Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

08.10.14On Nuance: Dan Cotton and John Costello on the Subtleties of Argument

Twice a week at TLaC Towers we discuss video and other lesson materials from teachers in the field.  Last week Dan Cotton and John Costello–two members of our great TLaC team–were really excited by the possibilities of the question one teacher asked in particular. They wrote this reflection.

Last week our team watched video of Uncommon School’s Kiah Hufane (Ocean Hill Collegiate) asking her 7th grade students to read primary source descriptions of the lives of slaves in the Antebellum South. At the end of the lesson she gave her students the following writing prompt:

“Respond to the statement: ‘A slave’s life was somewhat difficult.’ Is that an accurate statement or is it false? Use evidence from at least 2 documents to support your response.”

Obviously, she’s looking for the students to disagree here, but what stood out to us is that Kiah’s prompt pushed them not to disagree because the statement was on the wrong side of the issue but because it lacked sufficient emphasis. The statement, “A slave’s life was somewhat difficult” is “correct’ in that it observes that slavery was difficult, but so lacking in degree of emphatic-ness as to require disagreement. The word “somewhat difficult” mis-characterizes the horror of slavery so completely that it undercuts the entire claim.

This made us realize how rarely we ask students to recognize that a statement can be wrong because it describes a phenomena insufficiently or lacks sufficient emphasis to make its argument credible. We liked the way Kiah’s assignment attuned students to the way the nuance of a single word (‘somewhat’) can undermine the accuracy of a statement.

Moving students past evaluating claims as simply right or wrong, strengthening their capacity to recognize and produce nuanced arguments—that’s worth doing, right?  Maybe you’re thinking, “Great! I love this idea. But how do I prepare students to do be able to analyze prompts with this level of precision?” One answer: Regularly asking students to engage in “Sensitivity Analysis” (see here —, wherein a teacher presents students with different iterations of the same sentence, but tweaks the language or punctuation slightly and then asks students to evaluate the impact of these subtle tweaks.

Interestingly, this shows up in the Common Core standards, including, for grade 7: “..[A]nalyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone (R.IT.7.4)…” Thanks Kiah for modeling how skillful implementation of the standards can look.

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