Four weeks ago, my students took the practice for the new Tennessee State Writing Assessment.  We had no way of preparing for this test because we were told that it would change in a major way. A week before the practice test, I received an email with a link to a sample test. Instead of the students receiving an expository prompt and writing on the prompt for 35 minutes, they would receive a passage that they would have to read and respond to in a prompt. The students would be given 60 minutes to read and respond to the prompt on computer. This was a huge adjustment and major worry for us. Would our students be able to read and successfully analyze the document in the prompt? Would they be able to type successfully without a majority of typographical errors? We were anticipating trouble!

I calmed down a bit when I thought about what was actually required. Students were asked to read from a written passage and take a position or explain something. The passage was to serve as strong support for whatever the student wrote. I had taught this before. Not in a class, but I taught this skill after school in the debate club.


School year 2012 – 2013 is the first year Memphis has had middle school debate. As a matter of fact, there are only four middle schools involved in this initiative and my school is one of the lucky schools to be involved. The premise of debate is to take a resolution and argue either for or against the resolution using the evidence provided. To prepare for the debate, the students have to go through the inch thick evidence file and pull out the information to support both the negative and the affirmative. After preparing the information, the students are given a position to argue. They must be able to convincingly present their case and be able to answer any questions that may arise. The winner of the debate is determined by the team that most successfully supported their arguments using the provided evidence.

Now, my challenge is to prepare the students to take the next practice test and the actual test in February. How can I teach these students to take a passage and use it to support their opinion? I have developed a four step approach to teaching writing this way. Thankfully, the scores this year are benchmark scores and will not count for or against the students or the teachers.

Steps to Teaching Complex Composition

1.)    Use various examples of complex text to send students on a Scavenger Hunt. Ask deep and probing questions and have the students find the answer in the text.

2.)    After the students finish the Scavenger Hunt, divide them into teams to debate two views (chosen by the teacher) from the article.

3.)    Have the students  write an actual debate speech from the position they took in the debate.

4.)    Time the students on step three after going through the above steps a few times.

This plan is a trial and error plan because I am unsure about what the test is asking the students to do. I hope this debate strategy will help. I know it will at least bring an element of interest to complex composition. Because my students like to argue and win, I believe I will go into the classroom next week and begin class by saying, “Shall we debate?”

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