As an AP Language and Composition teacher, it’s hard to pass up an opportunity like a Presidential election when it comes to talking about rhetoric, persuasion, and argument. However, this election – maybe more so than in other years – is a tough one to present without personal and/or media bias… I REALLY value respect and open-mindedness in my classroom, so I considered avoiding discussion of the election; but, in the end, I decided that was doing my students a major injustice. After all, one of my goals for the course is for them to become educated consumer and citizens – and what better chance to teach that?!? Instead, I laid out some ground rules early on about how we would discuss the election/candidates, threatened to “shut it down” if we couldn’t handle it like mature, intelligent, and kind adults (well, teenagers, but you know what I mean), and have made a valiant effort to present both sides of every story any time the election is referenced in our class.
From the beginning, I made sure my students knew that my intention was present each candidate fairly and objectively. I told them that I would not be sharing my own political viewpoint – that if they felt “confused” by where I stand, I’d done my job effectively – and encouraged them to do the same. I reminded them that the focus of our class was on RHETORIC – that is, the techniques and strategies that are used in persuasion, NOT necessarily the issues. And, finally, I made it clear that personal/character attacks – of either candidate, political party, or each other – would not be tolerated.
With each of the activities I’ve used in class (and presented below), I’ve chosen examples representing each candidate/party. Whenever possible, I’ve used materials provided by the candidate (or his/her foundation) itself to avoid inadvertent media bias. And, I’ve stayed away from news outlets and organizations with a known reputation for a having a particular political slant (at least as much as possible).
So far so good. My students have blown me away with their knowledge and enthusiasm about the election. Our class discussions have been dynamic, intelligent, and respectful. They are learning elements of rhetoric (in particular, the rhetorical situation and appeals to logos, ethos, and pathos) in a way that feels very relevant and timely in their lives. And, to be honest, we’re all (myself included) having fun with it.
Since it’s working out so nicely for us, I thought I’d share some of my ideas so that you can adapt and apply them in your classroom over the next month… (That’s right folks, election day is one month from tomorrow!)
1. Have students record appeals to logos, ethos, and pathos from each candidate as they watch the Presidential debates. My students simply kept a three column list as they watched, and we discussed with video clips and a full transcript (I used this one, from NPR) the next morning in class. (The next debate is this Sunday, 10/9.)
2. Have students analyze each candidate’s website. Using this chart, I had students examine each website’s use of color, photos, logos, and slogans, as well as the appeals to logos, ethos, and pathos. I split my class in two and had half look at Clinton’s and half look at Trump’s. Then, each group shared, and we had a whole class discussion about their similarities and differences, why each candidate likely made the decisions he/she did about the website, and which was more effective and why.
3. Have students watch and analyze video ads for each candidate again identifying the rhetorical situation (audience, occasion, purpose, etc.) and identifying use of rhetorical appeals and other techniques (think tropes and schemes). *This website had the best compilation of all the ads that I could find.
4. Have students look at, analyze, and (if you want) make their own print ads for each candidate. *Ideally, try to get your hands on hard copies of these (you haven’t been getting political “literature” in your mailbox or on your windshield lately, have you?!?).
5. Start classes with a political cartoon on the ActivBoard. Have students identify the rhetorical situation + use of rhetorical appeals and techniques, then discuss the overall impact of the cartoon. Discuss where it was published and what the underlying message is. (Just be careful to choose cartoons from both sides of the fence.) *US News has a good database of cartoons to start with.
6. Read, analyze, and discuss Op-Ed articles on the election.
7. Read (or, better yet, watch), analyze, and discuss speeches from both candidates.
8. Examine two (or more) different news outlets’ take on the same “event” and identify/discuss media bias.
9. Teach a mini-lesson on satire using SNL’s skit from Saturday night and/or an article from The Onion – just make sure you read and censor first! (You might follow up with a unit on A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift if you want to extend this, OR use the 2005 released AP analysis prompt as a practice timed writing.)
10. Invent a new candidate. This would be a bigger project; but, if you have the time, divide students into groups and have them create their “ideal” candidate. Groups could create a logo/slogan, make a campaign poster/bumper sticker, write a speech, compete in a debate. This would be a great way to have students apply and practice the rhetorical strategies you have studied in the above activities.
There ya go! If you’ve done any of these or have other ideas, I’d love to know how it’s gone for you. Please leave a comment (or email me for more details).
God Bless America ;),