Confession: Before I started teaching AP Language & Composition ten years ago, I didn’t even know what the term “rhetoric” meant. So, first, just in case, I’ll spare you the Google and tell you what I tell my students at the beginning of every school year: Rhetoric is the art of language – in particular, persuasive language. It’s not just WHAT you say, but HOW you say it — what words you choose, how you structure your sentences, your understanding of the audience/occasion/purpose for writing or speaking, your appeals to logic, trustworthiness, and emotion (logos, ethos, & pathos), your use of figurative language, and even – in the case of public speaking – your delivery. Really, once you grasp the concept, it’s actually FASCINATING; in fact, over the last few years, rhetoric has become one of my very favorite parts of my curriculum!
I love teaching rhetoric because it actually feels SO relevant to the real world. Whether its reading the news online, watching an awards ceremony, following a political election, or scrolling social media, persuasion and language are ALL around us. Understanding the choices a writer/speaker makes in presenting information to us makes us *much* wiser and more careful consumers of that information. Likewise, seeing how others successfully (or unsuccessfully) craft an argument, makes us better at crafting our own; and, if anyone appreciates knowing how to win an argument with skill and strategy, it’s teenagers. Right?
In today’s post, I’m excited to share a lesson I use every year to make rhetoric engaging and accessible for students, plus I’ve invited eleven of my teaching-friends to share their tried and true ideas for rhetoric instruction in this collaborative blog post. I hope you’ll find one (or twelve) great ideas you can implement in your classroom below.
1. Introduce the Rhetorical Situation with YOUR Writing & THEIR Writing
Ask any seasoned AP Language teacher, and they will tell you that the foundation for teaching rhetoric is a good understanding of the rhetorical triangle (speaker/audience/message) or rhetorical situation (SOAPStone – subject/occasion/audience/purpose/speaker/tone). One of my favorite ways to help students grasp this concept is by sharing my own writing* to illustrate how changing just one element of the rhetorical situation can change an entire piece…
I start by printing out copies of an old blog post I wrote called “Napkin Mom” and hand it out without telling them it’s mine. This is a really fun part because the essay is silly and light, but it’s also very obvious that I wrote it based on the style and voice. I love asking students “how do you know I wrote this?” and then using their responses (my specific word choice, use of short sentences, etc.) to discuss/prove that we all have a unique way of speaking and writing (that’s diction and syntax — the other two keys to rhetorical analysis), and good writers are able to adapt to their audience while also staying true to their voice. Then, together, we identify each element of the rhetorical situation and talk about how the writing might have changed if I was writing for teenagers (them) instead of other 30-something moms, etc. (Hint: the subject would need to be totally different.)
After that, I often have them read an excerpt from a second, more serious, post from my blog: “When the Lockdown Isn’t a Drill.” My students connect to this immediately since its about something we experienced at my school a few years ago; but, more importantly, they notice the change in style and tone right away!! Again, we identify SOAPStone together and talk about how this writing is different because the subject and occasion is so different. We also highlight specific words and choices I made to give this piece a more serious and somber tone, and why that’s important in writing.
From there, I set kids free to find two pieces of THEIR own writing to analyze (a journal entry, an email to a grandparent, a long Instagram caption, an article for the school paper, an essay for class, etc.) and task them with labeling the rhetorical situation for each and writing a brief paragraph explaining how differences there lead to differences in style for homework. The next day, they get to share their writing and analysis in small groups, and we move into analyzing texts I’ve chosen on group posters.
*To be honest, it feels a little awkward (maybe even arrogant?) to share my own writing with students at first; but, really, it is so important for them to see that we write too — even if you have to do some digging (or some new writing) for this, I think it’s worth it to share something you have written before we ask them to share theirs. And, as a bonus, its really funny to learn what things about your style stand out to kids — they really know me better than I think!
2. Use High-Interests Texts and Scaffold Analysis
Samantha from Secondary Urban Legends loves to teach the art of persuasion with advertisements and high-interest speeches. Advertisements are a perfect opening hook to show how, in everyday life, we are constantly being persuaded. Samples of advertisements are provided to students to analyze both words, images, and sound if any. Then students go on a hunt to find exemplars of advertisements with persuasive techniques in them. Once students are able to grasp the concept, difficulty then increases to analyzing speeches such as Queen Elizabeth I’s speech at Tilbury, Obama’s Back to School Remarks, or Hillary Clinton’s speech to the UN. Students are taught to pay attention to repetition, questions, and other rhetorical devices as they read.
3. Hold an Analysis “Auction” with “Appeal Paddles”
Molly from The Littlest Teacher will use any excuse she can to get crafty in her ELA classroom. Teaching rhetorical analysis is no exception.
