The Declaration of Independence Rhetoric Unit

One of my favorite units of the year is one I just finished–where I use the Declaration of Independence to teach about rhetoric, along with reading, writing, and speaking skills.

I start with the text, asking why exactly this document was written and for whom. Nobody ever knows. Then we read it looking for answers (attachment 1 below). I point out aspects of persuasion in it, then we go back to the big questions. That’s about half a day, on a block schedule. The other half day I use to go over this rhetorical analysis worksheet that I like with them (attachment 2). I really want them to understand this as an argument–we look for ethos, pathos, and logos in the declaration, for example (use this video if those concepts are new to students).

Putting this color-coded version on the projector to immediately review also reinforces the most salient points.

Another day we look at the handout that compares drafts (attachment 3), and we talk about the writing and revision process–what changes were made and why, and if they’re better or not. We relate this to their own work. I also tell them about the anti-slavery paragraph that the southern colonies made Jefferson take out–none of them have heard that before, so I put it on the projector and read it to them. Fun! That’s just a small part of a day.

I also make sure to point out that it’s the FINAL draft of the declaration that has the treasure map on the back. That always elicits a few giggles from the group.

A third day is to give them the speech outline (attachment 4), so they can see how the four parts work together and practice using these tools for something useful and realistic.

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Emerson on Self Improvement

Something I was writing at work today made me think of this quote from Emerson, which I highlighted when I was 17. I dug out the book, which happened to be in my classroom, and looked it up. Classic.

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Gulliver’s Travels

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Google images result for the title…most of these are the famous scene from chapter ONE.

I read this last summer, and while it starts out strongly enough, it gets much better as it goes on–the satire gets far darker and more biting. Maybe that’s why the single part everyone seems to know and like–Gulliver being tied down by the tiny Lilliputians–is from chapter one. Nobody ever talks about the better parts later on.

The second half of the book really ramps ups the social commentary to Voltaire levels of savagery. Consider these observations of a university, from part III:

I saw another at work to calcine Ice into Gunpowder; who likewise shewed me a Treatise he had written concerning the Malleability of Fire, which he intended to publish.

There was a most ingenious Architect who had contrived a new Method for building Houses, by beginning at the Roof, and working downwards to the Foundation; which he justified to me by the like Practice of those two prudent Insects, the Bee and the Spider.

There was a Man born blind, who had several Apprentices in his own Condition: Their Employment was to mix Colours for Painters, which their Master taught them to distinguish by feeling and smelling. It was indeed my Misfortune to find them at that Time not very perfect in their Lessons; and the Professor himself happened to be generally mistaken: This Artist is much encouraged and esteemed by the whole Fraternity.

In another Apartment I was highly pleased with a Projector, who had found a Device of plowing the Ground with Hogs, to save the Charges of Plows, Cattle, and Labour. The Method in this: In an Acre of Ground you bury at six Inches Distance, and eight deep, a Quantity of Acorns, Dates, Chestnuts, and other Maste or Vegetables whereof these Animals are fondest; then you drive six Hundred or more of them into the Field, where in a few Days they will root up the whole Ground in search of their Food, and make it fit for sowing, at the same time manuring it with their Dung. It is true, upon Experiment they found the Charge and Trouble very great, and they had little or no Crop. However, it is not doubted that this Invention may be capable of great Improvement.

And this rather wry bit where the joke about government working purely and productively might seem like a lame cliche today just shows us, yet again, that there’s nothing new under the sun:

In the School of Political Projectors I was but ill entertained, the Professors appearing in my Judgment wholly out of their Senses, which is a Scene that never fails to make me melancholy. These unhappy People were proposing Schemes for persuading Monarchs to chuse Favourites upon the Score of their Wisdom, Capacity, and Virtue; of teaching Ministers to consult the Publick Good; of rewarding Merit, great Abilities, eminent Services; of instructing Princes to know their true Interest by placing it on the same Foundation with that of their People: Of chusing for Employments Persons qualified to exercise them; with many other wild impossible Chimaeras, that never entred before into the heart of Man to conceive, and confirmed in me the old Observation, that there is nothing so extravagant and irrational which some Philosophers have not maintained for Truth.

The final section of the book has the darkest humor, such as this almost invisibly veiled swipe at expansive governments spreading their influence:

But I had another Reason which made me less forward to enlarge his Majesty’s Dominions by my Discovery. To say the Truth, I had conceived a few Scruples with Relation to the Distributive Justice of Princes upon those Occasions. For instance, A Crew of Pyrates are driven by a Storm they know not whither, at length a boy discovers Land from the Top-mast, they go on Shore to Rob and Plunder; they see an harmless People, are entertained with Kindness, they give the Country a new Name, they take formal Possession of it for their King, they set up a rotten Plank or a Stone for a Memorial, they murder two or three Dozen of the Natives, bring away a couple more by Force for a Sample, return Home, and get their Pardon. Here commences a new Dominion acquired with a Title by Divine Right. Ships are sent with the first Opportunity, the Natives driven out or destroyed, their Princes tortured to discover their Gold; a free Licence given to all Acts of Inhumanity and Lust, the Earth reeking with the Blood of its Inhabitants: And this execrable Crew of Butchers employed in so pious an Expedition, is a modern Colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous People.

