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Thinking Like Writers: The Writing Argument Project

By Arina Bokas and Jessica Cleland
 | Nov 17, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-120743420_x300How we approach teaching language arts writing is affected by the influence of the digital era. On the one hand, there is the unprecedented importance placed on writing as a means of connecting, sharing, and relating among people.  On the other hand, the fast-paced nature of our times often results in writing that looks more like a blurry snapshot than carefully crafted art.

It is no longer enough to teach strategies like the five-paragraph essay for writing success: an introduction, a conclusion, and three body paragraphs, connected by a general idea expressed concisely in a thesis. Students need to gain awareness and understanding about writing and their own role as writers.

To offer our students an opportunity to access their own thinking about writing and to do so in a multiage setting to garner deeper insight, we embarked on the Writing Argument Project—a multimedia exploration of the changing nature of writing.

The project

Eighth-grade language arts students and second-year college students who enrolled in Freshman Composition entered a video dialogue to produce a series of 12 short videos about the role of writing in today’s world and their own lives.

To make this project important to students, part of their overall grade was assigned to the Writing Argument Project portfolio and participation in video production. The portfolio included written reflections, video contributions, and artifacts that captured students’ attention.

Every video explored one important question related to writing. As a class, students brainstormed and selected this question, followed by discussions in smaller groups to further assess complexity and decide which specific aspect of the question to include in a video. For example, one video explored the question “What is good writing in the digital age?”Subcategories selected by groups were truth, ethics, speed, and clarity.

There was minimum direction as to how groups should produce their 20- to 30-second clips. Some groups had each member introduce his or her artifact, some groups selected a spokesperson who combined the ideas from the entire group, and some groups opted to act their ideas out. Clips were recorded by either the instructor or students and then assembled into one video that was shared with their partners.

When a video was received, it was viewed in class and discussed according to these prompts:

  • How is it similar to the ideas we explored?
  • What new angle/perspective does it bring?
  • How is it allowing us to build our argument further?
  • What question would we want to explore in the next video?

The format of short videos, without a lot of room for elaboration, encouraged students’ thinking to focus. The multiage setting added to the experience: The college students were amazed by the younger kids’ energy, enthusiasm, and fresh look on things, and the eighth graders benefited from a sense of responsibility to self and others.


As the project progressed, students were getting increasingly excited to both receive a video response from their partners and to create one of their own. Their portfolio reflections captured a shift in both groups’ dispositions towards writing (with certain similarities and differences, most likely due to their ages).

Here we have a couple examples that show how students started to identify themselves as writers in the 21st century:

“In this century almost everyone writes every day. It may be a book or an essay for school, but it’s also in the emails we send, the text messages and even just the captions on pictures for Instagram. I might not have a big role in writing in this century, but I do still have one, however small it is.”

“You don’t have to publish books or even be a gifted writer to be heard and understood. I believe that this is a very good thing—voices are being heard and just about anyone can hear them. Just as anyone can speak, anyone can listen.”

Furthermore, both groups came to the realization that writing can be a powerful tool for change in the 21st century. However, younger students attached more meaning to writing as a way to affect change than did their college counterparts. As one student recorded, “Writing is a very powerful and effective tool. It can be used for many things, such as starting a local article to bring changes to your town or city.”

College students, on the other hand, showed a larger shift in their thinking about the writer’s ability to clearly deliver a message to the reader: “This project made me think about how what I write communicates to the reader and gave me more appreciation for the art of writing: to think more, to go more in depth.”

The Outcome

The Writing Argument Project made students recognize that no matter how big or small the contribution, it matters. Whether composing an essay for a class, writing a speech to deliver to the United Nations, or simply sending a text about spaghetti noodles, their writing matters. Above all, it is their voice that matters most, and writing is a way to make that voice heard.

arina bokas headshotjessica cleland headshotArina Bokas, Ph.D., is the editor of Kids’ Standard Magazine and a faculty member at Mott Community College in Flint, MI. She is the author of Building Powerful Learning Environments: From Schools to Communities and a producer of The Future of Learning TV Series. Connect with Arina on her website. Jessica Cleland is an eighth-grade Language Arts teacher and a Culture of Thinking coordinator at Clarkston Junior High School in Michigan. She has presented at professional development conferences around the world.

1 comment

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  1. Robert Ward | Nov 23, 2016
    Great article, Arina and Jessica! I really liked the follow-up questions you gave the students. Questions about depth of discussion and how to move the conversation forward are exactly what all writers need, young and old. Writing cannot be a mere rehashing of the same ideas and evidence. When we prompt writers to move past the trivial, their writing (and their attitudes about writing) transform. What an amazing experience your project provided for these students!

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