Currently, one of the most significant controversies in American politics has to do with the discussion of the 2013 budget. The conservative party, the Republicans, wants to cut spending and, where possible, cut taxes, which they say will boost the economy. They also want to modify benefit programs such as Medicare and Social Security, because without changes, they will bankrupt the government within a matter of decades. The liberal party, the Democrats, wants to raise taxes to narrow the government debt while making more limited spending changes, and have not yet addressed the benefit programs. The Republican budget leader is Representative Paul Ryan, and recently President Obama made a speech delivering a strong rebuke to Rep. Ryan’s budget, calling it “social Darwinism.” Several different commentators have later come out on different sides of the President’s speech.
This activity will introduce students to the President’s speech, as well as a response from one commentator on each side of the speech. Then, students will identify the specific arguments, with support points, from all three pieces. Finally, students will construct their own responses, using the facts they have gleaned as evidence.
Step 1: Introduce students to the speech by presenting a summary of the budget controversy. Then, play President Obama’s speech for the class. Ask the class to take notes of specific points of fact, as well as points of opinion, using a T-chart to separate the two.
Step 2: Distribute copies of these two editorials from the New York Times. David Brooks’ editorial criticizes the President’s speech for distorting facts, while Paul Krugman’s editorial is squarely in the President’s corner. Have students read each article, highlighting for relevant facts, and making note of each writer’s opinion.
Step 3: Move to a whole-class discussion of all three pieces, allowing all students to demonstrate their understanding of the main facts and opinions presented in all three pieces.
Step 4: Have students write a response piece of their own, for submission at the next class. This piece should state the writer’s opinion about the budget controversy, using points from all three pieces to bolster its argument.
The purpose for adding the written component to this classroom activity is to complete the cognitive cycle that began with the first encounter with President Obama’s speech. For the students to gain the full benefit of learning to construct an argument, it is not enough for the students to listen to the speech, read the two responses, and then engage in a discussion after the fact. While those processes are also important, and while those processes can serve as foundational building blocks for writing, they are not the same as writing. As Janet Emig argues, “Writing is originating and creating a unique verbal construct that is graphically recorded (p. 8). Talking is similar, because it is still necessary to originate and build a structure of meaning for the listener. However, writing is different than talking in some crucial ways.
First, writing requires that one interact with reality in three different ways at the same time. We deal with reality enactively (by performing actions), iconically (using images to represent experiences) and symbolically (placing ideas into words) (Emig, p. 10). All three of those events happen at once when we take pen in hand (or sit down at the keyboard). We are literally performing an action by writing or typing; we turn abstract experiences into visual images in our minds, as we visualize those events from the past (or the examples that we are building into ideas); and we take all of those ideas and convert them into words.
Consider the activity presented in Part I. Listening to the speech will require that the student take the spoken word and convert it into a series of ideas, ideally by taking notes. This will be the first part of the writing process and involves taking past experiences and abstractions and converting them into usable chunks of information for later assimilation into an essay. Listening to the speech critically in this fashion is likely to produce a response of some sort in the student. Reading the two other responses will give the students alternate representations of the viewpoints that the President expressed, along with opinions supporting and questioning those viewpoints. Then, the student will take the speech and the (now) three responses (the student’s own visceral response, along with the two writers’ editorial responses, and combine them into a cogent paper on the topic. Depending on the exposure that the student has had to the budgeting process so far, it may be necessary for him or her to consult additional sources about the budget controversy, in order to render an answer that is topical and addresses the issues as they appear at the present time. Because, as Emig asserts, writing “involves the fullest possible functioning of the brain” (pp. 10-11), it is a necessary capstone to bring all of the other activities in the lesson to their fruition.
Emig, Janet. “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” In Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, Victor
Villaneuva, ed. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003.