Tag Archives: rhetoric

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.  

Thinking Differently to Do More Thinking

I think most teachers would agree, no matter our content, our number one goal is to help students develop as critical thinkers. And in a world where technology rules much of their lives, impatience governs their actions, and emotions overcrowd the adolescent brain, this can be daunting.

We must keep trying.

Every day we see see headlines spouting fake news, and more and more we see headlines shouting “This news is fake.” We see sites on how to spot fake news, and analyze fake news. We have access to lessons on fake news — Google “lessons on fake news, and you’ll find 5,250,000 resources. We even see the hashtag #fakenews (a fabulous lesson on paradox btw).

A few months ago I read this article at Forbes. Then clicked through and read this one at BuzzFeed. I shared them with my students. We had an interesting discussion, but one comment left me thinking:  “So, basically, everyone’s making stuff up. How are we supposed to believe anything?”

If we are not helping our students find answers to this question, we are doing a disservice to our students — and by extension a disservice to ourselves. What kind of world will we grow old in if we do not help the students in our classrooms today, determine fact from fiction, identify bias, value diversity of thought, be open to new ideas, support their opinions, and seek to understand before passing judgment?

First, we have to be willing to step outside our comfort zones and seek to understand other perspectives. (If you haven’t seen Outside Your Bubble, it’s an interesting starting place.)

Plato

Next, we must school ourselves on rhetoric. And then, we must weave it more overtly into all aspects of our instruction.

As English teachers, we have a prime opportunity:  let go of the nine weeks novel study where we focus on characters, conflict, plot, and theme. Bring in speeches and essays and news articles that invite discussion about the use of language. At the very least balance the study of both.

A few weeks ago a group of teachers from a neighboring district visited my classroom. They observed as my students and I read two blog posts about the Fearless Girl and the Raging Bull statues: Seriously, the guy has a point, and an opposing view, No, the Wall St. Bull Sculptor Doesn’t Have a Point. The discussion was rich. The thinking was richer.

At the end of the class, I chatted with these teachers. We talked about the routines in my workshop classroom, the book talks I conducted, the way I transitioned from one thing to the next. Then, the conversation turned to novels. One teacher asked how long I spend on novels. I don’t. I responded. My students read novels in book clubs where they facilitate the discussion. They talk of plot and themes and author’s craft. They bring meaning to the text, based on their experiences reading the books. (I am not opposed to novels. I am opposed to spending too much time on them.)

I hesitate to challenge anyone on what they do in their classrooms. I do not know their students. I do not know their routines or their motivations, the goals they hope to accomplish as they instruct their students, or the limitations put on them by mandated curriculum.

I do challenge the idea that studying a novel for “a long time” like this teacher told me, is a valuable use of the limited time we have with our students. Our students’ need to navigate the language of their world is too great to spend week after week with a book “they really like” that “I read to them.” We must put the focus on the needs of the reader and not the book.

What our students need right now — what our country needs right now — is critical thinking around a wide variety of texts. We need a focus on how language works to persuade and to manipulate and to cause outrage. Really, that’s our best, and maybe, our only hope.

As we go into summer (I’ve got three days left), I hope we will think about how we might shift our thinking about the needs of our learners. As we read by the pool, vacation with family, attend conferences and trainings, work our part-time jobs, I hope we will think about language and how it can either make or break the communication that is so vital to a society, a society that will thrive on diversity, respect individuality, and foster empathy and productivity.

Teacher friends, that is our job. And I think it’s our duty.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. Facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy keeps her focused on her own learning. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

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