Where’s the Impact?: Building the Criteria for Effective Rhetoric









Wow. It’s been fifteen days since I last posted. This isn’t because nothing has happened; on the contrary, it feels like everything has been happening all at once!

My entry today focuses entirely on my lesson given in class today. At some point I’ll catch up on my school’s project-based learning initiative and our school’s first project launch, but those will have to wait.

My current unit with my 9th graders centers on argument; specifically, the theme of ‘Everything is an Argument.’ Is this true? Certainly not. As one student pointed out to me two days ago, George Washington being our first president is a fact–one that isn’t typically debatable. My reply to her was simply to consider how even that could be an argument though by making a claim like ‘George Washington was the United States’ greatest president.’ They seemed to catch onto the direction I was headed. Today we started looking rhetoric, diction, and partially syntax. The goal to do this, however, was completely predicated on the criteria students built to this question: what makes for an effective speech? A speech they would listen to–really listen to. 

To give a brief background to this lesson, we began all of this by looking argument through the lens of tweets from Twitter. I used little 140 character gems to help students understand claims in an argument. The premise was merely that the majority of original tweets produced daily are all claims. They are all debatable tidbits about life, who we are, what should be believed, science, history, technology, etc. Yesterday, I followed this up by exploring music and pop song lyrics. (I used “All About That Bass” knowing some students would love it while others would have gutteral reaction of distaste for it.) The idea was to look at the song through the lens of the elements in an argument (claim, evidence, audience) and the rhetorical triangle (pathos, ethos, logos).

Today we explored rhetoric and started to look at what makes it effective. After presenting terms like ‘figure of speech,’ diction, and syntax, I had students develop the criteria, keeping in mind these new terms, for what an effective, good speech is made up of. The pictures below will show what two classes came up with:

20141016_101202 20141016_111428

They did a nice job. I think many of us would agree with several of their suggested criteria. We took the time to potentially eliminate an criteria mentioned that maybe didn’t really matter. One student suggested ‘powerful words’ could be taken off because she doesn’t like ‘big words.’ I simply inquired her and the rest of the class to consider if powerful words is the same as big words? We ended up keeping the criteria. The class ended up agreeing that powerful words can be ‘big words,’ but could also simply mean the right words for the right audience. This setting of criteria is part of a structured process approach that Smagorinsky, Johannessen, Kahn, and McCann (2010) advocates to generate both buy-in to the writing process, but also give real credence and an understood context to models of writing we often provide students. After setting this criteria, instead of looking at a written speech, we watched a speech: Chimamanda Adichie’s “Danger of Telling a Single Story.” (Really powerful! You should definitely watch!) We only had time to watch about five minutes of the speech, but after just that small length of time, students were able to make connections back to their criteria. We finished the last two minutes of the day checking off what criteria she clearly and successfully executed (seen on the second picture).

There is larger, more critical discussion to be had here, but as a class we’re not ready for it. I have plans to come back around to the entirety of the speech and look at it not just for rhetoric, but for the powerful counternarrative it provides students. I hope for profound discussions at some point later in this unit.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a nice start. I think the criteria building is a worthy exercise to get student buy-in and to help them bridge important connections themselves. We’ll certainly see how it goes the next few weeks as we look several genres of writing and modes of communication in order to dissect where their arguments are, which will lead to students generating their own classic and mulitmodal arguments. Fingers crossed. Here we go!

Smagorinsky, P., Johannessen, L.R., Kahn, E.A., & McCann, T.M. (2010). The dynamics of writing instruction: A structured process approach for middle and high school. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


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