Phil Holmes, one of the great English teachers of his generation, is standing before a class of high school seniors, trampling all over their self-esteem.Susan S tells me that her high school uses some version of Toulmin's method, but it's been extremely confusing to deal with. I have yet to read Toulmin myself, sad to say, though I've read several explanations of Toulmin posted at various college sites over the past two years.
It is a Thursday in October, not long into the school year. Holmes gazes out at his class, his proper prep school face set off by white hair and rimless spectacles, and tells his students, all of them black kids from South Los Angeles, that the first grading period is ending "and most of you will be getting Fs."
The students stare, dead silent. For perhaps the first time today, he has their full attention.
"This is not a good start," Holmes continues, his tone stern but even. "But on the other hand, it's not unusual."
Holmes spent 35 years building his reputation at Harvard School for Boys and its successor, Harvard-Westlake, which attracted some of the best, the brightest and the richest students in Los Angeles. His teaching methods, his curriculum, his empathy, his intensity, his relentless demand for clear, well-ordered thought, changed kids' lives.
More than that, he shaped wave after wave of young teachers, many of them now working at some of the most influential educational institutions in America.
But when he and a colleague wrote a book describing their teaching method, publishers scoffed. Of course their method worked! Their classes were filled with bred-for-success overachievers! Who couldn't teach them?
So in 2002, at a time when most people his age were sliding toward retirement, Holmes accepted a teaching job at View Park Preparatory High School, at Slauson and Crenshaw boulevards.
View Park Prep is no blackboard jungle. For many View Park parents, the choice was not between the charter and a traditional public school -- say, Crenshaw or Dorsey High -- but between the charter and a private school.
Still, the 15 miles that separate View Park from the rolling Coldwater Canyon campus of Harvard-Westlake might as well be 15,000.
More than 96% of the students at View Park are African American, and studies show that even middle-class black students tend to do worse in school, on average, than comparable students of other races. Moreover, roughly half of the students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
"At first, it was a shell shock," Holmes said, "because of three things. I wasn't prepared for the students to be so far behind in their reading development. . . . We were reading "The Odyssey," and within one or two days I knew we couldn't move through it like we did at Harvard-Westlake. Second, these students had no training in classroom discipline. At Harvard-Westlake, I could ask kids to start writing an essay in class, and I could go upstairs, get my mail and come back and they'd just be quietly working. If I walked out of class at View Park Prep, it would be total pandemonium.
At the center of Holmes' teaching is a slender red-bound book titled "The Uses of Argument," first published in 1958 by British philosopher Stephen Toulmin, which sets out a steel-trap method for structuring an argument.
Creative writing, Holmes believes, is a frill for most high school students. How many, after all, will become poets or novelists? But virtually all will need to write some form of persuasive essay, in college and in their careers. That is Holmes' central focus.
By midyear, Holmes' students were showing progress.
"Can you state," Holmes asked his class one day in January, "what is the writing goal for the whole View Park Prep curriculum?"
Mister Searcy raised his hand.
"Writing a sustained case, free of mechanical errors, in a readable style," he said, repeating the mantra that Holmes has been chanting all year long.
By this time, everyone in Holmes' class knew the formula for a sustained case: Claim, clarification, evidence and warrant, cemented by "backtracking," a practice in which the writer re-reads and challenges his own work and answers any questions that arise.
The method works, as any number of View Park graduates can attest.
Skye Williams, now at Clark University in Atlanta, said Holmes' lessons "really helped us in college -- in history, biology, anything."
Teacher instills a love of words, but the lesson is about life
Los Angeles Times
By Mitchell Landsberg
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 21, 2008
I'm thinking Richard Nordquist's explanation at about.com is probably the place to start if you're curious. George Hillocks' book on teaching argument writing has a section on Toulmin, and Joseph M. Williams' The Craft of Argument (there are 2: a long version and a short one) may be an adaptation of Toulmin's method (not sure).
I find it horrifying that Holmes could not find a publisher for his textbook.
This passage from the article is very nice:
That Thursday in October began with students filing into the 12th-grade English composition classroom that Holmes shares with a younger View Park colleague. He was dressed in a suit, green dress shirt and tie, black loafers, his hair neatly trimmed, his bearing attentive.Authoritative teacher ("his toughness helps the class concentrate"), coherent curriculum (everything he does connects together).
Just before the bell, one of his students poked her head in, hoping to get excused from class. "We're taking a makeup test in AP history today," she said. "Do you mind?"
"Yes, I do mind," Holmes said. "We're doing something very important in here."
Holmes had nothing unusual planned. He considers every lesson, every minute of class time, to be important, and, at age 66, he often stays up past midnight preparing for the next day's lessons. There are 26 students enrolled in this class, which was designed to give them the skills they would need to write college papers. All were dressed in some variation on View Park's uniform: khaki pants, a maroon sports shirt.
Holmes asked them to take out a homework assignment -- a critique -- that was due.
The assignment called for the class to analyze a student's college application essay. In the course of the next 90 minutes, Holmes led the class in dismantling not just the essay, but one student's critique of it, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word.
There's a hanging detail, he said at one point -- why is it a problem?
"It's too vague," a boy answered.
"What's vague about it?" Holmes demanded.
The boy couldn't answer at first, but Holmes was relentless, forcing him to think. In the end, they hammered out an answer.
At another point, a single word -- resourceful -- launched Holmes into a discussion of Odysseus, and how his resourcefulness ("He found a way to blind the giant") could be a source of inspiration for the students.
The entire class was like this, Holmes leading a discussion in which no point, no word was insignificant. He could be brutal, dismissing one student's argument as "mindless." And he could be generous, if guarded, with praise.
Outside after class, Khadijah McCaskill said the students don't mind the tough talk, or the tough grades. This is her second class with him.
"His toughness helps the class concentrate and makes it easier to learn," she said.
"He's a phenomenal teacher," she added. "He's phenomenal because everything he does connects together. And even if you don't know it then and there, it will . . . be connected to a larger thing later on."
That's the magic.