Guest Post by Emily Barnes
AP English teacher, Hoover High School
AP English teacher, Hoover High School
When I found out I would be teaching the AP Language course, I spent most of my summer just trying to study what in the world rhetoric is. Besides a basic concept of Socrates and Plato (very basic), I had not taken a class in college that focused on all of the nuances of rhetoric. I found myself in a rabbit hole of information that made me feel overwhelmed, and frankly inadequate.
Picture this: I’m sitting with a thick book filled with thin Bible pages and tiny print on rhetorical analysis and argumentation frantically highlighting, a legal pad beside me taking notes on my highlights and notating things I needed to look up in detail later, all in front of a computer screen trying to watch YouTube videos discussing all of this terminology that I had never heard before. That doesn’t even take into account the weeks of online searches of teacher’s webpages and syllabi. Total information overload.
This is the same way many teachers feel as the paradigm is now shifting toward non-fiction study. It is asking us to step outside our comfort zones of literary analysis and put together a new bag of tricks.
Two years later I’m a little wiser and a little better at faking wisdom where I am lacking. Though I am always endlessly on the pursuit to make lessons better, faster, funnier, and all together less terrible, I would like to share a few strategies that have helped in my presentation of rhetoric and argumentation to my students.
The first year teaching the course I fell into the teacher trap of front-loading my students with too much terminology. They must know all of these terms in order to understand right? After not really seeing the fruits of my labor, I tried a different approach this year. Here are the basic steps I took my class through as we introduced these concepts.
- I start with a video clip of a speech. Something accessible, visual, and powerful. This year I started with Rita Pierson’s TED Talk “Every Kid Needs a Champion” . Students can immediately identify their best and worst teachers (and luckily this happens early enough in the year that I haven’t had the chance to become their worst teacher). This made the topic easy to relate to and discuss and allowed us to enter into the realm of rhetorical analysis in an nonthreatening way.
Depending on the level and age of students you can decide to either have them watch without any prompting or questions, or choose to have a few directives. For instance, ask them to identify three strong points and the main idea of the speech. The goal here is to have them just observe. What things are obvious to them? What elements of the speech made them feel something (you can work on labeling the something as an actual emotion later)?
- After viewing, start a conversation about what they saw and how it impacted them. “What did you think?” “Effective? Why?” Let the students talk out everything they heard. Start making a list on the board of all they are describing.
For example a student might say something like “She said she had been a teacher for over 20 years and came from a family of teachers.”
- Try and lead them to tone (without using the word). What was your reaction to the speech? What do you think she wanted the audience to feel? Think? Do? If they can’t decide on actual tone words, just start with asking was it positive or negative? If negative, was it sad, angry, afraid? Giving them a tone word list is really helpful. When I give these lists I try and tell them to look through the list and highlight words that fit with their writing voice. We have all read essays where certain words scream out “a thesaurus placed me here!” They need to find words that they might actually naturally use. Throughout the year I continue to remind them to fill their filing cabinet with information; this can be terminology, vocabulary, current events, etc. They need to be able to access this information when needed.
In addition to word choice they need to also understand the importance of choosing the right word. Take them through the process of landing on a strong word. I like to use the word “intensity” in my classroom to discuss the level of the words they choose. Does “good” fit the intensity level? No? Choose a stronger word. Keep the chain going until you hit on one that works.
Side note: I’ve really tried to shift the focus of acquiring words in my classroom through reading, vocabulary, etc. as a way to better express themselves. Why do you need to expand your vocabulary? Not for a vocabulary quiz which doesn’t work to motivate any sort of retention, but to help ease the paralyzing frustration of not being able to express what you want to say in a way that people can really understand your emotions. I’ve tried to shift the focus for all of our skills to encompass a “what’s in it for me” mentality.
- Now, take the list they made of things they identified and start labeling them as strategies. This is where we English teachers have to change our way of thinking. Possibly we viewed ourselves as great literary device scavengers who looked to identify these metaphoric gems in works. Now we are shifting to identifying “choices” that don’t have to have some elevated terminology to label. What choices is the author making in this speech? To tell a story? To ask questions? To repeat a phrase for emphasis? You might feel the need to immediately identify it as anaphora, but it really isn’t necessary. If they can see a speech as a series of intentional choices carefully constructed to have a specific purpose and impact, they have mastered the skill regardless of the terminology used. That is easy to replace later.
When I front-loaded definitions at the beginning of the year I found myself trying to break them of just spouting off “logos, pathos, ethos” all year long. And why wouldn’t I? I just taught them some really fancy Latin terms…and then told them not to use them. That’s like having an awesome pair of boots you can’t wear. What’s the point? Instead, start by having them just be specific when discussing elements of the speech.
- Pathos- The question should be what type of emotion is present? How would it make audience feel? Can’t think of a word? Let’s start with laugh or cry? Somewhere in between? Again, modeling for them a process to find the correct word.
- Logos- What is being used? Facts? An anecdote? Why would those facts be important? Why would the audience care?
- Ethos- How does she make the audience trust him/her? Why would they believe what she has to say? Why would they feel compelled to act on the information presented?
I found working through rhetorical analysis in this way freed the students to see that they already know this stuff. Analyzing how someone is persuading us is a constant in our everyday lives.
- Connect to purpose! In my class I ask two questions over and over and over again. WHAT is the purpose and HOW do they achieve it? Now I can simply ask them to identity the WHAT and HOW. What do they want? How will they get it? You can use this with any work of fiction as well. We can again go back to our points and make meaningful connections. Rita Pierson told us the story about her mother who took care of her students and made such an impact that they came back to attend her funeral decades later. WHAT is the appeal? Emotional? What emotion? HOW does it create that emotion? The answer will lead them to discussing the function of an anecdote.
They need to get into a natural habit of asking why this audience, at this time, on this topic? What is the intended purpose? Every speaker wants the audience to feel, think, or do something. What it is it? Why? The more they see this the more they realize they encounter these rhetorical situations all day every day. The better equipped they are to identify, the better equipped they will be to protect themselves.
At this point I try and give them a visual of the rhetorical process. How all of these elements have to work together in order to create an effective argument.
- After outlining the speech, show them how much they have done! You can even have them choose one of the items to write a paragraph discussing the impact, or even a chart that makes them more thoroughly answer these questions.
The end goal is to be able to approach any article, essay, speech, or letter with the ability to see what the purpose is and realize it has been carefully constructed to achieve that purpose. This opens the door to using these same strategies with paintings, political cartoon, print advertisements, and commercials.
The great thing in teaching rhetorical analysis is you are also teaching argumentation skills your students can use in their writing. Everything they identify as effective choices a speaker/writer makes they need to file away and use in their own writing. I have them look again to the graphic for rhetorical analysis, but now picture themselves in the position of the speaker. They need to go through the same process in constructing their argument.All around us we are bombarded with a world asking for something from us; buy, do, believe. It is best we be able to identify what it is and why.