I’ve been teaching online courses for more than 30 years. In that time, I’ve taken dozens of training programs about how to teach online. The one thing I can’t recall anyone ever talking about in one of those trainings is how much time giving feedback in an online classroom takes.
I’ve been fortunate (although I didn’t feel fortunate at the time) to teach 3-credit college writing classes in half the length of the same course in a physical classroom. I prepared with the knowledge that, in order to give students enough time to do a semester’s worth of writing, I had to eliminate more than half the material I typically presented in a semester.
As a general rule, you can’t see students in an online classroom, at least not well enough to tell whether they are getting what you’re presenting or not. I’ve been fortunate to teach primarily asynchronous classes in which instruction was delivered in writing, students learned at their convenience, and I delivered feedback in writing at my convenience. All that writing took time, but it didn’t feel pressured.
By contrast, a synchronous classroom requires you to “teach” less, dropping the presentation of non-essentials entirely, because unless you strip the curriculum to essentials you won’t have time to receive and give feedback as you deliver information orally. It is feedback that teaches, not presentations. Feedback makes learning personal. It also puts a lot of pressure on teachers.
Recently, I’ve participated in some training sessions for online teachers given by Russell Stannard of TeacherTrainingVideos.com. Russell is a marvelous teacher. He has great information, logically arranged, and well-presented. He also understands that presenting is really the smallest past of online teaching. During one training, Russell spent over an hour on material that participants probably have read in ten minutes if it had been written. He worked at getting feedback from participants and delivering feedback to them so that everyone finished the session able to do what Russell said he was going to teach us to do..
If you are going to have to teach online in the future—and you probably need to be prepared to do just that—you must develop mechanisms for getting feedback so you aren’t teaching blind. And you must prepare to devote a great amount of time to getting and giving feedback. Just because you’re live on screen doesn’t make you an entertainer. Feedback is what distinguishes teachers from performers.
Last week in this space, I told you that the one thing you must do when in online learning classes is to teach your students how to learn your subject. Today I’d like to tell you a story about how I came to that conclusion.
It was due to a student in a first year college writing class I taught a few years ago. The course was an eight-week, online, asynchronous course conducted entirely in writing. I was supposed to turn the students out with a semester’s worth of writing skill.
My typical writing classes were 75 to 80% male (women tended to drop out when they saw my first published book was about installing steam turbines) and usually every hour of the day some of the students were at their jobs. By some fluke, each of the students in this particular class was employed full-time, each worked days, and each was a woman.
Because the students were able to be online evenings, I made a point of being available in the “course room” evenings. The format became much like a seminar, with students interacting with one another and with me through written messages. Many evenings there would be a half dozen student and myself on line discussing their work.
One of the women, who I’ll call Alice (I’ve forgotten her name), was bright and hard-working, but she had a mediocre high school English program to overcome. All the other women liked Alice. To encourage her, they sat for many hours when I’m sure they had other things they could have been doing while I explained to Alice what she didn’t get in high school.
Alice really struggled, but she earned the B she needed for her employer to pick up part of the tab for her course.
The last night of the class, the women were saying their farewells and talking about what courses they would be taking next. Alice posted a note saying that she wished she could the writing course over again. She hastily added, “I can’t believe I just wrote that. This course was so hard for me, and I had to work so hard, but when I started, I did not know how to learn. Linda taught me how to learn. Now that I know how to learn, I could really benefit from taking the course again.”
I consider that student one of my greatest success stories. She no longer needed me. Learning how to learn enabled her take charge of her education. She could learn what she wanted, when she wanted, whether she had a teacher or not.
The reason I teach is that I want students to be able to learn without me.
My 2020 first quarter literary nonfiction reading included two books that focus on the formative years of two very different people: twentieth century aviation pioneer Beryl Markham and eighteenth century wannabe author—and surelywas forger—William-Henry Ireland. Both books are readily available, new and used, from booksellers and in libraries.
West with the Night
Beryl Markham. West with the Night. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983. (paperback) ISBN: 0-86547-118-5
West with the Night is an autobiography written by a pioneering woman quite different from the calico and wagon train pioneer typically encountered in American classrooms. Beryl Markham was born in England but, from the time she was four, the motherless child was reared in Kenya where her teachers and playmates were the natives.
