Risking it with Rhetoric Part Two: Designed to be Spoken

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A couple of weeks ago I blogged about my experimentation with teaching rhetoric. The process marked a departure from what I had taught in previous years. My main justification for this was that if my students were going to analyse non-fiction, then certain speeches, packed full of fascinating language and steeped in our cultural history, would be much more rewarding than a couple of newspaper articles.

So, what next? My students (finally) knew that Winston Churchill didn’t work for Direct Line, and we had a pretty good grasp of the Emancipation Proclamation – now it was time to do some writing. The curriculum for year 8 was moving to persuasive writing, and I wanted to try something linked to our study of rhetoric. Here’s a brief outline of my decision:

  • Every student would research, write and deliver a speech to the rest of the class.
  • The speeches had to be about an important topic, i.e. not homework or uniform.
  • Students would be expected to experiment with the rhetorical devices we had discussed and analysed the previous term.

For the rest of this post, I’ll give a brief outline a few of the things I noticed during this term with my year 8 class of newly accustomed public speakers.

1. Classical structure

I’ve always found that teaching students how to structure whole texts is pretty challenging. I’ve tried many different analogies before: Writing is like a spine, with each paragraph connected to the paragraph before, stemming from the brain where the thoughts (or introduction) is conceived. Writing is like a well designed building etc. Some analogies have been more successful than others, but I’ve always struggled to make the link between how structure can help create meaning.

For this project, I used the classical rhetoric arrangement described by Joe Kirby here. In fact, Joe’s post and the links he provided became more or less my teaching bible for this term.

Here’s Joe’s definitions of these steps:

  • Exordium: establish your connection with the audience and grab their attention
  • Narratio: set out your definitions and facts with brevity, clarity, plausibility
  • Divisio: summarises the agreements and disagreements with your opponents
  • Probatio: set out your arguments with authority, analogy and evidence
  • Refutation: smash your opponents’ arguments
  • Peroration: connect into your audience’s emotions

On the face of it, the terms are quite complex, but because each section has a clear purpose, my students did not seem to struggle with the terminology. It also meant that the class knew what each section of their speech was for, which helped the drafting process. With this, the structure helped guide meaning, as it was inexorably linked to the intended impact on the audience.

2.Dwelling over models

How long should we spend modelling a task before we expect students to complete their own? I like writing examples with my students, or using examples from the class for us to critique. But how long should we dwell over these models, and how often should these be revisited? Is one experience with a model sufficient for students to be able to produce something of similar quality? I expect not. For this piece of writing, our models were Lincoln, Churchill, and King, and we spent 5 weeks exploring their craft. This in-depth exploration of these models, I’m sure, helped lift the quality of my student’s work.

One of my favorite lessons was spent unpicking Martin Luther King’s use of metaphors in these two sentences:

One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. 

We then talked about how other metaphors could be used to compare a negative and a positive situation, including metaphors of being trapped versus being free, of dark and light, and of warmth and coldness. Soon, my student’s work was peppered with original and effective metaphors, bringing their speeches to life. Here’s one metaphorical flourish a student used to describe anorexia:

“being trapped in a hall of distorting mirrors and believing that the surreal reflections looking back at you are really you.”

Also, by using the classical structure of rhetoric detailed above, it was very easy to relate back to clear models, such as, the ‘exordium’ of Martin Luther King, or the ‘probation’ of Winston Churchill, discussing their various qualities and studying them in context before drafting our own.

3. Speaking in front of others

Speaking in front of others can be a pretty divisive task, particularly for young teens. I had those who relished the opportunity, those who protested lack of confidence yet delivered fantastic speeches, and sadly, two students who felt unable to speak in front of the class. Thankfully, both students were happy to perform to a smaller audience of myself and friends during their lunch break.

By making it clear from the outset that this speech performance was our end goal really helped focus my students on producing excellent work. Redrafting any important tasks is one of the routines I’ve tried to embed this year, since reading Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence, but this term the redrafting stepped up a notch. Knowing that a performance of their work was imminent, students opted for additional redrafting at home, taking great pride over the quality of their work.

I feel I learnt a big lesson here. Too often I’m guilty of teaching sequences of lessons without a clearly defined goal from the outset, before springing assessments or projects on my students. Clarity over the end goal supports students produce excellent work.

4. Elements of Eloquence

Throughout both terms, I used this fairly common definition of rhetoric with my class.

the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing”

I love the inclusion of the word ‘art’ here. It suggests a level of crafting and creativity that is central to any effective persuasive speech. Focusing on this art, and using beautiful, well-crafted examples added an element of eloquence to my students’ speeches.

Recently, I’ve just finished Mark Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquencewhich James Theobald recommended on Twitter. I’m convinced that some of the rhetorical techniques Mark describes will be valuable tools for my teaching armory. In the final blog of this short sequence, I’ll be trying to outline how focusing on eloquence and artistry might help boost my student’s persuasive writing in the future.

A couple of blogs I should credit for helping me with my work this term:

  • Mark Miller’s blog on persuasive writing provides an excellent discussion of studying persuasive techniques in context.
  • Shaun Allison’s blogs tagged with ‘modelling’ helped immensely in getting me thinking more about supporting my students.

3 thoughts on “Risking it with Rhetoric Part Two: Designed to be Spoken

  1. Pingback: Persuasive Writing and the Elements of Eloquence | mrbunkeredu

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