Mentor Text Wednesday: Building Eloquence (Using Patrick Henry)

Today’s guest post is from teacher Melissa Surber. Melissa teaches 11th grade College Prep English 1, 12th grade College Prep English 2, and AP Literature and Composition at Troy Buchanan High School in Troy, Missouri, an hour north of St. Louis. She is in her 18th year of teaching and just recently became National Board Certified. Connect with her at @ELAWordsmith.

Mentor Text: Speech in the Virginia Convention by Patrick Henry

Writing Techniques:

  • Rhetoric (ethos, pathos, logos)
  • Imagery
  • Claim and Counterclaim
  • Metaphor/Simile
  • Rhetorical Questions
  • Allusion

Background:

Teaching college bound juniors is a blessing, but teaching college bound juniors early American Literature, well, that’s always been a challenge. Over the years, I have learned to navigate the world of Olaudah Equiano, Red Jacket, and Patrick Henry by focusing on their use of rhetoric, specifically how they create ethos, pathos, and logos to influence their audiences. Focusing on these elements has given me a direction in teaching texts that may not be as accessible or significant to students.

Several years ago as I passionately described Patrick Henry’s balanced and effective use of ethos, pathos, and logos, I had an epiphany: why not prove to my students Henry’s genius by using his speech as a mentor text for their own speech about a current issue. Luckily, there never seems to be a shortage of major news events. The first year, I had students consider the Benghazi attack. Then they wrote about what the U.S. should do about ISIS, then what the response should be to Syrian refugees, and this year, after much anxiety and some sleepless nights, I made the decision to have students consider the issue of the police shootings of unarmed black citizens. Part of me wanted to stay away from the issue, but my heart told me my students needed to be able to articulate their ideas about these weighty events. Often, the discussion about this topic, especially in our small rural suburb just north of Ferguson, Missouri, involved yelling and divisiveness. I wanted to encourage my students to consider how to reach people’s minds and hearts with a more balanced and thoughtful approach.

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Melissa’s students work together to analyze Patrick Henry’s speech as a mentor text.

How I use the mentor text:

Providing students with current event background: By the time we read “Speech in the Virginia Convention” by Patrick Henry, we have been discussing rhetoric for several class periods. Before we begin reading, I provide students with information regarding the event we will be pairing with our reading. I usually give them a news article or infographic and have them watch a news broadcast. I have them examine:

  • The causes of the event
  • The effects of the event
  • The solutions offered by leaders
  • The pros and cons of each solution

I function as notetaker and clarifier during this discussion.

Setting the stage for students to write a speech: I then ask students to choose the solution they believe to be the right one. I say, “Imagine trying to convince an entire room of intellectuals who are scared and uncertain that your solution is best. The entire room disagrees with you. How do you make them listen?” I preface Henry’s speech by telling students his words are partially responsible for our country’s creation, so he knows how to persuade. Because of that, I tell them, we are going to use his speech as a mentor text for our own speech about ___________ (whatever issue is prevalent at the moment).

Analyzing Henry’s speech as mentor text: We then proceed to read. We examine Henry’s ideas, but primarily, we analyze how he creates them. Often, I pair students in a modified think, pair, share to analyze his writing moves. Below are the items they discuss and try to create in their own speeches.

  • In paragraph one, how does Henry use ethos?
    • They immediately notice he compliments his audience and then tells them directly he is about to disagree with them. We discuss why he may have made this choice and the effect it had on the audience. Students then begin their speech by complimenting a modern audience and acknowledging their differing opinion.
  • “I consider this as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery.” Why did he choose these opposing words? (paragraph 1)
    • We discuss the way these opposites solidify the gravity, the importance of his words and the pathos of the word slavery, an idea these men would fear because they either owned slaves or had slave owner friends. Students then create their own contrast with weighty words that appeal to a democratic nation. We often list some possibilities on the board before they create.
  • In paragraph two, how does he structure his ethos to connect with his audience?
    • Students realize he acknowledges why they believe the way they do and then explains why his view differs. Then they go to their speech to do the same. I ask them to consider why an audience would not support their solution.
  • “Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed by a kiss” allusion (paragraph 3)
    • I often have to explain this Biblical allusion, but then I ask why Henry may have chosen it. We discuss how Henry knows the values of his audience. We then discuss what Americans value. They go to work to create an allusion that will resonate with their audience.

We continue reading, pausing to discuss and write.I help give students a focus by giving them this handout: speech-in-the-virginia-convention-teacher-copy. Together, we think about the following: 

  • the use of rhetorical questions (paragraph 3)
  • the list of the solutions already tried and their results (paragraph 4)
  • the use of anaphora (repetition of phrase beginnings) to build rhythm and momentum (paragraph 5)
  • the brief declaration of his solution and why it’s so late in the speech (paragraph 5)
    • This is integral to the effectiveness of his speech. He knows his wary audience will shut down if he begins with his intent to go to war. He must ease them into this frightening idea by building their animosity toward the British response.
  • the use of claim/counterclaim to further build anger toward the British (paragraph 6)
  • the metaphor of slavery and bondage he extends through the speech and his use of imagery with “clanking” (paragraph 7)
  • the use of a rhetorical question to soften his implication of cowardice inaction (paragraph 8)
  • his final statement personalizing his call to action (paragraph 8)

We work our way through the speech in that way, with students analyzing his rhetoric and then using it as a mentor for their own. By the time we finish reading the speech, students have created a persuasive speech at which they marvel. It has the necessary argumentative components of claim and counterclaim, but it also has beauty and imagery and style. Below are excerpts from two students’ speeches.

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-12-35-39-pm

 

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Making it meaningful: Students then type their speeches and sign them. I send them to politicians. Some have been mailed to the White House, some to Missouri Senators, some to our local Representatives. I also tweet excerpts to political leaders as well. For some students, it’s their first foray into civic responsibility; for others, it teaches them a finessed approach to argumentation. For all students, they develop a different aspect of their writing voice, one more authoritative, persuasive, and effective.

 How do you use classic American speeches and other literature as mentor writing in your classroom? Leave us your ideas below, connect with us on Facebook, or Tweet Melissa @ELAWordsmith.

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