Markham’s story opens with her childhood adventures going hunting barefoot with her Murani friends, seeing “dik-dik and leopard, kongoni and warthog, buffalo, lion, and the ‘hare that jumps.'” She relates an incident which her friend Bishon Singh told her father Beryl had been “moderately eaten by the large lion.”
Markham’s father clawed a farm out of the land, in true pioneer fashion. It was beginning to be profitable when a drought killed it. Markham’s father moved to Peru to raise horses. Beryl, 17, decided to stay in Africa and try for a job training thoroughbreds. Her father advised she saddle up and move to Molo, a town where he knew a few stable owners would be willing to risk having a girl train horses. “After that, work and hope,” he said. “But never hope more than you work.”
Markham was becoming a successful trainer when a chance encounter with a pilot changed her trajectory for a few years. She took flying lessons and became a bush pilot.
In 1936 she decided to try to become the first person to fly solo from London to New York, which meant flying for more than 24 hours in the dark. In the cold atmosphere, the fuel tank vents iced over. Starved of fuel, her plane went down on Cape Breton Island. West became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west, but hadn’t made it to New York as she’d hoped to do.
Markham ends her autobiography with that Atlantic flight, but she went on to have further adventures. She went back to Africa and resumed her career as a trainer, becoming the most successful horse trainer in Kenya for a time.
When first published, West with the Night was included in the U.S.A.’s Armed Services Editions, and Ernest Hemingway praised the book, but it wasn’t a great commercial success. The autobiography was rediscovered and republished in 1983. It ranks eighth in National Geographic‘s list of best adventure books. It’s a beautifully written story that both teenage boys and girls can appreciate.
The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare
Doug Stewart. The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 1910. ISBN: 978-0-360-81831-8
If students are inspired by Markham’s autobiography, let’s hope they won’t be inspired by William-Henry Ireland’s story as told by Doug Stewart.
Stewart, a freelance journalist, tells the true story of 19-year-old William-Henry Ireland who in 1795 began writing documents that he passed off as the works of Shakespeare.
His father, Samuel Ireland, who thought William-Henry a dolt, got him a job as an unpaid apprentice to a lawyer who was never in the office. Most of William-Henry’s work was sorting through old documents.
William-Henry’s father, an ambitious author and illustrator of a series of travel books, had a keen instinct for what appealed to the public taste and he was obsessed with everything Shakespearean. He collected memorabilia, particularly items associated with famous or notorious figures. Samuel was not adverse to fudging the truth when it was to his advantage to do so.
William-Henry was not stupid, but he had been a failure in school. He had seen no reason for learning Latin or math since he had no plans to use either. (Does this sound like anybody in your classes?) However, he read voraciously, was fascinated by the theater, and loved to copy verse by his favorite authors in an elegant, Elizabethan script.
William-Henry penned his first forgery more or less as a joke. When his father and his father’s friends were taken in, William-Henry was both amused and angry: He was amused that experts didn’t recognize the deception and angry that his father didn’t think him smart enough to have concocted the forgery and its cover story.
Samuel saw fame and profits if William-Henry could get him more manuscripts. Samuel particularly wanted something by Shakespeare: no handwritten copies of his plays were knows to exist. Samuel pushed his son to produce the desired scripts, not realizing that William-Henry would literally produce them.
Stewart takes readers on a tour through late 18th century London using the psychologically damaged William-Henry and his crazy family as the tour guides. Stewart’s text includes 16 pages of intriguing images, and his descriptions of the English playhouses at the end of the 18th century will entertain anyone with even a passing interest in theater.
The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare will probably be heavier reading for high school students than Markham’s story, because Stewart’s book requires wider background knowledge. You might to have students for whom the book is too tough read Stewart’s article about William-Henry Ireland’s forgery career “To Be…Or Not: The Greatest Shakespeare Forgery” in Smithsonian magazine. On the other hand, the emotional and personality issues that the book raises may make it worth the extra effort for students who have what are politely called “issues at home.”
A sensible goal for a high school or post-secondary writing course should be that:
ALL STUDENTS WRITE FIRST DRAFTS COMPETENTLY.
In today’s workplace, it doesn’t make any different how great a piece of writing a student can turn out in 18 drafts. It a student can’t turn out a first draft that’s competent, that student won’t last long in an 21st century office. You don’t get a second chance to write a first draft.
