Day 27: Writing Opinion Papers
By the end of high school, your student should be able to write a lengthy persuasive research paper on some topic in history. If this is our goal, let us take a moment to plan backwards from this goal. Students are all-too-often prone to panic at the phrase “research paper.” The fact is, a research paper simply contains many aspects of writing that can all be practiced separately. I suggest you work on practicing each part separately so that the whole becomes less scary.
First, of course, the student needs to have a firm grasp of spelling and grammar. You have surely already covered this in language arts.
The student needs to have a lot of practice in organizing his thoughts and writing outlines. We talked about this already.
The student also needs practice in engaging with a text and analyzing someone else’s arguments. We’ve talked about discussing books as one way to analyze someone else’s argument. We’ve also talked about this with primary source analysis assignments.
The student needs practice developing his own arguments, organizing them, and writing them. This is what we’ll cover today.
Finally, the student needs practice in research, as well as practice in the finer points of formatting papers and citing sources. We’ll talk about this in the next post.
All of these parts can very naturally come together in the end to make the process of writing a research paper much smoother.
Your student should get plenty of writing and argumentation practice by writing opinionated essays. At this point, he doesn’t have to worry about backing up his opinion with research. Simply have him write his opinion on a historic topic he is reading about. Pay attention during your book discussions. If any topic particularly seems to excite your student, or make him mad, or fill him with admiration, it might be an ideal topic for which he can write an argumentative essay. He can argue that a certain leader was good or bad, that a certain war was necessary or unnecessary, that something caused something else, or any number of other potential opinions.
Make sure you cover the difference between opinion and fact. That a leader grew up in a certain place, knew certain people, had certain jobs in his early life–these things are facts. Unless we have conflicting information about such facts and they are in dispute among historians, mere facts do not work for this kind of essay. You do not want to write a mere biography of this leader. That a leader was a good leader, or that he made mistakes, or that he was evil–these are all pure opinion.
An opinion paper will start with a thesis like “X leader was ill-intentioned from the beginning of his reign.” Then it will list several reasons why the audience should agree.
Whole books could be written on the whys and hows of argumentative essays. My point today is that you should have your student write plenty of them. For more about how to write them, I will direct you to two really wonderful books that are packed with practical instruction. The one I most highly recommend is The Office of Assertion: An Art of Rhetoric for the Academic Essay by Scott Crider. It is worth every penny and more. It is also quite readable and interesting! Another book I recommend is The Lively Art of Writing by Lucille Vaughan Payne. She offers plenty of practical advice on working out a thesis and many other topics.