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Lesson Plan Title: Believing and Doubting

Grade Level: 9-12

Duration: 50 minutes

Description: This exercise, originally created by Peter Elbow (Writing Without Teachers), challenges students to hone their critical thinking skills, especially in regard to persuasive argumentation. 

Student Objectives: Students will explore the strengths and weaknesses of an author's argument by believing and doubting everything on the page.

List Materials:

  1. Paper, pencil or pen
  2. "An Answer to Stress" by Brian White

Set Up and Prepare: Distribute copies of Brian's essay to class.

Directions: Have students to read "An Answer to Stress" two times, taking copious notes in the margins of the essay.

Step 1: Instruct students to believe everything that Brian has written, even if they strongly disagree with certain points. For the sake of exercise, tell them to pretend to believe everything on the page. Ask them to read carefully through the essay, underlining the strongest points in Brian's argument. Have them add specific evidence in the margins of the essay to support Brian's various arguments.

Step 2: Instruct students to doubt everything that Brian has written, even if they strongly agree with certain points. Their criticism of each argument should be logical and well articulated in the margins of the paper. Warn them to attack the arguments, not the author. Ask them to provide clear evidence to back up all of their counterarguments.

Step 3: Based on their critical analysis of "An Answer to Stress," have students write an in class response to Brian's essay. Instruct them to write their true feelings about the subject of his essay, supporting their arguments with the strongest ideas and evidence they can muster.

Step 4: With whatever time is remaining, call upon several students to read their response essays. Ask students to listen carefully to their peers and take notes on the strongest arguments that they hear. Which arguments stand out and why?

Assess Students: Have students turn in their copies of Brian's essay. Were students able to back up their beliefs and doubts with clear argumentation and evidence?

Lesson Extension: This exercise could be repeated in groups when students have finished the first drafts of their own persuasive essays.

Evaluate Lesson:  Have students turn in their response essays. Were students able to forcefully articulate their arguments and support them with compelling evidence?

Assignments: Have students find a published persuasive essay that addresses an issue about which they feel passionately. Instruct them to repeat the believing and doubting exercise and to write a 1-page response essay based on their critical analysis the essay. Ask them to turn in a copy of the essay along with their response.