Can I persuade you to take a fresh look at teaching persuasive writing? This genre has become a pet peeve of mine. It is time to bring it up to date. We need to examine authentic opportunities for persuasion by engaging students with opportunities that are worthwhile, genuine, and realistic to them.
Over several days, I modeled persuasive writing lessons in a middle school classroom for an audience of middle-grade teachers. We were able to discuss facets of the lesson as we progressed through each day, stopping at different times to discuss what we were doing.
Here are some areas I wanted to cover with the teachers:
- How to introduce the genre of persuasive writing to middle school students using multi-modal mentor texts
- Demonstrate how to allow students to discover the patterns in each mentor piece
- Focus on the importance of strong writing strategies such as word choice, tone, mood, and point of view
- Explore how writers make decisions and how to help students be more intentional in their writing
Beginning with Video
Students watched clips from Shark Tank: “Ryan’s Barkery” and BooBoo Goo as well as a public service announcement (PSA) on animal cruelty featuring Sarah McLachlan. We discussed and critiqued how successful these persuasive pieces were and how the text, music, special effects, and images worked together to make the presentation effective. The close-up shots of animal faces and cute kids caught and held the readers’ attention.
BooBoo Goo is waterproof, and the piece shows an adorable child jumping into a pool—very effective! The choice of words and music supported the writer’s purpose. Most of the students were familiar with public service announcements about cruelty to animals and proclaimed them too sad to watch. The one I chose to view was 2:01 minutes long and focused more on the loving care the animals received than on the cruelty and injuries they sustained. We talked about how effective that was versus showing maimed animals, which could cause the viewer to turn away or change the channel, thereby losing the audience. It meant using the same facts but presenting them in an appealing format. The author has to make many decisions about not only word choice but presentation.
Pivoting from Video to Writing
A persuasive piece is about the truth from the writer’s perspective. Quotes from an expert, data, and/or a recognized organization can support the claim, but it is the writer’s spin on the presented idea.
We read an article about the use of seat belts on school buses, a topic on which each student held a strong opinion. The article began with the author, Kristin Varela, sharing concern for her child’s safety, but other considerations were included, leaving the reader to determine if seat belts are necessary. We talked about the way the writer could present the same facts and data differently to lead readers to a different conclusion. One fact from the article said that only four students die on average each year in school bus accidents but 90 people die daily in car accidents.
We used this fact and put a spin on it to support each side of the argument. There appears to be a huge difference when you look at the numbers, but, “Wait a minute: What if one of those children was your child, a friend, or a student at your school?” This use of propaganda became evident to the students. As a whole group, we created storyboard frames for a public service announcement for seat belts and then, using the same info, created a PSA against them.
As we drew each frame on the board, we talked about the images, choice of text, special effects, and music we would include. Students then worked independently or with a partner to create a PSA on a topic of their own interest. An original rant about snowmobiles that stray off the path became a PSA about the need to ride safely on your side of the trail. (The students were from a northern New Hampshire community where snowmobiles are a popular mode of winter transportation.)
The students presented their PSAs to the class. Each one had five to eight frames and was designed with intention and purpose. The discussion about the choices they’d made during the process of creating the PSA was as valuable as the final product. It all came down to author’s purpose and intention. How do I want my reader to feel about this topic? Authentic reasoning and student voice led the way.
We studied the use of
- logos—how facts, numbers, research, and information convince a reader;
- pathos—how effective emotions can be;
- ethos—how to persuade the reader to trust and connect with you, the author; and
- kairos—how now is the time to act.
The last selection I shared with them was a 2012 editorial on Lego gender stereotypes from the Boston Globe titled “Star Wars vs. Heartlake City.” The piece presents the question of whether it is necessary to have gender-differentiated toys. Does/should Lego create “boy” Legos and “girl” Legos? Critiquing this opinion piece for its strengths, we used it as a mentor text for students to create their own arguments. It began with a claim and proceeded to provide facts and data to show both sides of the argument, all the while asking the reader questions to propel them through the piece.
With each of these types of writing, we first made our claim and then determined how to use the characteristics of the genre to make it work. The writing was filled with intention and thought.
These lessons were done with students in grades 6-8. However, the study of rants, persuasion, and argument had begun long before that when we read a favorite rant like Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems or the classic persuasive piece Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing by Judi Barrett.
We experience rants, persuasion, and argument daily. Our students can explore them through reading and writing in a more meaningful, genuine manner. Viewing video together and working collectively to create an argument is a start.