Building Knowledge Through Counterargument by Johanna Paraiso

As I write this reflection, I am immediately put in the same mind state as my own students, which then brings up the same trepidation they also feel when they put pen to page or fingers to keys. Who is my audience that reads this? What should I understand about the audience that will keep you reading and perhaps even prompt an open and reflective dialogue? How many people are actually interested in hearing my reflections on that broadly defined practice of the counterargument? The crux of these questions is indicative of the inquiry that has guided much of my work with my students in Senior English, most of whom I have blessed to loop with for over two years.

Providing outlets for my students to experience authentic audiences for their presentations and writing has been a liberating practice for me as an educator. My classroom incorporated blogging over five years ago, and as of today, it has become a standard way to publish routinely. Now, with other classrooms across the country, we have progressed to using Google Hangouts on Air to hold our academic discussions, with blogging being a bridge between their writing personas and their oral selves. Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, we have found a way to hold Socratic seminars within the classroom, that have been one of the most valuable learning experiences for all involved, especially for myself as the teacher. The journey to this point in my classes, where we can actually enjoy student-facilitated seminars definitely took time, and its replication for my future classes who study English in room 3209 is a challenge I embrace.

There are many individual stories I could relate, but one student whose narrative motivates me to continue this work is Hajer’s. In my year-long focus of inquiry, her contributions to the Socratic seminars in our class helped me understand that counterargument is is actually code for truth-seeking and meaning-creation. I have yet to figure out how to quantify that niche of learning on a rubric, but I have not stopped searching.

This inquiry around counterargument, in both its oral and written forms, stemmed from conversations being had in our school’s English department meetings. In the shift to align our practice and rubrics to the Common Core, the component that challenged us the most was this focus on countering one’s claim, and even more challenging, what that actually looked like in terms of content and structure when vertically aligned through the different grade levels.

The breakthrough moment in Hajer’s class occurred during a March Socratic seminar centered around the feminist lens and Shakespeare’s Othello. I say breakthrough because it was a singleton moment in a 28-minute conversation that made me think, “Holy s*@#, we figured it out.”

Here is the play-by-play.

As per our class norm, each of the students in the Inner Circle of the seminar had come prepared with their quotes, annotations and understanding of the structure for these kinds of discussion. To give context, I run an Inner Circle/Outer Circle format with these seminars, a structure for which the wonderful teacher at Castlemont deserve credit for providing. Students in the Outer Circle are those who come to seminar time not yet prepared to engage in the actual speaking during the discussion for various reasons. However, they still play a key role as talliers for discussion elements like questions and academic language, and even as “silent contributors” who take notes throughout the entire time, giving responses on paper that they would want to give if in the Inner Circle. This means everyone participates in a meaningful because we also share the data from the Outer Circle in the subsequent class.

Another required component for a successful Socratic seminar is the focus question for the conversation. In this case, students were asked to respond to the following:

  1. Discuss the recurrence of the following motifs in the play: prejudice, appearance vs. reality, the nature of evil, and jealousy.

  2. Compare and contrast the diction Othello uses in Acts I and II to the diction he uses in Acts III, IV, and V. Consider the sound, rhythm, and meaning.

The prompts are open-ended enough to allow the students room to breathe and explore but tailored just right so that they can readily determine which of their annotations to bring into the conversations. Their annotations are constructed through the multiple literary theory lenses that frame the learning of every text in the class. I credit a professional development I attended focused on Deborah Appleman and her research on critical theory in literature classrooms for enhancing my work. How I approach my units and teaching has never been the same since that PD.

With all those pieces, what then is the role of the teacher?

Thankfully, I get to become a videographer and observe the learning from behind my own lens. Initially it might seem a paltry role, but given how video and reflection on video works in my classroom, it has become an integral one in my students’ learning space. We have built a culture, again over time, that welcomes the third eye.

I invite you to click here for the entire video of the seminar, but it might give better context if you first look at the initial 30 seconds. T

This next step in preparing for the Socratic Seminar involves watching film footage of the previous seminar discussion. Students can participate more effectively if we acknowledge what they are doing right, and they buy in more deeply to the idea of using evidence to back their claims when I do the same during this preparation process. In this case, I use evidence in the form of recorded footage to demonstrate their success with some key aspects of a quality academic discussion.

Click here to connect to the video of the Socratic Seminar we use to have a whole class conversation about what makes a successful seminar. Then, fast forward to minutes 17:25 to 21:00 for the moment I think was so powerful in that discussion. Hajer offered the opinion that Desdemona made the best choice by leaving the room after having been struck across the face by her husband Othello. Another female student, Martha, who had struggled so often in the past with staying open and involved in these discussions, immediately reacted and disagreed. Knowing what I do about Martha, it was no surprise that she countered Hajer’s opinion with the statements that it is never right for a man to hit a woman, that the slight shakiness in her voice indicated that she felt strongly and deeply about this. The “aha” moment for me, given my EDDA inquiry and simply how much I appreciate my kids, came when Hajer responded to Martha in a way that I will never forget. She began with “I understand what you are saying” and I truly believe she did. It was not just one of our sentence frames being used for the sake of using a sentence frame and scoring cool points. Hajer comes from a culture with a very indoctrinated male patriarchy, while Martha is one of five children raised by a single mother. They couldn’t be on more different ends of the spectrum when it comes to their personal connections with the feminist theory lens. What followed the “I understand” statement was a complex explanation conveyed with a soft tone and solid reasoning. Hajer did not shy away from having to clarify, which I will admit may have happened had it been earlier in our journey with Socratic seminars. Rather, she used reasoning shaped by her own experience being raised in a culture where women are taught to obey and defer to the men in their lives, whether father, brother or husband. That alone would not have convinced Martha, nor the other students in the discussion who were listening with that “oh, crap” expression on their faces because they knew the conversation could have gone all bad at that point. Hajer blended her own experience but filtered it through the psychoanalytic lens and in that instant, the conversation shifted to feeling more objective, logical and simply, awesome. Martha did not put her head down, did not shut down, but rather, continued to engage. Everyone else in the Inner Circle kept going with the discussion. Maybe I was the only one who felt the earth move in those brief minutes, but I made sure everyone noted it when we prepped for the next seminar a few weeks later. I showed that clip to all of my classes as a model of the great thinking that can happen when people come to the conversation brave and prepared.

The insight I gained was heightened by my students’ own feelings when they watched the video clip of the March seminar. First, some noted the plot point in the play that was the source of the disagreement, not because they got to read a sensational story of a girl being slapped in the face by her once-loving husband. A few pointed out how Martha framed her disagreement with Hajer. They talked about how Hajer counter-argued and defended her initial statement by using her personal experiences within her own culture. They picked up when Hajer defaulted to citing the postcolonial lens to qualify her statements and thus presented objectivity within the subjectivity. I acknowledged and positively affirmed the moment in the clip when the students all went to their texts and reminded them that the greatest discussion marries opinion with evidence to produce logical reasoning and stronger arguments.

Counterargument is a misleading term. It makes one think almost negatively or that they must prepare for some kind of battle. It can be completely opposite actually. With the right tools and a safe space, students can approach counterargument as an opportunity to spiral their understanding and to build layers of knowledge and meaning. It is a way for people to broaden their perspectives while at the same time feel closer to their audience in both their conversations and their writing.

I invite those reading to do the same for me and this blog post. I am not afraid of the conversation anymore because my students have shown me how to be brave and that the goal should be to keep the talk going. Shutting down a voice is a missed opportunity to learn and become a better person.

I welcome your thoughts and voice.


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