Before jumping into The Odyssey with my English 1 students this semester, I wanted to get an idea of what qualities they considered "heroic". I also need to prepare them for our district's end of the semester writing assessment, which requires students write an opinion essay. In order to accomplish both of these goals, I decided we should write a piece about a favorite Hero or a favorite Villain.
For prewriting, I always use a Topic T-Chart to help my students generate lists for ideas to write about. For this particular piece, we created a T-Chart with Heroes on one side and Villains on the other. I told my students that the Heroes and Villains they listed could be fictional, real, dead, or alive but the character/person they chose had to have appeared in a comic book, book, TV show, cartoon, movie, or had to be someone from their lives.
On my smartboard using Notebook 10 software, I modeled this for them by listing some of the characters and people I considered Heroes and Villains. As students created their own Heroes/Villains lists, I had them share their lists with the entire class (however, I focused their listening and had them avoid repeating any ideas). When we finished our T-Charts, I showed my students how narrow it down to one character/person by giving them this criteria and then narrowing my list down to one person/character.
- Choose someone you have strong feelings about.
- Choose someone you can talk about in a lot of detail.
- Choose someone others can relate to.
- Choose someone others will be interested in reading more about.
I chose to write about Pat Tillman. Next, I had students circle their chosen Hero/Villain, which I made a note of. I like to have such notes for reference in the event a student gets stuck and needs to change topics. I also have a little more information about each student and his/her interests, which later helps me "guide" students into high-interest books they will enjoy.
My Go-To Strategy
Once we'd chosen our topics, I briefly explained to my students that we're writing an opinion piece about our selected Hero or Villain. We use a prewriting strategy called the What-Why-How (WWH) to organize our ideas and details about our chosen Hero/Villain. As always, I model this for them on the white board. The What-Why-How contains three columns that include these questions:
What Why How________________
What do I believe Why do I believe it? How do I know it's true?
about this Hero/Villain?
Each column represents a key component that makes or breaks opinion writing in any medium. The What column represents the writer's opinion (think thesis statement or main idea sentence), which is expressed in one sentence.
The Why column represents the reasons Why the writer believes this opinion. I like to have my students come up with 4-5 solid reasons Why they hold this opinion about their chosen Hero or Villain. This way if 1 or 2 of their reasons lacks logic, or doesn't work out for them, they have backup reasons. We express these reasons in sentences that begin with the word "Because..." which reminds them about the Why type of thinking we're after.
In the How column, we're creating our Proof for our Whys. Proof that should be expressed in Details called The 3 E's: Examples, Evidence, and Explanations. These Details will support our reasoning from our Why column. They work as follows:
- Examples include our own experiences (or the experiences of a fictional Hero/Villain in this particular type of writing).
- Evidence includes any facts, data, or statistics.
- Explanations include any further explanations we need to "prove" our reasoning. For example, "Why is this Hero so strong?" Or, "How do you know this Villain is powerful?"
For each Why, I like to have my students create 2-3 How Details that can be one or any combination of The 3 E's. Usually, I have students work with one of the E's and when they show me they can use one really well, I ask them to try the others.
Using my topic, I model how to use a What-Why-How for my students first. We work in one column at a time. In one of my classes, I chose Pat Tillman as my Hero. Here's my What statement:
I believe Pat Tillman is a true American hero.
In my Why column, I have these reasons listed:
- Because he followed his dreams.
- Because he was a well-educated man.
- Because he spoke his mind.
- Because he was successful.
- Because he made sacrifices.
For this last reason, my details from my How column include:
- Gave up a lucrative football career in the NFL
- Lost his life by fratricide in Afghanistan
After I've finished modeling how to fill in each column in the W-W-H, I have my students fill in each part step-by-step. As students work, I roam the room helping those students who need further explanation or asking them questions that help them create more logical sounding reasons and proof that holds up their reasons and overall opinion. Then, I ask for a few volunteers to share their What-Why-How with the class.
From a W-W-H to a Draft
Once we have our prewriting done, I have students draw a circle around each Why and the How details that go with it. Each reason and the support that goes with it will become a body (or middle paragraph) in our drafts. For the example I used above, my body paragraph ended up sounding like this:
Because Pat Tillman made sacrifices in his life, he's now an American icon. Tillman gave up a lucrative professional football career with the Arizona Cardinals to join the U.S. Army. He was deeply moved by the events of 9/11, which caused him to question his true purpose in life. He believed joining the U.S. Army was his true calling. Unfortunately, he paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country when he was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.
I then model another paragraph or two and explain that each reason under my Why column becomes the topic sentence for each of my body paragraphs. The details in the how column become the support for each topic sentence (reason). I explain that words will need to be added in order to make these complete sentences that "sound" like sentences in a paragraph.
After I've shown my students how to turn the work from the Why and How columns into paragraphs, I give them work time to practice and we do a lot of sharing of these paragraphs.
By the time we've finished, all we need to do is add on an introduction paragraph (good beginning) and a conclusion paragraph (good ending) to finish out our drafts. I'll tackle these parts of our essay in my next day's lesson.
Clear Opinions, Solid Reasoning, and Definitive Proof
The What-Why-How is a strategy I can count on with any type of opinion writing. While my students and I are currently using it to write about our favorite Heroes and Villains, the questions can be slightly altered to make it work for other topics as well. I like it because it allows my students and I the opportunity to write our opinions clearly, it helps us create solid reasoning, and it provides "proof" our readers can count on!
Since this is our first time using the W-W-H this year, I'm pleased with what I'm seeing. As we continue to work with opinion writing later in the year with Book Reviews, Media Reviews, and prompted writing (think Test Prep), we'll work out the kinks in their logic as we go.
For now, my students who have made solid topic choices (and those who have switched topics) have been able to move through each part of the What-Why-How pretty quickly. And writing hasn't seemed too painful for any of them. Don't tell them I told you, but they seem to be enjoying it!
Strategies that make writing seem "easy" or "fun" are ones I stick with throughout the year. On testing days, I'm always pleased to see how many students remember to use the W-W-H because it's practical and easy to remember!
For more on the What-Why-How or The 3 E's, see The Writing Teacher's Strategy Guide.
Portions of this article are © Copyright 1995-2012 by Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., and are used by permission. For more information, and free teaching materials, visit www.ttms.org or contact Margot Lester at firstname.lastname@example.org.