Three Old Poems From Las Vegas

I saw this page in a now-defunct alt-weekly sixteen years ago, and fell in love. I don’t often like new poetry, but I really enjoyed all three of these. I tore out the page and put it up in my classroom. It’s followed me from school to school since. Sometimes I’d refer to it, sometimes students asked about it, usually it just sat among the detritus that teachers collect year after year.

Last summer, I came across it while doing some decluttering, and took these pictures of each poem, and here they are, preserved now in Internet amber.

I like these because they each tell a specific yet oddly relatable slice-of-life story, told in vivid language, but not at all flowery. These are unadorned decorations on small moments, as most of my favorite poems are.

I just Googled the titles and authors–none of these poems are available elsewhere online, it seems (indeed, none of them seems to have been collected at all), though the authors all seem to still be writing, with some professional success. That makes me quite happy.

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The Great Books Podcast

Two months ago, National Review magazine launched a weekly podcast called “The Great Books.” My first thought on hearing about this was, “What does a literature podcast from National Review have to offer the world?”

The answer begins with another question: what would the world want from a National Review literature podcast? An appreciation of classics from a socially and politically conservative viewpoint, I suppose.

But that could be the source of its failure as well: when conservative outlets analyze any media or cultural product entirely through the lens of the right wing, it tends to collapse in on itself in an implosion that leaves no trace of itself. Five minutes later, this empty exercise may as well have not even happened. After all, you never hear explicit left wing preaching on NPR–it’s just assumed that that’s the worldview the audience values, and the reports proceed accordingly.

I’m glad to say that the new NR podcast avoids this danger admirably.

I’ve listened to three episodes so far: those for Macbeth, Paradise Lost, and Agamemnon. Each was superb: an expert on each text is interviewed for about half an hour, plot points are discussed in a delicate way that doesn’t try to avoid spoilers but which is far from a SparkNotes summary, and the greatest focus tends to be on timeless themes.

Conservative ideas are never outright given center stage, but are obliquely integrated usefully and organically into the conversation. For example, in the Agamemnon discussion, a parallel is drawn between Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible. The comparisons and contrasts were genuinely enlightening to both texts, and it was just a minor caveat in the larger discussion, as well as an insight I’d never had on my own.

The discussions are never preachy, in any way, but are loving analyses of cherished classics. That’s it. And it works terrifically. They’re often like mini version of the huge lecture courses I like to get from the library, usually on several CDs at a time, where some professor waxes on about the many facts regarding a text. The big difference here is that the podcasts’ conversation format is much more lively–there’s clearly a script of questions, but there are also clearly spontaneous comments and connections from both interviewer and interviewee.

What could anyone want from a literature podcast by National Review? What more could we want?

“The Great Books” podcast is available to hear online and in a variety of apps, in addition to an option to download episodes. My only complaint is that these podcasts aren’t available on YouTube, which would be even more convenient for me. Maybe it’s because there’s no video component, but still.

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Beautiful Biblical Writing

I recently read 2 Kings 8, where a sick king sends a servant (who is secretly plotting to kill the king) to the prophet Elisha to see if he’ll recover, and Elisha tells the jealous servant that illness isn’t the enemy the king really needs to worry about. In verse 11, Elisha stares down the servant with classically stoic Old Testament severity, and the scheming servant breaks down under his guilty conscience, but then Elisha likewise breaks down, weeping over the corruption of humanity.

This sweeping drama reaches its climax in that single, short, simple verse: “And he settled his countenance steadfastly, until he was ashamed: and the man of God wept.”

I’m impressed by all that goes on there–first, the three major emotional peaks: the prophet’s cold scolding, the servant’s shame, and the prophet’s apparent 180 of attitude from scolding to open sadness about the violent weakness of human nature.

But I was also floored by the sparseness of the prose. It echoes with an empty disregard for decoration, sending out its story with the plain directness of folk art. It’s the kind of style that is actually so often affected in modern times by writers trying to look wise or macho. This tiny sentence perfectly illustrates the way that, for example, Hemingway would punch out prose with a lack of clarity for who’s speaking.

I underlined 2 Kings 8:11, not because it’s profoundly doctrinal or because it provides direction for discipleship or because it’s a useful proof text or for any other such reason. I just underlined it because it’s beautiful.

