Tools of the Trade: C3WP
by Kelly Virgin
Late this past March I spent two beautiful spring days holed up in a conference room in D.C. feeling both overwhelmed and excited by four letters: CRWP (now known as C3WP). The College, Career, and Community Writers Program is a National Writing Project initiative aimed at providing teachers across the nation with resources needed to help their students critically read and analyze multiple points of view in an attempt to responsibly enter the civic dialogue. As their website explains, the program “answers the contemporary call for respectful argumentative discourse.” In an attempt to reach this lofty, yet vital goal, NWP has gathered and created an impressive stockpile of mini-units complete with suggested text-sets, graphic organizers, audio and visual materials, formative and summative assessments, and suggested extension activities.
In the months following my brief introduction to this program, I spent numerous hours mining the provided resources in an attempt to meaningfully pass the information along to fourteen teacher-leaders through PAWLP’s Advanced Institute. While I still feel slightly overwhelmed by all the possibilities of the program, the three intensive days I spent locked away this summer with a group of thoughtful and inquisitive teachers helped me boil it down to three essential elements: time, access to multiple perspectives, and the freedom to choose. With these three key elements in mind, any teacher can start to meaningfully engage his or her students in thoughtful, thought-provoking, and responsible argument writing.
Midway through our second day of training at the AI this summer, a teacher commented on how much time was needed to fully engage in thinking through the arguments we were forming. This was a lightbulb moment for me. In the past I typically spent a class period or two engaging my students in thinking about one topic or issue before hastily moving onto the next. In an effort to cover the curriculum, my students and and I often fell victim to the curse of breadth over depth. However, through engagement in the mini-units, it quickly becomes obvious that this is not enough time to fully think through and take a stance on a topic. C3WP encourages teachers and students to spend no fewer than five to six days and sometimes as long as a marking period thinking about, researching, and rethinking about one topic. This time enables students to assess their own knowledge, form opinions, research and reflect on new knowledge, form new opinions, and revise their stance (sometimes several times).
While each of these steps is key to the process of argument writing, many teachers may feel they cannot spare this much time. However, not every minute of this extended process needs to be spent in the classroom. Sometimes the most valuable time is spent walking away from an issue in order to independently ruminate before revisiting a day or two later. Additionally, several of the thinking activities teachers engage their students in throughout the process can take as few as 15 minutes as students simply read and consider a new perspective before moving onto the lesson of the day. This leads to the second key element – students need access to multiple perspectives about one topic.
Access to Multiple Perspectives:
An essential step to the argument writing process is the opportunity to explore multiple points of view before taking a stand. Every mini-unit designed and communicated by C3WP includes this step and suggests specific text-sets for teachers to use with their students. However, teachers need to be able to create their own text-sets in order to meet the demands of their curriculums and match the varied needs of their students. Throughout our three days together, participating teacher-leaders suggested the following valuable resources:
The New York Times: Room for Debate – The opinion pieces on this site are probably most suited for higher grade levels (9th through 12th) or more advanced readers. The site organizes its editorials around current and often hotly debated issues. Discussion topics range from political to personal and each includes anywhere from two to six informed opinions. The opinions take varied, sometimes nuanced stances on the topics and are typically a page in length – making them ideal for short reading and reflecting activities.
NewsELA – I wrote about this teacher and student friendly news outlet in a previous blog post titled Tools of the Trade: Student-Friendly News Sources. As I stated in that post, while the site does require login credentials, it is very easy to set up and navigate. In fact, one of the browsing features includes the option to search for text sets. Another vital feature of this resource is the ability to adjust the reading level of the articles, enabling teachers to differentiate for students at varying grade levels/reading abilities.
The New York Times Upfront Magazine – While this dual digital/print magazine does require a subscription to access all of its features, several are available online for free and your school may find the entirety of the magazine valuable enough for investment. As the visual of recent issues demonstrates, this monthly magazine covers current national and international news stories in an engaging and student-friendly way. During the AI, we used the debate feature to spur our discussion and writing. This monthly article includes two contesting voices debating one topic. The debates are succinct, relevant to students lives, and many are available through a simple google search (all are available through the archives with a subscription).
ProCon.org – The homepage of this online resource boasts, “All of the issues. None of the bias.” In an attempt to cover all of the issues free of bias, this site covers hundreds of controversial topics ranging from school uniforms to building a wall to medical marijuana. Each of the issues includes extensive background on the topic, numerous key quotes from longer pro/con arguments with source citations so students can research and access the original sources, and a video gallery. Even though this site presents an almost overwhelming amount of information, it is searchable and very user-friendly.
While teachers can easily navigate each of these sites to search for articles to share with their students, they can also teach their students how to access and use the resources for themselves. This independent research possibility leads to the final key element – providing students with the freedom to pursue researching and writing about issues that interest them.
Freedom and Choice:
Part way through day one of the AI, we paused our discussion of C3WP to reflect on who our perspective students might be this upcoming school year. We considered their key characteristics, what might be bothering them, interesting to them, challenging or easy for them, etc. After brief deliberation and collaboration, we came up with the following renderings:
As these stick-students demonstrate, our real-life students are as varied in their interests and abilities as they are numerous. With this in mind, it is important to remember, no one mini-unit, text-set, issue, writing prompt/product, etc. will appeal to every student. While it is important to model key steps along the process towards argument writing together as a class, it is equally important to give students opportunities to pursue what interests them. We cannot expect our students to thoughtfully and authentically enter into civic discussion if we do not allow them to enter in on their own terms. With this realization fresh in mind, I plan to use the C3WP resources as a guide that my students and I can follow on our own personal journeys towards researching and rethinking issues that matter to us – both locally and globally.
One of the texts we read and discussed during the AI is Pose, Wobble, Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction. In this book, Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen compare teaching to yoga in that “Like yoga practitioners, teachers who are committed to professional growth also take up stances (or poses) toward their practice, and reflect on areas in which they wobble with the intent of attaining flow – those provisional moments that mark progress in their teaching” (3). I spent much of my three days at the Advanced Institute wobbling through the C3WP approach to argument writing and I am sure I will spend even more time wobbling in my practice this year. But the wobble will be worth it as I attempt to teach my students how to find their own voices while sifting through many others on their personal paths towards argument writing. With the continued support of NWP and a group of reflective and wobbling PAWLP teachers, I am sure my students and I will reach moments of flow and will grow stronger in our stances.
Kelly Virgin teaches English for the Kennett Consolidated School District and has been a PAWLP fellow since 2010. She is a proud bookworm and loves sharing her passion for reading and writing with her students. Through PAWLP, she facilitates the Strategies for Teaching Literature course in the spring and the Grammar Matters course in the summer.