Empathy For the Devil: How Teaching #Argumentation Can Develop Student Empathy for Opposing Viewpoints

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There is an ongoing debate in my English department about instructing writing. Do we teach students how to write or do we guide them how to become writers? Let me clarify. One of my coworkers, who I will call Irene, believes most students are clueless how to write an essay and must be taught writing by strictly following a template. According to Irene, we need to teach our students to follow the Jane Schaffer method to construct a paragraph, or mimic Graf and Birkenstein’s They Say, I Say to develop a thesis. If we do so, eventually our students will have the tools to write like an academic.

Another coworker, who I will call Jordon, is adamant that our students have become so programmed by formulaic writing, they have lost all sense of their unique writing voice. According to Jordan, “cookie-cutter writing” has become so processed that we end up reading the same dull essay over and over again. Writing templates are retarding our students’ creativity.

I am on the fence on this issue. I agree with Irene that students need a formula to construct their writing, but I also see Jordan’s point. If we give our students an outline to structure their essay, they see it as the correct and only way to write.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have turned this heated debate into a full fledged conflagration. The Common Core Writing Standards differentiate between persuasion and argumentation.  Persuasion is like a rant where a writer convinces his audience based upon his beliefs by appealing to emotion. Argumentation, conversely, uses a point-counterpoint structure addressing the other side of the debate and grounding an argument with logic and factual evidence. While my school begins to implement the CCSS as our standards for student assessment, the debate in the English department has shifted to how do we teach argumentation. Do we teach argumentation using writing templates or do we guide our students how to develop their own argument? Meanwhile, Irene and Jordan have become further entrenched in their positions.

At a recent professional development training, I learned we could do both. My instructor, education consultant Laura Schneider Vanderploeg, modeled a brilliant way to teach argumentation that involves both using an anchor text and allows students the freedom to structure their own writing. Vanderploeg believes argumentation should follow the process of having students “collect” research on a topic that interests them, brainstorm ideas narrowing down their topic, and “develop a seed” or position on that topic. To model this process Vanderploeg used a “mentor text,” or a piece of writing that models for students how this process can be done.

Vanderploeg used an excerpt of Steven Waldman’s “The Tyranny of Choice” as our mentor text. Waldman takes the reader on his trip to an athletic sock store and shares his confusion over the seemingly infinite variety of athletic hosiery on the store shelves. Our task was to annotate the text looking for the author’s central idea using a verb statement (“Waldman argues…,” “Waldman unpacks…,” “Waldman questions…”) and then paraphrase each paragraph to determine the structure of the piece. As a group, we discussed how Waldman saved his thesis for the end of the excerpt to demonstrate how he was grappling with his topic. We also analyzed how he resisted following the linear five-paragraph essay format by weaving statistics throughout the piece. Vanderploeg’s point was by annotating a mentor text, students learn how great writers craft their writing in interesting and unusual ways to reach their audience.

It was the writing task we did next, however, that really got me excited about teaching this strategy to my students. Vanderploeg had us work in pairs and handed us a double-sided piece of paper. On one side was a paraphrase of Waldman’s thesis, followed by a list of statistics. Our task was to compose an introduction paragraph supporting Waldman’s position selecting the list of statistics to ground our claim.

Then, we turned the paper over.

On the backside, we had to refute Waldman’s position. Our job was to construct another introduction paragraph that represents the counterargument using a series of new statistics that would support the opposite position. I was dumbfounded. When I teach rhetoric, I always model for my students the point-counterpoint structure. But, in my experience, students tend to be dismissive, or even contemptuous, when addressing the other side of a debate. Using Vanderploeg’s method, students must confront the other side in their writing. I had never seen a teaching strategy that was so effective in guiding students to be empathetic of the opposition.

As we were leaving the training, I asked both Irene and Jordan their reaction to Vanderploeg’s approach. Irene was credulous, “Of course it works. Using a mentor text is just another form of a template.” Then, I asked Jordan for his reaction. He glared at Irene and said, “I am still dubious of using templates to teach writing.” But conceded, “If the Common Core forces our students to examine the craft of writing from artists like E.B. White or Virginia Woolf, consider me intrigued.”




Written by Nathan Sun-Kleinberger

Nathan Sun-Kleinberger

I teach English/Language Arts in the Lake Washington School District. I am a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT), have hosted webinars, and have been an AP Reader and presenter. I am passionate about instructing rhetoric, engendering divergent thinking, and shaping students to be mindful, compassionate 21st century learners.


  1. I work with 4th graders. Some of them are already gifted writers; they have voice and can articulate a story or argument effortlessly. I try to leave those kids alone. Others have no idea how to structure an essay or a story; they need templates and graphic organizers. Eventually they develop their own style, although some don’t stray too far from the template. My point is that we have all kinds of writers in our classroom; some need more scaffolding than others.

    • Nathan Sun-Kleinberger says:

      I agree Tom. We need to acknowledge each classroom has a diverse group of writers – all at different levels. Irene and Jordan’s debate make it seem like a either/or debate. It definitely is much more complicated. However, I think too often English teachers tend to fall on either camp. We need to be mindful of the messy ground in between.

  2. Nathan Sun-Kleinberger says:

    Mary you raise a good point. When I say “guiding” students, I let them have discretion how to construct an essay. As Chris points out, we need to give them instruction how to write. A structure like the 5-Paragraph essay needs to be part of the DNA of any academic writing. But, when you introduce to them new and unusual writing like Waldman, possibilities open up. The students can make writing choices like should they place the thesis after the hook or unpack their subject matter before they state their thesis? Should they include evidence solely in the body of the essay or weave it throughout the essay? Is there a universal theme they can use to solidify their writing? Once they have a bag of writing tricks you can let them loose and be creative. In this way I feel I am guiding their writing as opposed to dictating their writing.

    • Mary Moser says:

      Thanks for the illustrative examples! I agree that writing structure needs to be varied, or moved beyond the 5 paragraph essay. Though, I’m torn on what age/grade level/class that the switch should happen for everyone. Or, is there a time when everyone needs to move beyond the 5 paragraph essay? Thanks for giving me food for thought.

  3. Chris Gustafson says:

    Thanks for so clearly explaining argument writing from Jordan’s and Irene’s points of view. In middle school, we’re pretty excited if students can construct a paragraph and stringing five of them together in some sort of order is a cause for celebration. Well -researched evidence is a bonus! It’s a helpful reminder that even when learning the basics of a task, there’s still room for creativity and that personal voice to shine through.

  4. Mary Moser says:

    Isn’t it great when you walk away from PD with meaningful understanding? I’m excited to hear how the conversation will morph as the PD sinks in and you get to practice the ideas. And, I’m interested to see how your students grow as a result of the new point/counterpoint instruction that she shared with you.
    I do have a wonder about what “guiding” students looks like in practice in the classroom. But, it sounds like there’s a common ground beginning to build between the “template” vs “guiding”.

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