Two Questions for You: Using Google Reviews to Teach Argument Writing

Hi Everyone,

I recently began a feature called Two Questions for You where I ask instructors for their insights about teaching reading and writing.  The first one was about technology and teaching writing

Timothy Berrigan, Literacy Advisor at the Brooklyn Public Library in New York City, graciously agreed to discuss with us how he uses Google Reviews to teach argument writing. 

Why use Google Reviews to teach argument writing?

“Much has been said about encouraging students to ‘enter a conversation’ in writing pedagogy. However, many argumentative writing activities actually ask students to ‘finish’ the conversation, that is to have the final word within the context of the explicitly ‘school-based’ genre of the writing prompt. 

“Providing ‘cold’ writing prompts to students at the start of a writing sequence is akin to giving a summative assessment on the first day of a unit. It causes anxiety. It causes students to forget or doubt on what they already know about putting together an argument, even if they haven’t done so formally. I call these ‘Capital P’ Prompts, and I don’t find they have a place at the start of a writing sequence.

“Students already have a depth of experience when it comes to formulating an argument and support. It is our job as educators to remember this and to provide an environment in which student experience and knowledge can grow. We do not want to call student experience and practice into doubt; we want to build and expand upon it.

“You will hear students say, ‘What’s this person’s proof?’, or ‘This person’s point makes no sense to me!’ Good. The student has entered the conversation. This is our first step. As we all know, having an opinion is one thing. Developing an effective argument is another, and that’s what we are here to work towards. However, it’s very challenging to do the latter without the former.”

Please explain how you use Google Reviews to teach your students argument writing.

“The first step is to be mindful that we are emphasizing process over product when we use Google Reviews for argumentative writing. This is the first lasagna we are making together as a class. Things will get messy, and that is okay. There’s a reason cooking shows have a pre-made finished product already in the oven.

“I like to select Google Reviews of establishments or spaces within the communities I’m working. It suggests to students that their experience and community has a place within the classroom. It can be a public space. It can be a pizza place. I want students to have a connection and some working concept of the subject.

“I like to select reviews that provide some dichotomy or spectrum; this can be a positive review and negative review. This can be a more effective argument and a less effective argument. With all reviews, I conjure my best poker face. My thoughts, feelings, and ideas matter much less than my students. Much of the moment’s magic dwindles when students know how I feel and think; they will attempt to align their thinking with mine because that’s what school is so often about for all of us.

“We analyze the reviews the same way we’d review any text in class. What is the author’s purpose? Who is their audience? Do you think their argument is effective? Why or why not? This is Rhetorical Situation 101 but without using any of the intimidating buzzwords that can dim the sparks of student thinking and discovery. After we’ve assessed the arguments to the best of our ability, we work towards a rubric.

“Though, I don’t call it a rubric and neither do my students. I ask, ‘What patterns did we notice in what we thought was effective and ineffective?’ I try to use these terms instead of good and bad; it’s important for students to know they can disagree with an argument but still understand it as effective to the text’s audience, nonetheless. Eventually, we begin to notice themes or patterns in what we see as effective (the support/evidence seems to strengthen the argument of the review, not muddle or contradict it). We will write these patterns on the board, a Google Doc, or on poster paper on the classroom walls.

“Depending on the group, the previous activities can take an hour, a whole class, a week, or more. Any time frame is okay with me, and I often have some sense of it before we begin. Then, after encouraging students to prescriptively attach themselves to the 'rubric' patterns we’ve noticed, I ask students to work on a draft of a Google Review, either on the same topic/establishment/public space or a new one.

“Working on a single Google Review is far less intimidating than working on an entire essay. Once students have a working draft, we will engage in some type of peer review using our class-recreated ‘rubric’ as a guide for feedback. This allows student-readers to have a better 'footing' in providing feedback to their classmates. It makes them more comfortable and improves the quality of their feedback. 

“At this point in the process, after a peer-review and revision, I’ll ask students if they’d like to ‘publish’ their Google Reviews. Some like to and some don’t. That’s fine. However, I like to encourage students to see their text as an actual text. Seeing a student pull up their Google Review among the thousands for Brooklyn’s Prospect Park or their neighborhood Chinese Restaurant on a laptop is one of the great joys of my teaching experience."

  • Community members, what questions do you have for Tim?
  • What do you do to help your students learn argument writing?

Thanks in advance for your questions and thoughts,

Steve Schmidt, Moderator

LINCS Reading and Writing Community

Comments

Tim, thank you for your time in preparing this description of another way to prepare students for analyzing arguments and writing their own.  The activity is so exciting for me because it is local, making it relevant, and the ability to publish makes it purposeful, thus "real". 

A highlight, for me, is the class-developed rubric for examining arguments vs. opinions. Ugh, how often have I handed sts. a rubric.  Thank you for this.

I do have 2 questions, and sorry if these should be obvious to me. 

1. You say "The first step is to be mindful that we are emphasizing process over product when we use Google Reviews for argumentative writing." but I don't understand why you specifically pointed this out. Can you explain this further?

2. You say "...without using any of the intimidating buzzwords that can dim the sparks of student thinking and discovery."  I might think I know all those words, such as those connected to strategies as named in objectives for our lessons.  But would you mind tossing in a few that prompted you to make this statement?  

Admittedly, being the most effective reading and math instructor I can be sometimes causes me to fail to keep up with the writing research - so may need some clarification.

Thanks!

Hi, Anne, 

thank you for your comment! Here are my responses: 

1) I'm emphasizing the process of this activity over the product because, ultimately, at the end of the process students, at most, have written a small paragraph reviewing a local park/establishment. On its face, it may not look like much. I've had some teachers wonder if that small paragraph of text is worth all the steps I've outlined above (introduction of genre, reviewing reviews, analyzing reviews, creating a rubric). I included this comment to emphasize that the activity is to orient students within the argument writing genre, rather than produce a high stakes assessment "passing" essay. Sometimes, I believe there is a rush to the finish line, to the product, rather than on all the steps and sequences that involve getting us there. 

2) Some of the buzzwords I avoid using, at least at first in this activity, are: ethos, pathos, logos, topic sentence, thesis statement, supporting evidence, introduction, and conclusion. Those are just a few, but I want to avoid the jargon surrounding argument writing as much as possible and just focus as much as we can on the process. Once "topic sentence" and "thesis statement" are introduced, I've found they can be all students focus on, introducing more anxiety than support to our experience.  

Thanks again! Please feel free to follow up with me if I haven't been completely clear; all the best, 

Tim

Hi, Anne, 

thank you for your comment! Here are my responses: 

1) I'm emphasizing the process of this activity over the product because, ultimately, at the end of the process students, at most, have written a small paragraph reviewing a local park/establishment. On its face, it may not look like much. I've had some teachers wonder if that small paragraph of text is worth all the steps I've outlined above (introduction of genre, reviewing reviews, analyzing reviews, creating a rubric). I included this comment to emphasize that the activity is to orient students within the argument writing genre, rather than produce a high stakes assessment "passing" essay. Sometimes, I believe there is a rush to the finish line, to the product, rather than on all the steps and sequences that involve getting us there. 

2) Some of the buzzwords I avoid using, at least at first in this activity, are: ethos, pathos, logos, topic sentence, thesis statement, supporting evidence, introduction, and conclusion. Those are just a few, but I want to avoid the jargon surrounding argument writing as much as possible and just focus as much as we can on the process. Once "topic sentence" and "thesis statement" are introduced, I've found they can be all students focus on, introducing more anxiety than support to our experience.  

Thanks again! Please feel free to follow up with me if I haven't been completely clear; all the best, 

Tim