Define competence clearly
Competent writing should be defined like this: On a topic with which they are familiar, in one hour all students can write a clean, 500-word I/E nonfiction text which responds to the prompt.
To avoid nitpicking, I say clean means free of the 20 serious errors in Connors and Lunsford’s 1988 list and free of topic-specific misspellings. That’s not a perfect solution, but it restricts the definition of errors to a manageable number. If the topic is biology, biology terms must be spelled correctly. If the topic is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the student must spell novel correctly and get the characters’ names right.
To achieve the goal, take aim 7 times.
Aim 1. All students must be able to write expository nonfiction texts of 1,000 or fewer words.
The 1,000 word figure is used here, rather than the 500 words specified in the goal, to allow teachers flexibility. Although multiple short papers are more effective than a few long ones in teaching students to write, sometimes 500 words just isn’t enough for students to do justice to the topic.
I don’t recommend more than one 1,000-word paper a semester with not-yet-competent writers. I do recommend having students write in class the drafts of each of the papers they submit for a grade. Students should be able to draft half an 1,000-word paper in an hour.
Aim 2. All students must write on demand in timed situations.
Students must not only know information, but must also have a process for writing that is second-nature to them. Without both, students cannot compete for jobs. Today’s workplace does not allow time for rewrites.
Aim 3. All students must be able to follow a writing pattern.
Every workplace has certain types of texts that it requires routinely. Students must be able to identify the key features of those texts and reproduce the pattern in which the key features are organized. Teachers should never assume student can recognize a pattern in writing.
4. All students must be able to summarize what they hear, see, read, or think.
Nobody takes time to read a lengthy document unless the document a good, single-sentence summary in a prominent place that gives someone reason to believe the whole document is worth reading.
Aim 5. All students must be able to identify evidence to support their main point, using personal knowledge, personal contacts, and traditional print and digital information sources.
In the workplace, people are the most-consulted information sources. Students need to know how to get information from people, including people who are not interested in providing information. not just from traditional print and digital resources.
Aim 6. All students must recognize situations that require a different writing pattern than they normally use.
Some employees work 10 years without having to use anything other than the basic, thesis-and-support pattern, but they need to know how to respond in the 11th year situation that requires a different pattern.
Aim 7. All students must accurately assess their strengths and weaknesses as communicators.
While all students need to be able to write short I/E texts competently, they need to know whether whether their writing is their strength. You might have a student who is a whiz at editing other people’s writing, or one who has a knack for spotting what essential piece is missing from a text, or one that seems to know instinctively what visuals would communicate a message. Encourage students to become at least competent writers and to develop other communications skills as well.
I’m about to take a
to a totally new expository writing project: a series of short, illustrated expository nonfiction about how to have pleasant experiences visiting in a Whether you go to visit a resident who is part of your or as a call on someone as theiror, as I did, spend time making new acquaintances as athere will be a book from the series to meet your unique needs.
You can get monthly reports on my progress (or lack thereof) by giving me your email address and promising not to gloat if I make a fool of myself.
Today I’ll show you three multiple choice question sets for testing students’ knowledge of correct punctuation rules. To create the questions, I used a sample question in 1956 Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives from a different subject for my pattern. I think you’ll see that the definition of knowledge as used in the Taxonomy means a far deeper understanding than simply being able to choose a correct answer.
If you use these questions with students, they may get some answers right by guessing, by they won’t get many right by guessing. To get all 11 answers correct, they have to understand the meanings of the terms in which the rules are expressed.
Knowledge is popularly believed to be the “easiest” of Bloom’s six types of learning, even though the authors specifically say that is not the case. Learning at the knowledge level is difficult for students because they typically have very little context for information they learn at that level. Learning at the higher levels may come much more easily because the students have far more context for understanding it.
Enough theory. Take a look at multiple choice questions about basic punctuation rules.
A five-question set
For the five numbered items below, indicate by letter whether the rules for the use of possessive apostrophes are:
(a) correctly applied, or
(b) incorrectly applied, or if
(c) from the information, it can’t be determined whether the rules are correctly applied.
_____1. The dog’s dish is empty.
_____2. My cars’ front and rear fenders are both dented.
_____3. He owes three month’s back rent.
_____4. The sounds of childrens’ voices carried across the street.
_____5. Jody’s sunglasses are on the table beside the door.
A second five-question set
Look at the numbered sentences below and indicate by letter whether the sentence is :
(a) correctly punctuated because the information set off by commas is non-essential (i.e., not restrictive),
(b) incorrectly punctuated because the information set off by commas is essential (i.e., restrictive),
(c) incorrectly punctuated because there are no commas to set off non-essential (i.e., non-restrictive) information.
