who did not finish the assignment.

I placed the essays on different tables throughout the room and allowed students to move around as needed; some chose to stand and read an essay, others opted to sit, while others sprawled out on the floor to read. I played soft music and asked that the room volume stay quiet enough to be able to hear the music at all times. I didn’t mind if students were sharing and discussing, and I really wish I recorded the various conversations and comments I overheard that day: “Wow! Did you read this one yet?” “Man. Who wrote this? I might cry. Good tears, though.” “This one is life, Ms. Ruiz.”

I provided a pad of post-its near each essay and told students to leave POSITIVE feedback for each other. I provided sentence stems to help:


Something I liked…

Something I can relate to/agree with…

Something that surprised me…

Something I want to know more about…

I really think…


I periodically checked to make sure no one was being inappropriately critical or just leaving cute hearts or check marks. I wanted students to think about what they were reading, and understand that feedback is a crucial part of the writing process

After about 40 minutes, each essay had received multiple written comments, looking similar to the picture below:

Overall, the feedback was uplifting and actually created a sense of belonging in each class. Students told me they learned so much about each other that day and were shocked by their classmates’ writing. A few said they wished they had written this essay sooner.

Sample Student Work

I was floored by some of the essays I received. Some made me laugh, some made me gasp, some made me cry. Compared to the typical papers I usually assign, this essay allowed my students to not just think about what they were writing but to care about their writing and to be intentional in the language they were using, both in word choice and rhetorical strategies, because it was about what they believe. It is some of the strongest student writing I have ever received as an English teacher.

Here are some sample paragraphs from students who gave me permission to share their work:

From a student who told me he hates school and hates writing.

 

From a student who by all outward appearances, comes from a traditional family.

 

From a student battling depression and anxiety.

 

From a student who missed almost a whole semester but is trying to stay in school.

 

Although this essay helped end the year with a strong sense of community, I think teachers could easily have students write it at the beginning of the school year or even in January at the start of a new year. I’d love to hear how other teachers have used an essay like this in their classes. ♦

 


Have you taught a lesson or designed a learning experience we should feature in Power Lessons? Send a full description of your lesson through our contact form and we’ll check it out!


 

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