For the last few years, I have “swapped out” my argument research paper for what I’ve labeled a “tension paper.”

Rather than ask students to take a position on something – even when we’re asking them to understand and acknowledge the “other side,” or “counter claim,” as it’s called in the genre, I found that my invitation – and expectation – with argument was that they ultimately got to select a side they deemed to be “right.”

I found that my students were unable to sit in the middle.

As much as I tried to help them see the unhelpful-ness, unrealistic-ness, and unproductive-ness of binaries in life, I was positioning them to fail at understanding how realistic complication and complexity truly are.

Oh, they could appreciate the detriment of seeing life through a black/white lens well enough. But many weren’t really living it, and I wasn’t always helping.

None of this is to say that there aren’t – at many times, even – points at which we need to, ought to, have to, desire to come out on an issue with a particular perspective.

However, my students are young. Impressioned and impressionable. Influence-able and close-minded.

I needed – I wanted – a way to position them to sit in the gray area. Sit with the “yes, and” as Brené Brown calls it. Sit with the need to go with complications as improv – and life – demands.

Cue the “tension paper.”

In brief, students identify a “this vs. that” issue to explore. Examples have included everything from “parents vs. children” to “economy vs. environment” to “mental health vs. physical health” to “dream career vs. stable career,” to more socially and politically charged tensions like “#BlackLivesMatter vs. #AllLivesMatter” and “Israel vs. Palestine.” Some tensions are highly personal, some social, some political, some religious; they soon learn that many are a combination.

We research and write and discuss and share and repeat until students can formulate an 8-10 page paper that explores the tension in a variety of ways.

And I only have one real “rule” for them: they cannot take a side, regardless of how they might personally feel.

Their paper HAS to sit in the gray area. Hold the gracious space of “yes, and.”

Some find this liberating. Some challenging. Many strive to write in ways that extend grace, particularly as they work on closing their papers.

The fact that they find it nearly impossible to leave a topic open teaches us all perhaps the most valuable lesson there is today in the genre of argument and the role it is intended to play in education and thus life: we are not going to teach our students how to live in harmony with others if the penultimate writing and work they do serves to solidify their own perspectives at the conquest of those of others.

My favorite feedback from them?

“Ms. B, this is HARD. These issues are COMPLICATED.”

My response?