_____6. The day, rainy and dark, was ideal for reading a good book.
_____7. I was late, having gotten caught in traffic.
_____8. The bridge, for example, is a tourist attraction.
_____9. After that dinner I am ready to burst my buttons.
____10. He plans to work this summer, and save for college.
One single question
11. Look carefully at this statement:
Bartz’ and Norton’s horses got out when the stable door was accidentally left unlatched.
To determine whether the possessive apostrophes are correctly used in that sentence, what do you need to know? Put an X in the blank before your answer.
____(a) The general rule that most words form their plural by adding -s.
____(b) The rule for forming the plural of words that end with an -s or an -s sound.
____(c) Whether Bartz and Norton are joint owners of the horses.
____(d) Both a and b.
____(e) Both a and c.
Use the results as formative assessment
You should use items like this as a formative assessment. Unless all your students are getting at least 8 of the answers correct, you need to keep reteaching the material in other ways until they do achieve that level. Don’t devote whole class sessions the reteaching: Give five or seven-minute lessons every few class periods. If you do that and you’re lucky, each time you give a lesson a few more students will catch on to what you’re talking about.
What’s the last nonfiction book you choose to read that wasn’t assigned reading?
Tell me about that book
Was that book:
on a topic related to the subject you teach?
a how-to book?
a biography/autobiography of sports or entertainment figure?
a history book?
something you just thought sounded interesting?
Did you read anything I might be interested in?
What, if anything, from that book have you used in teaching?
What, if anything, from the book have you found yourself thinking about since you read it?
What, if anything, from that book have you shared with someone else?
Would you read another book on the same topic?
Would you look for another book by the same author?
Have you recommended the book to someone else?
Have you signed up for the author’s email list, if the author has one?
Your answers to each of those questions tells me whether you think the book was worth the time you invested in reading it.
Why your answers matter to you
The postmaster in a small community in which I lived told me he hated reading and he hated writing, but every time I’d get a shipment of books, he’d ask, “Did you get anything I might be interested in?” If I told him about a book that he though he’d be interested in, he’d make a note of the title.
Like my postmaster, a large number of your students and mine complete high school without ever reading a book that was interesting to them. The wider the range of nonfiction you read, the more likely it is you’ll be able to suggest books that your students might also find interesting reading.
Students don’t become good readers unless at least some of what they read is interesting to them. To be able to point students to well-written books that may interest them, you need to be knowledgeable about at least some nonfiction titles on topics that may not be your first choice of rainy-day reading.
Why your answer matters to me
As my long-time readers know, nearly all the writing I’ve done has been instructional materials that nobody reads unless they are paid to. Before I drop off my twig, I’d like to write a practical nonfiction book that is read by people who aren’t paid to read it.
You, for example.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a book about how to have mutually pleasant visits with people in nursing homes. A former nursing home activities director at one of the homes at which I volunteered is working with me. We have grand plans for a series of short, illustrated, square “gift books” that we refer to as our “Thanks for Dropping By” books. “Thanks for dropping by” is what nursing home residents always said when I left.
If we decide to go ahead with the how-too books, Ill ask you to join my email list. I hope when/if you see the invitation, you’ll sign up, identifying yourself as a potential reader of my practical, nonfiction books for people who aren’t paid to read them.
Learning enough about any skill to be able to profit from additional study of that skill requires 100 hours of practice, according to researchers. After 50 years of writing expository nonfiction and teaching teens and adults to write expository nonfiction, I’ve figured out how squish those required 100 hours’ writing practice in 15 weeks.
It’s not easy, but it can be done.
The general procedure
Maintain a single focus. To turn non-writers into competent expository writers in 15 weeks you and your students must do nothing in those 15 weeks except activities that are an essential part of the process of expository nonfiction writing. Don’t ask students to write narrative—even nonfiction narrative—or to write arguments or to read anything other than expository nonfiction. Adding those elements doesn’t make the course interesting: they make the course difficult. Focus every class session on having students respond to that week’s writing prompt(s).