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Dante’s Paradise: A Celebration of the Celestial

danteI finished Dante’s Divine Comedy this week, and it ended as strong as it started. Paradise takes the social commentary of Inferno and the moralizing of Purgatory and then just cranks that gorgeous poetry amp up to 11. It is, by far, the most beautifully written entry in the trilogy and maybe even imbued with the deepest ideas.

Four favorite passages may serve to illustrate.

First, from canto four, we see a meditation on how spiritual truth must be understood metaphorically by our merely mortal minds. The top and bottom of this page are pithy quotes by themselves, but the body between constitutes some of the more clever comparisons I’ve ever seen:

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Next, from much later on, this part starts with lines that could apply to art and writing in general, but then wax eloquent about matters of faith, integrating mind and spirit, but ending with a paean to scripture and the Holy Spirit.

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Learning to Read Literature the Way Critics Watch Movies

When I’m trying to teach rhetorical analysis or any kind of analytical reading, I find this metaphor to be useful: we need to learn to read literature the way that critics watch movies. Everybody can picture that and relate to it immediately. All students have seen movies and have seen and heard others pick apart the various aspects of films.

The two processes–literary analysis and film criticism–are remarkably similar: they’re both exercises in identifying the basic building blocks of a work, and then scrutinizing them through lenses like comparison, connection, and evaluation. They’re both means of interpreting the content of messages while appreciating the modes of communication themselves.

I find that having students examine examples of great film criticism, such as essays found from Roger Ebert or the Criterion Collection, is a productive foundation for then extending the tools those writers used to their own approaches to literature in our classes.

And–bonus!–students also get exposed to quality films!

 

Written English As a Foreign Language to Native Speakers

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of ELL students–English Language Learners (also known as ESL, or English as a Second Language). They have a certain set of needs in writing instruction. In fact, students have slightly differing sets of needs depending on what their first language is: some language backgrounds make learning to use plurals harder; others create a tough time with verb conjugation, for example.

This has nothing to do with anyone’s intelligence–it’s just a matter of learning to think and communicate those thoughts in a new way. What shocks me, though, is just how often I see native English speakers make the same kinds of mistakes in writing that foreign language students make. What accounts for this?

For a young American today, written English is practically a foreign language. Students very likely have little more engagement with written English than they would with any other world language, and it shows in the kinds of errors they make in writing.

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Reviewed and Recommended: F. Paul Wilson’s Nightworld

7957849I recently had such a great reading experience! So many of the books I read are deep, or classics, or deep classics–this time I just wanted something fun. Because of that, I spent a few days in a row staying up late so I could keep reading. That hasn’t happened in a while.

Nightworld is the final book in a series that begins with Wilson’s classic The Keep. (Yes, I skipped to the end of a series just so I could get to the gripping, white-knuckled conclusion. Fight me.) Like all great horror novels, the plot is as elemental as any dark fairy tale: a powerful evil entity is making each day on Earth shorter than the one before, and at night hungry creatures come out of the ground to ravage the world. Each night is longer than the one before, and each night brings larger and more aggressive monsters. Soon, the world will be kept in permanent night, ruled by this demon and his army of monster minions. And only a small rag-tag band of human heroes can come together to stop him.

Pretty awesome. Wilson delivers. Why isn’t there a movie of this? Tons of fun. Highly recommended.

 

“To Essay”

As I discussed my notes about their first big essay of the year with my college students this week, it became clear to me that nobody had ever explained to them why we write essays. They saw the exercise as a pointless waste of time.

So I got some more mileage out of my trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. I read them parts of the entry for the word “essay.” Specifically, I pointed out the it entered the language as a verb, not a noun.

As seen below, “to essay” really just means “to try, to attempt, to practice, to accomplish.” Example sentence: “The noble knight essayed the glorious task of eating a thousand fish tacos.”

Moral of the story: today, when we write an essay, we are trying, attempting, practicing, accomplishing…what? To prove an assertion, to describe a new idea to others so they can share in our experience, to communicate clearly about something important between writer and reader.

These are–and I say this with no sarcasm–truly crucial skills, demanding the very greatest of all our energies in both teaching and learning. The world needs these skills, and needs them to be developed and implemented widely.

So maybe the “noble knight” example isn’t such a joke after all.

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Grapes of Wrath FAIL

Today a student told me that he’d ordered a copy of The Grapes of Wrath to read for my class, but the wrong book had been delivered. Turns out that some yahoo published a book with the same name as the Steinbeck classic. Maybe he thought he could get some sales through accidental purchases by students looking for school supplies.

There are clues that this is not the book you’re looking for. For example, it was published just a few months ago. Notice that people get the wrong book so often that Amazon suggests bundling this with another Steinbeck classic, Of Mice and Men.

But the reviews are priceless! Angry people feeling ripped off, confused people searching for meaning, and at least one reviewer who posted five-star praise about Steinbeck, for some reason.

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