This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.
Recently, on the AP® English teachers’ listserv, Carol R. asked:
Last year's synthesis essay asked students to write an essay that "identifies the key issues associated with the locavore movement and examines their implications for the community." BUT, [it] goes on to say to "Make sure that your argument is central [...]"
My students are reading that as contradictory. Frankly, so am I. Identifying key issues seems to be a neutral assignment. It doesn't say to take a stand. But the "make sure" statement clearly indicates there should be an argument. I told the students, however, that every essay they write for the AP® language exam is a persuasive/argumentative essay and should have a claim—regardless of the wording on the prompt.
Am I correct?
Carol is correct. And this prompt does, indeed, require students to take a position and argue it. The problem these students are having is that it’s not an either/or agree/disagree kind of prompt—what most students understand as “argument.” It’s a bit more nuanced than that. Helping your students to understand this kind of prompt will not only help them succeed on the synthesis question, but will make them more discerning “citizen rhetors,” able to develop a variety of types of arguments in everyday contexts.
There are actually a couple of parts of the prompt that require a stance: first, students need to make choices about what they consider to be the key issues and, at some point, explain or justify their choices; then, students need to create an argument about what the implications are based on those choices.
Students need to consider their assumptions and inferences about those implications by reasoning through what they have identified as key issues, then evaluating what the source documents have to say about those items in order to use them as support. Does the information in the document convince them that an issue is somehow central to their understanding of locavorism? Is it useful in trying to convince a reader that the issue is important? Which issues are “key” and which are less relevant? Which issues actually have an impact on the community? These are decisions the student must make while reading, and which will inform their own argument in their essay, even if not explicitly discussed.
One way to approach that series of connections might be a quick graphic organizer: a list of issues they have identified in the documents, in a chart with these headings:
ISSUE important? yes / no --> why? --> effect on community?
As I mentioned, at first glance the prompt may not appear to be an argument because it doesn't require an either/or stance, which is how students often perceive the idea of argument. Instead, it asks students to analyze a situation, isolate and evaluate its component features, and project and justify a possible outcome.
In fact, in terms of Bloom's Taxonomy, this is a task that involves the entire "pyramid," and it supports the language exam's stated mandate of developing citizen rhetors—members of society who can examine information around them and weigh what they know and understand about that information, selecting what's important and understanding why it is important, in order to enter a conversation with an informed and judicious opinion.
To practice this kind of argumentation, your students could imagine, for example, that they were a community-based committee making a policy recommendation to local government. Each of them has the same docket of background information, but each has a different role and agenda (e.g., a corporate sponsor; a food bank worker; a political representative; a new parent; someone living on food stamps; a local farmer; the owner of a large chain grocery store; a dietician; an environmental activist; etc.). How will they decide what's important to their own agenda, and how will they convince the others to consider those details as important so that policy is shaped to suit their needs? They could work in teams to develop a short, 2 to 3 minute presentation to the committee, using the source material and making their reasons for their position very clear, including how they believe the policy will affect their community.
Very soon they'll see that different considerations of the material lead to different opinions of outcome. They’ll be better able to spot why this is so in any argument.
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