Ready 20 writing prompts. You will need to have 20 writing prompts prepared before the course starts. You won’t have time to prepare prompts during the course. Each prompt should be on some aspect of communication, which is, after all, what English classes are supposed to teach. There are enough potential communications topics to give every student at least moderately interesting to write about a few times a semester.
Embed each writing prompt in a lesson. Each writing prompt should be delivered within a self-contained writing lesson (see below). Use the same format for each lesson to keep things as simple as possible. Each prompt should enable students to plan, research, draft, revise and edit their responses in a maximum of five hours. (Five hours work on each of 20 writing prompts yields the desired 100 hours.)
Make class time writing time. Students can’t improve their writing until they first know what the process of writing looks and feels like. Except for those few early days of the course when you are presenting the writing process, have students spend most of their class time on task(s) to prepare them for that week’s writing prompt, such as:
figuring out what question the writing prompt is asking
phrasing a working thesis to responds to that question
developing a writing skeleton™
rippling to identify information sources for their responses to that week’s writing prompt
Teach while students prepare to write. Except during class periods when students are writing their texts, you should use class time for teaching. Circulate through the room. Look at what students are doing. Read. React. Confer with individual students about their work. Ask students if they could have avoided a particular problem by doing something differently earlier in the writing process. Give help where it’s needed.
Push students to complete entire tasks in class. Don’t hesitate to require student to submit a copy of their work by the end of a class period if that’s what it takes to keep them working.
Require students to write under test conditions. Devote at least one class period a week to having students compose their responses to that week’s writing prompt under whatever test conditions (handwrite/keyboard) you’ve established for the course. You need to get students used to producing complete clean drafts under pressure. On a topic for which they have prepared, teens and adult students should be able to produce 600 handwritten words in longhand or on a keyboard in an hour.
Do group instruction once.
Present the writing process 3 times. In the first three of the 15 weeks, lead students three times through the entire process of responding to an expository writing prompt. The first week, go through the process carefully using students’ first week writing prompt as the demonstration material. Repeat the procedure the next two weeks with those weeks’ writing prompts as demonstration material. Each time, before you give students the writing lesson which includes the following basic information for that particular writing prompt, talk students through how to
figure out what question they are being asked,
phrase a working thesis that responds to that question, and
develop a writing skeleton™ for that working thesis.
After that, the information in the writing prompt should provide enough guidance for most students. If a student has difficulty understanding the directions, you can deal individually with that student. You’ll find a discussion of eight essential strategies for student writers at my yctwriting.com site.
The writing lesson below shows how material that students need in to know to complete each assignment is included in the writing lesson. Here ripple strategy is explained in detail, providing students with a reference, should they require one.
Evaluate with a checklist
Use a simple checklist to tell students how they performed. Every item on the checklist should be (a) essential to the expository writing process, and (b) worded in such a way that the only possible responses are yes or no. Ideally, your checklist should be arranged in order of the importance of that item to the entire writing process. Thus, my six-item checklist starts with “The writer’s thesis is clearly stated in the opening paragraph” and ends with “The writer ‘does the evidence waltz’ in each body paragraph so the presence and significance of the evidence to the writer’s thesis is clear.”
During the 100 hours students are working to develop basic writing skill don’t even think about any of the finer points of writing. After everyone in your class has mastered the basics, then you can begin helping them learn ways to modify the basic expository pattern and to make their writing more powerful. Until you have all your students capable of responding to a writing prompt on a subject about which they are knowledgeable in a clear, coherent text don’t even think about having them write anything more interesting.
Is preparing those lessons too much work?
I have two collections of writing prompts that you can buy. Both collections are available from my E-junkie shop.
Ready, Set, Write! is contains 20 complete writing lessons for not-yet-competent teen and adult writers. They aren’t simplistic, but they simplify the writing process.
Bullying Begins as Words contains prompts five prompts for not-yet-competent writers plus five for competent writers and five for proficient writers.
When you buy either collection you get an e-book containing all the prompts and teacher information for each prompt, plus a handbook you can use with any of my PenPrompts collections. Within a few days after your purchase, you will receive information about where to download individual copies of your prompts authorizing you to reproduce the prompts for use with your students as long for the rest of your teaching career.
Everybody’s heard about the 10,000-hour rule. That’s the rule that says to become a top-notch practitioner of a skill, whether that skill is playing tennis or violin, making ceramics or taking x-rays, a person needs to put in 10,000 hours practicing that skill.
