I find myself like I am sure many AP teachers do, searching for ways, strategies, assignments, etc. where students can apply the writing styles and tools in new ways that expand beyond the timed essay. My students are developing the shift in mindset that is required for rhetorical analysis, shifting away from evaluating what was said to how it was said.
During our culminating discussion of Into the Wild, students had divergent views on Chris McCandless–some students sympathized with his quest and others believed him reckless and arrogant (this later made for an amazing debate!). The seminar shifted to discussing all of those that Chris’ choice to go into the wilderness, and death, impacted his parents, beloved sister, and those he met along his journey. It was a student’s question, How do you think his parents felt going back to the bus? Which led us to consider those Chris left behind and what they would want to say to him.
As Louise Rosenblatt discovered decades ago, the merit of a text for adolescents often lies in the connection a student has with the book (read more about a modern take on Rosenblatt’s transactional theory here and here). Students want to connect with texts in meaningful ways, through their own experiences, beliefs, and preferences. We want readers to have emotional reactions no matter what they’re reading, be it poetry, fiction, or nonfiction. My students identified with Chris, his loving sister, or his longing parents. Some students understood his adolescent need for adventure and freedom while others argued he had a duty to his family.
Tasking students with writing a eulogy for such a polarizing person seemed an ideal way for students to employ their rhetorical techniques as writers while defending their view of Chris.
Prior to letting them loose to write, we examined and discussed eulogies from famous people to use as mentor texts. Our readings ranged from Bill Clinton’s eulogy of Richard Nixon to Amy Winehouse and Steve Jobs. Through these mentor texts, students discussed how tone is established and reveals the relationship to the deceased individual, even the eulogist’s feelings towards the person, as well as the features of a eulogy. From reading a range of eulogies, students came to their understanding that quality, emotional eulogies often employ a variety of appeals, noting that rhetorical techniques are for everyday use–yes! There IS a use for these skills outside of the Language and Composition classroom, beyond the exam!
After students felt comfortable with the format, I assigned the eulogy and students selected the character they would become during their eulogy. Then the writing and revision process took hold!
A powerful last step was for students to annotate their draft to identify and discuss the purpose of the devices they employed, like a reflective rhetorical analysis of their choices as a writer. This was key to moving students towards understanding why writers make the moves they do. Then, we delivered them to develop speaking skills in a low stakes setting and have the opportunity to hear rhetorical strategies used.
Two student samples through various perspectives with their annotations:
While this assignment was made for Into the Wild and specifically for Chris McCandless, the assignment could easily be modified for any text studied as a class or independently. Consider how the ending of The Great Gatsby would change if Nick delivered a eulogy. What would Daisy have said, with or without Tom in the audience? What would Hannah’s classmates who received a cassette in 13 Reasons Why have said to memorialize her?
This eulogy allowed me to assess students’ character understanding, a way for students to apply their rhetorical knowledge, as well as a low stakes way to practice speaking, all while synthesizing perspectives in the text. Did I mention squeezing in a little rhetorical practice for the upcoming exam? I also think students were able to sort out their views on Chris through the persona they took on, adding an invaluable transactive quality to their analysis.
Maggie Lopez teaches juniors and seniors in Chicago, but is looking forward to a new adventure in Utah for the next school year. Currently, she is working through her personal reading list of An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews.