The Rhetorical Conversation in High School

The Rhetorical Conversation in High School English

I think we can all agree that our modern world is missing critical thinking skills. We have so much information yet are lacking logic. Emotions equal facts, facts seem to change by the moment, and it seems that no one can believe anything said, except there are some people who believe the unbelievable. 

No one is teaching these students how to think. We are teaching them to pass tests, but not to question the very information presented to them constantly on tiktok, youtube, and netflix. We are doing these students an injustice if we simply get upset at them for not reading the Scarlet Letter when we assign it, while not teaching them to use their brains while viewing the content they consume every minute of the day outside of school. 

The one way that I’ve learned to teach critical thinking in English class is by teaching the rhetorical conversation. Remember? The ethos, pathos, and logos stuff we learned in every humanities class in college? 

If right now you’re thinking that you can’t just throw those words, ethos, pathos, logos, out to ninth graders, you’re right. But you can introduce them to the concepts that will be addressed later and repeat these with every reading that you do.

Now why would we introduce this difficult concept to teenagers who barely care about anything we say?

Because they love it!! 

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. To students that sounds like this: “We are going to learn how to argue with people… and WIN!!” They will learn logic and how to build evidence for their claims like no one they know. They will learn to base all their arguments on facts rather than opinions. And it builds a solid foundation for them later learning how to identify logical fallacies. 

For the most part, students love to study philosophy and psychology, so building a solid foundation through teaching rhetoric (persuasion) helps them to move into that conversation easier. 

The very first conversation I have with my students at the beginning of the year is this one: 

Everything is an argument.

This breaks the ice and allows them to enter into the conversation knowing that we can deeply discuss the elements of persuasion in anything. This is a fun conversation and gives them an opportunity to build a relationship with me, one another, and it shows that I respect their voice. 

The next conversation is this: 

Everything written or spoken is trying to convince them of something. To buy, to believe, to change, or to do.

When I say everything, I mean everything. From billboards, to sitcoms, to music, to news articles, to the novel we are reading in English class. Everything is written to persuade and change their audience. 

There are certain authors where this is an easy discussion. 

  • Charles Dickens wrote to bring awareness to the social injustice occurring in London with the children and orphans. 
  • Steinbeck wrote to force the American people to put a face on the emigrants that migrated to California because of the Dust Bowl. 

But some of them aren’t so easy. 

  • Hemingway wrote largely to address the absurdity of life…. To break through the fluff and get to the truth of human existence. 
  • Ancient cultures wrote stories like Gilgamesh and Beowulf to share the to-dos and not-to-dos to create cultural norms that kept people safe and obedient to rules and expectations in their tribes. 

It’s not enough to just say these authors are writing to entertain. They aren’t. They are trying to convince their audience to believe in these characters, root for or hate the characters, and to believe their stories are true and that they are worth learning from. 

This leads us teachers easily into discussing rhetoric. The creators use rhetorical techniques to influence their audience’s emotions, build credibility to prove to their audience that they are worth listening to, reading, or watching, and that their information, story, or product has truth that‘s valuable enough to spend time on. 

The students have a difficult time at first being convinced that some things aren’t just for entertainment. They will try to give me examples and I will prove to them that it is true each time. 

These above conversations lead into many more lessons and gives students much more confidence in discussing and writing to evaluate the author, the purpose, and the style. I will continue this discussion in subsequent posts.

Check out my most popular lesson on TPT: Rhetorical Appeals for High School English.