What everybody ignores is that those 10,000 hours of practice are done only after student of the skill has mastered the basics. Basic skill mastery has its own rule, the 100-hour rule.
Most skills require 100 hours of practice using the basic procedures and techniques of that skill to become adept enough to profit from additional study.
Learning a skill requires doing the skill
Nobody masters a skill just from reading about it, or just from hearing lectures about it, just from discussing it in a small group, or just from watching YouTube videos about it. Skill mastery requires the learner to do the entire activity repeatedly.
Practicing some critical, small part of the process in isolation may be necessary, but skill mastery comes only by practicing the skill for its intended purpose. That means the violist must practice playing entire pieces, the baker must practice baking entire pies, the writer must practice writing entire documents.
Sometimes a person masters a skill on their own, simply by trial and error. But all too often when errors exceed successes, people lose heart and quit trying to master the skill. Most people require assistance from others who have already mastered the skill.
Teaching a skill requires distillation
To give learners the 100 hours of appropriate practice they need to master the basics of a skill may not require someone who put in the 10,000 hours’ work to master the basics. People who are really good at a skill aren’t always good at teaching that skill to others: They know too much. They overwhelm the novices. They forget how long it too them just to get to the point that they didn’t have to think about what to do next.
Someone may have only 1,000 hours or only 300 hours beyond the basic 100, but if that person can distill into a few simple steps what the newbie needs to learn, that person can probably do as good or better a job teaching newbies than the expert, providing that person can distill what the newbie must learn into a few short, easy-to-understand sentences. As long as what must be learned as information is short and clear, the procedure it describes can be complicated and delicate. That’s why my program for teaching writing consists of only eight sentences totaling 33 words. The first sentence is here.
Skilled teachers help learners 10 ways
Whether the skill they need is bricklaying or baking, trigonometry or writing, skilled practitioners can help. To be helpful, a skilled person—a.k.a. the teacher—needs to be able to perform 10 tasks for the learner:
Provide learners with physical tools and vocabulary required to learn the skill.
Point out the sequence of actions the skill requires.
Allow learners to watch them perform the skill at a very basic level.
Identify the most crucial aspects of the skill.
Make learners practice the skill under their supervision.
Drill learners on the most crucial aspects of the skill.
Correct learners’ technique during practice sessions.
Make sure learners can go through the entire skill without outside assistance.
Make sure learners actually use the skill without their supervision.
Schedule regular practice sessions until each learner has spent 100 hours practicing the basics of the skill.
Every teacher who wants students to master a skill must be ready, willing, and able to perform each of those tasks—and then do them as learners require.
Next week, if things go as planned, I’ll show you how to provide required 100 hours’ writing practice to teens or adults in 15 weeks.
A bookseller in a Christopher Morley novel says, “It’s a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour glass, to let the particles run the other way.”
Turning the mental hour glass upside down is a good activity to have your students engage in before you turn them loose to write arguments.
What argument means
An argument is—and has been since the days of Aristotle and Plato—a respectful debate. Before they voice any disagreement, each party must attempt to understand:
the opposition’s position, including how they define their terms,
the opposition’s evidence for its position,
the opposition’s logic from the opposition’s standpoint.
To get students to the place where they can argue, you first have to get them to thoroughly understand the position against which they are arguing. Students will only do that if forced to. Students are rather like normal people in that regard.
Here’s how you can force students to turn their minds upside down.
Force a change of perspective
Make a list of a five to 10 controversial topics. Try to include topics ranging from hot-button issues in your school, your community, state and national politics, and international issues such as climate change, immigration, and disease control.
Have students each select one of the topics on which they have an opinion. Have them write a statement of what they believe about that topic and their evidence for their position. Five hundred words will be plenty for this.
After they’ve turned those paper in, give them a tough assignment. Have each student write a paper defending the opposing point of view, giving the best evidence they can find from the most reputable sources.
If you wish, you might follow the formal writing assignment with a two- or three-minute informal writing prompt—one whose responses you won’t grade—that asks students to reflect on what they learned from doing the assignment that they can use in other situations. If you or I did the assignments ourselves, we’d have to admit that we have very little knowledge of at least one topic on which we have strong opinions.
Having once had the experience of looking at a topic from another viewpoint gives students some appreciation of what they must do in writing genuine arguments.