Using design challenges to bring rhetoric to life

In Gumption Nick Offerman [aka Ron Swanson] includes an anecdote about author George Saunders seeking to impress his community college guitar teacher with a song he had learned. Unimpressed, the teacher told him, “If you don’t change your life, you’re going to be a very unhappy young man.” Offerman follows it up with this description: “What he then explained to George was that, sure, he had mechanically nailed going through the motions of the song, but without paying any attention to how it sounded.” Essentially, it had no heart.

One of the challenges of teaching something like rhetoric is that it can get reduced to terms and concepts that become mechanical. I can teach students to identify pathos or label the audience of a piece, but it somehow feels separate from the real work of analysis or writing that is covered so well here. It can become academic. One of my goals this year was to commit to finding more authentic applications that would allow us to think about rhetoric in less academic ways. As our school district worked with Allison Zmuda to immerse ourselves in personalized learning (more on this here), one of the models we spent time with was the Stanford Design School approach to design thinking, and it opened up some good ideas about how to explore rhetoric through design challenges. This visual captures the heart of the design thinking process:

Design thinking process from the Stanford Design School

What it is

A design challenge essentially lays out a problem for a team solve–they must design a solution using a process–followed by a presentation of their design where it is compared with other teams’ designs. We began to use this process by doing a series of rhetoric challenges throughout the semester. Each asked a team (5-7 students) to focus on a specific, practical rhetorical situation and to design something that forced them to make rhetorical choices based on the audience and purpose. I saw these as formative tasks that allowed students to explore some new argumentation techniques that would get immediate feedback from other teams (we do this kind of game-show/reality TV style) when presented. 

The questions I kept asking myself: what could they build that would show their understanding of rhetoric? What would challenge them to see the value and importance of their rhetorical choices for specific audiences?

What we tried

In Unit 2 (Friday Night Lights: the culture of high school sports), students had considered a range of issues from concussions and CTE to payment of college athletes and competition’s consequences on mental health. For the design challenge (see the full doc here) students had to create a 10-second ad (designed for phones) that repaired the ethos of the NFL or NCAA by pairing the organization with a cause and a spokesperson. They had to wrestle with the rhetorical situation and rhetorical appeals in really interesting ways to make this happen. Other examples of tasks we tried:

  • Unit 3: on solving school shootings (problem-solution structure): “As a team, design a solution to limit or end school shootings in America between 2020-2050 and persuade a specific audience to implement the policy.”
  • Unit 4 perfectionism clip sharing (types of evidence): “Make a problem/solution argument using a variety of types of evidence to capture what it’s like to battle perfectionism and how one can find balance.”
  • Unit 4 t-shirt design: “Design a T-shirt that encourages MHS students to flip the narrative when it comes to their inner critic and negative self-talk.”

Each team would present and go through a round of on-the-spot feedback. I cold-call people from other teams (think Shark Tank)  and ask questions about the content and the presentation method:

  • What was the strength of how that group presented?
  • Did their choice of spokesperson really help the ethos?
  • Between the last two groups, which did a better job of reaching the specified audience?
  • Was their solution stronger than your group’s?
  • If you could change one thing about yours after seeing theirs, what would it be?
  • Which group did the best job of engaging the audience about their ideas? How did they do it?
Bell 4 students give feedback on t-shirt designs in a gallery walk.

What I liked

By the end of each design challenge we had spent rich time in collaboration, had meaningful discussions about the functions of our rhetorical choices, and delved more deeply into our content in authentic ways. A few other positives I saw:

  • Making thinking visible through the products/presentations
  • Getting on-the-spot feedback about the value of your rhetorical choices and the social construction of our understanding of rhetoric 
  • Using the design thinking model to talk about the parallels to the writing process

The end goal is to understand the heart of rhetoric better and at a more practical level, and to then make some of the same moves in our writing that we make in the design challenges. To notice more about how it sounds and not just play the right notes. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He tweets about English-y stuff when he can remember to from @MHSCoates.  

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One thought on “Using design challenges to bring rhetoric to life

  1. cmadeleine0816 January 18, 2020 at 10:57 am Reply

    Thank you for this post because I am about to jump into a rhetorical analysis unit on argument writing. Every year I like to try new things to spice it up, so I am going to try yours! 🙂

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