Have students create three fans or paddles (think auction-style): one each for ethos, pathos, and logos. Provide fun materials or let students get creative at home. Have students decorate their paddles with the term, definition, and examples.
Pick out a couple of important speeches, or a handful of commercials to watch together in class. (Tip: watch with closed captions on, or provide a transcript, for improved comprehension.) While watching, direct students to have their paddles at the ready, and to raise the appropriate paddle when they hear an example of ethos, pathos, or logos. If you want, make it into a competition: the first student to raise the correct paddle earns a point. Points can be for fun, or add up to be a bonus on a quiz or assignment.
4. Use Speed Debating to Practice Logos, Ethos, & Pathos
Teaching rhetoric can seem overwhelming at first, but with the right tools, it can be an enjoyable experience for both you and your students. When teaching rhetoric, Samantha from Samantha in Secondary always starts with an overview of the topic and then focuses on ethos, pathos, and logos. She loves using the “heart (pathos), head (logos), cred (ethos)” saying to help students keep them straight. Beginning this lesson usually involves some level of direct instruction and practice activities to reinforce the learning. Show plenty of commercials as well and analyze ethos, logos, and pathos in each. (Another way to review this topic is with a set of review Boom Cards. If you aren’t using Boom Cards in your classroom this year, click here for an overview. Students love these!)
Speed Debating is an incredibly fun activity to practice ethos, pathos, and logos. Begin by creating a set of argumentative prompts. Fold them up and put them in one basket. Fill another with slips of paper that say ethos, pathos, or logos on them. (Make many so there can be multiple rounds.) Students should pick one argumentative prompt for each pair and then one slip of paper from the ethos, logos, or pathos basket per student. The speed debating pair should decide who is taking the affirmative and the negative before beginning. For each round, students should try to convince each other of their arguments using the strategy chosen. Partners can critique each other to make sure they are using the correct strategy. Sometimes it helps to even use a fishbowl method at first and critique a round or two yourself so students can see exactly how the process should work. Set a timer and start practicing! Switch rounds and partners often. By the end of the activity, students will have a better understanding of how to use ethos, pathos, and logos in a real world setting.
5. Teach Students to Stop and S.M.E.L.L.
Liz Taylor from Teach Between the Lines uses her SMELL-y acronym to help teach Rhetorical Analysis to her students.
S – Sender/Receiver Relationship
M – Message
E – Emotion Strategies
L – Logical Fallacies
L – Language
The acronym helps her teach arguments, reasoning, and persuasion with ease. With the S in SMELL, or the sender/receiver relationship, it is important to decipher who or what is speaking. The M/Message helps determine the message; E, or Emotion Strategies, associates with Ethos, Pathos, and Logos or the three pillars of persuasion. The first L (Logical Fallacies) introduces fallacies in arguments, discussing the different ways that an argument can go south with the use of a misconception or generalization. The final letter, the second L (Language), helps with guiding word choice; ensuring that students know what words are better to use and why. She discussed this in much further detail in her blog post Rhetorical Analysis – a Fun Acronym and 5 Mini Lessons to Get You Started.
6. Let Students Choose a Song to Analyze and Present
One way Kristina from Level Up ELA gets her students engaged and excited about exploring rhetoric is through a rhetorical analysis project centering around student choice.
After students have a firm understanding about the basics of the rhetorical triangle, Kristina asks students to brainstorm a few songs that hold significant meaning to them. She has seen such a drastic improvement of quality work in allowing students to analyze a song that is special to them in place of a random essay or speech they do not feel connected to. She helps them narrow down their top few choices by asking the students what message the artist or lyricist was trying to convey to the listeners. Through this filtering process, students start to identify which song or songs hold enough content to evaluate.
Then, students evaluate their top two choices by completing a rhetorical triangle and rhetorical precis. This helps them answer the question, “Which song choice has more usable material in it for what I need to do?” This is a great practice for evaluating sources!
Kristina usually has her students craft and perform a presentation in which students play a clip of the song, present their thesis, and share their analysis of the song. Other ideas could be student papers, posters, presentations via FlipGrid, etc. Not only are students practicing rhetorical skills, but they are also learning more about their peers, too! Score!
7. Study Rhetoric in TED Talks
Amanda from Amanda Write Now uses TED Talks to teach rhetoric. There are many short talks out there that are perfect for secondary students to watch and then analyze. Many people think of TED Talks as informational, but they are argumentative too! Speakers must be clear, concise, and convince the audience to believe the ideas they are putting forth. Check out this blog post to learn more about how Amanda utilizes TED Talks and other online videos to teach the art of argumentation: How to Teach Argumentative Writing with Video.
8. Craft a Campaign Speech for a Fictional Character
Marie from The Caffeinated Classroom reinforces what students have learned about the rhetorical triangle by having them reverse-engineer it. Students first choose a fictional character and create a premise where that character is running for local office within the context of their story (i.e. Spongebob is running for Mayor of Bikini Bottom). Next, it is time to craft a campaign platform for their fictional candidate – students identify an issue that the character will base their campaign around, articulate the arguments they can make surrounding that issue, and use the parts of the rhetorical triangle to flesh out the rest of the argument.
By taking the process of analysis and using it as a tool for creation students apply what they have learned and are able to pinpoint areas where their understanding isn’t as full as it needs to be. As an added twist, students can write out and present campaign speeches to the class for listening and speaking skill practice!
9. Argue about Taylor Swift
Betsy, from Spark Creativity, is always looking for a chance to make a complicated ELA strategy relatable and engaging. I mean, who isn’t? So if you’re looking at ethos, pathos, and logos and wondering how to get students revved up about rhetorical strategies invented thousands of years ago, she’s got two words for you: Taylor Swift.
Taylor Swift’s music videos are nothing if not conversation starters, and considering it has over THREE BILLION VIEWS (at least thirty of which come from my household and involve family dance parties) most of your students have probably already seen “Shake it Off,” her hilarious video about being yourself and following your own path regardless of what others say.
Now what does this have to do with rhetoric, you ask? Well, once you’ve taught the ethos, pathos, logos triangle, why not have students use these three strategies to craft a short speech that argues either that Taylor’s music video is indeed deserving of its three billion hits because it’s one of the greatest songs of all time, or that xyz video (their own personal favorite) is WAY better than Taylor’s video, and it’s really just the music industry machine driving her success.
Wish I could be a fly on the wall when your students make their arguments!
10. Create PSAs using Rhetorical Techniques
“Who can be the helpers in the face of injustice?” is the essential question that guides Krista from @whimsyandrigor in her unit on refugees. Using the excellent middle grade book Refugee by Alan Gratz, she crafts a unit designed to focus on the people who come to the aid of the families fleeing their dangerous homes for a safer place to live so students can begin to see themselves as agents of change with potential to help others.
As a culmination to the unit, the class studies public service announcements (PSAs) and plans their own PSA on refugees (she uses the Scholastic resource found here). As students work to create a short video on a topic they are knowledgeable and passionate about, Krista introduces the concepts of ethos, pathos, and logos as a way to appeal to their audience. Finally, students show their work to the entire school community to kickoff a fundraising effort.
By tying together the topic of persuasive techniques and an authentic audience, Krista creates an opportunity for students to demonstrate what they know in a creative and meaningful way. And if that’s not the purpose of teaching and learning, what is?
11. Debate Engaging Topics and Practice with Socratic Seminars
Jessica Martin from Whimsical Teaching believes that student voice and choice is key in leading students to crafting writing quality rhetoric. In elementary and middle school, rhetoric techniques need to be carefully organized and even color coded to aid in student understanding. More importantly, the topics for students to dish on must be of high interest to the student and their peers. This can be a challenge when the world of academia subjects clash with high interest multimedia topics that kids enjoy. Practicing with topics of high interest though lays the foundation for the steps needed to create high quality writing. Even adults struggle to debate topics when there is a lack of interest in the topic itself, yet students are expected to write super boring essays about whether the Stamp Act was just in the 1700’s. In this blog post, Jess explains how she uses the Wit and Wisdom ELA Socratic Seminars to increase student interest in rhetoric and uses them for starting points into argumentative essay writing. She also offers several launch points for upper elementary and middle school teachers to try this method out in their own classrooms.
12. Analyze Disney Songs
Rhetoric can be one of the most challenging concepts to teach, but it’s one that packs a powerful instructional punch as the layers of skill and complexity can be vertically articulated from the first exposure all the way up to the AP level. Amanda from Mud and Ink Teaching is a long time teacher of rhetoric at all levels, and if you’re just beginning, she recommends taking a familiar, Disney approach to get things started.
Not only is Disney familiar territory to most students, but there are a huge number of songs that are actually arguments. Songs provide a way to teach both the rhetorical triangle itself as well as the rhetorical situation. Think about “Under the Sea”: it’s Sebastian’s (unsuccessful) plea for Ariel to rethink her satisfaction with life under ‘de water. Even “Let it Go” is Elsa’s attempt at convincing herself that she’s better off living in an ice castle rather than in town with the regular folks. Amanda’s favorite Disney song / argument to teach new rhetoricians is “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. For a walk through of Amanda’s lesson and a copy of her materials, check out her blog post here!
Thank you SO much for joining us in this collaborative post. I hope you found some great ideas you can implement in your classroom right away! Until next time,