With Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in the rear-view, eighth-grade students are deep into the early, organizational stages of term paper—their capstone writing project for the year. Having begun the year with exploratory conversations about the year's theme, belief and faith, eighth graders have already spent time engaged in thought and conversation about how people encounter, engage with and employ belief in their lives and how they choose to act in response to core ideals and values their beliefs inform.
At this stage they have now chosen a topic for their research—a person or small group of people who put a belief or aspect of their faith in something into action in some measurable and world-altering way—and have begun to use their newfound knowledge of the Chicago Public Library system and holdings to locate resources from which to research. Over the past weeks students have begun to practice writing research questions about their topics to guide how they interrogate the texts from which they gather evidence; they likewise have begun to learn about proper bibliographic and citation formats (we're Chicago Manual of Style devotees up here on floor four) as they collect their materials and organize their research on note cards. This all marks the start of many months of hard work from which students will learn and master a process they can replicate or adapt when asked in high school and beyond to engage in research on any topic and formulate a clear and cogent argument as an organizing premise.
But our work on argumentation began well before the start of term paper. From the first weeks of school in Writing Workshop, eighth graders were already engaging with the elements of argumentation. After discussing when and why we argue at all (and that getting in arguments, playful or serious, is in fact part of being human), they began to play with claims, evidence, and reasoning, practicing how they work in concert with one another as the building blocks of strong argumentation. They drew evidence from movies from which to construct arguments about the beliefs of characters, wrote essays to persuade administrators to fund specific aspects of school life or keep school trips in place, and began to work with peers to put words around how people put their beliefs into action, drawing on evidence from history, literature, philosophy, and religion.
Students spend many hours in eighth grade (and in previous middle-school grades) building their capacity for the clear articulation and support of convincing arguments, a set of skills they will use many times in their academic careers and life beyond the walls of high schools and university campuses. And Writing Workshop is where the rubber meets the road—it's where they bring together all the pieces of argumentation they've learned and practiced before and learn to focus and scale it all up to the grand construction project that is the term paper.