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Exploring Perspective: Three Writing Exercises for High School Students
Encouraging students to explore perspective or expand critical thinking can be a daunting task, but is an essential skill and reflects high school Common Core Standards in literacy and writing. While fairly open-ended, these exercises can be adapted to be content-specific.
A note on free writing
The first two exercises are free writing exercises and are a great way to get student brains moving. Before attempting the writing exercises, explain to students that the goal of a free write is to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and keep moving for all of the free writing time. Self-editing should not be a part of the free writing experience; stream-of-consciousness writing spilling forth as fast as our hands can write (or type) should be the goal.
Exercise #1: Multiple perspectives
Images are a great way for students to enter the idea of perspective. Find two images, preferably from different points of view, for this exercise. You can also create two images by taking a larger photograph or cartoon and zooming in and cropping portions of the photo in a way that fundamentally changes its meaning.
Show the first image and have students complete a description of it using as much descriptive language and detail as they can. Then show the second image and have them do the same for the second. Reveal that the pictures are related and/or different versions of the same thing and discuss as a class how their perspective changed. Have students write again about how different these two descriptions might be. Ask them to pay careful attention to the types of descriptive words used – do they convey different attitudes about the photo content? Did their understanding of meaning change with the second viewpoint?
A variation on this exercise is to use the same image each time and challenge students to change their perspective, such as, “Describe the scene as if you were in a bad mood. Now describe the scene as if you were in a good mood.” Have students pay close attention to which details they chose to write about and how their word choice expresses their perspective. Consider a follow-up class discussion that highlights how various sources go through the process of choosing details and framing information to create subtext meaning.
Exercise #2: The believing and doubting game*
Using a term coined by rhetorician Peter Elbow, “the believing game” is a great way to challenge students to consider multiple viewpoints, anticipate responses from an agreeing or disagreeing audience, and humanize the audience in a way that allows for students to seek out common ground or similar value. It is also very effective for teaching students how to read analytically.
Start by giving the class a short opinion piece, provide an argument claim such as, “Driver’s licenses should be given at age 25 rather than 16,’” or have them brainstorm an argument they have heard. Set a timer and have students free-write for five minutes as a person who believes the author or the claim. Instruct them to suspend their disbelief and identify all of the reasons this claim is a good idea, considering the values held by an audience that agrees.
Once their time is up, challenge them to address the same argument from the role of a doubter. Have them find issues with the argument, seek out counterarguments that have gone unaddressed, or identify the values in an audience that would lead them to disagree with the argument.
This exercise can be very difficult for students, particularly if it requires them to entertain an opinion they disagree with, but treating persuasion as a logical, intellectual exercise can be very good for getting them to divorce their feelings from their opinions. It is a great way to help teach students that audience values play a significant role in creating arguments. In your follow-up with students, explain that this exercise should be done with any persuasive writing they seek to do and with the sources they choose to use in their writing.
Exercise #3: What’s important
This exercise focuses on summarizing as a skill, teaching students to shave away what is least important and focus on the essentials. It begins with a take-home assignment. Assign students a short reading (a two to three-page article) and a one-page summary of the article for the next day’s class.
In class, have students turn their summary into a paragraph of 150 words or less. This requires them to create a bare-bones vision of what is necessary to remember about the piece they have read.
Once they have completed their paragraph, give the class their final challenge: to convey the ideas from their 150 word paragraph in 140 characters – a tweet. Allow students to use twitter language – shortening, hash-tagging, or replacing words with numbers – to convey their idea.
When students have finished, encourage them to compare tweets and to discuss in small groups or as a class why they made the choices they did to create their tweet. This challenges students to summarize and filter as well as explore perspectives, because students will probably choose different information for their tweets.
A variation of this assignment can include splitting the class and having them create their summaries from a variety of viewpoints. This allows for a discussion of audience values; students might have a different takeaway from a piece than a teacher or parent. Have them discuss why this happens and really explore the concept of audience values. This allows them to appreciate varying perspectives and learn to appeal to them in future persuasive writings.
*Adapted from John D Ramage’s Writing Arguments
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.