A Late Night Mentor Text

I’ve written before about lessons inspired by my Twitter feed and it happened again early this week. Sometimes, right when you need it most, the universe drops the perfect mentor text right in your lap.

My AP Language students are busy prepping for the exam and all of them need a little more work with rhetorical analysis. They’ve gotten pretty good at identifying a writer’s purpose or message. They can pick strategies that an author uses to achieve that purpose or convey that message, but they struggle with explaining why.  They want a formula that, unfortunately, doesn’t exist.

Why is something powerful? Why does it create a certain tone? Why does it work?

I needed a text that would help them see the why.  Enter Jimmy Kimmel.

If you haven’t heard about Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue Monday night, you might live under a rock or this might be your first time on the internet this week. It’s been everywhere. He gave a tearful, moving speech about the recent birth of his son Billy and his health problems. At the end of the 13 minute monologue, he shifts to a pretty compelling health care argument. Though it’s tempting to avoid politically charged topics like this one in class, the response to his argument proves the power of rhetoric. I originally saw the speech Tuesday morning. As a parent, I thought it was moving, but I didn’t consider using it in class until I saw the reaction it was getting. By Tuesday night, it was on every major news network.  It was getting millions of views on Facebook and Twitter, President Obama was tweeting about it, and legislators were referencing it during the health care debate in the House. People were paying attention.

Why?

Here’s what we did:

board

First, I drew a timeline on my board and divided it by minutes. I wanted the students to map out how his argument developed. I hoped they’d see how much time he spent on his personal story so they’d recognize that the detail and genuine emotion helped him establish credibility with his audience. Instead of just saying, “he uses an emotional appeal and people will see him as a concerned parent”, I needed my students to recognize that he spent almost eleven minutes showing the audience who he was–his humor, his love for his family, his gratitude for the medical professionals.  All of that together made it easier for him to transition to a controversial argument.

I divided the students into groups of five and gave each group some strips of construction paper labeled with different things I figured they’d notice: pathos, tone shift, humor, etc. As we watched, they taped the strips to the timeline and wrote out their “why” explanation.  When it was all over, we went back and talked about how the speech developed.

They noticed all kinds of whys:

  • Instead of just noticing that his tone shifted, they recognized that the shifts kept the monologue from being too intense or overwhelming. He used humor like a pressure release valve.
  • Instead of just noticing that he used negative diction to talk about Congress, they noticed that calling the disagreement about healthcare a “squabble” and using the pronoun “us” supported his message that reasonable, mature, caring people could fix this.
  • Instead of just noticing that he was listing tons of people by name and saying that that showed his gratitude, they realized that it also added to his credibility. He didn’t lump all the people together, he thanked them personally, by name.

Our discussion went on for a long time as they picked it apart and analyzed all of the whys, and then it shifted away from analysis and they started to think as writers.  

Questions they asked:

How would this monologue have been different if he had briefly mentioned his son and then launched into some hard data of the number of people with pre-existing conditions?  

What does that mean for how we use different rhetorical appeals in our own writing?

How do you know when a personal anecdote is powerful enough?

 
The first question had a clear answer.  The kids all knew right away that a more data-driven approach would have been less effective, but they struggled with accepting that.  On face, it seems like facts and hard data should be more convincing, but this example showed  how the blend of a genuine, personal experience could sometimes be more powerful.  

The second two questions were more complicated.  We talked about the different types of reasoning and evidence we can provide. They wanted a formula that doesn’t really exist or a test for how to know for sure when something will “work.”

Use X in your writing for Y result.

Use Q to get a Z effect.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Our discussion was messy–my board was certainly messy–but I think this is the true power of a great mentor text. My students now have a more nuanced understanding of why something might be effective, and I think they’re ready to experiment a little more.

 

–Hattie

 

How do you help your students experiment with powerful rhetoric? Our AP test is next week and then my schedule is wide open! I’d love to hear your ideas for ways to push them to experiment with the weight or power of different rhetorical appeals. Connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie or comment below.

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