Arugment, Research and Rhetoric in an Angry World

I wasn’t expecting to start my 19th year teaching feeling this unprepared. Not the juggling of virtual and  face-to-face hybrid teaching–I’ll bungle my way through that chaos, and it will be fine (right? Somebody assure me it will be fine). 

No, my feelings of unpreparedness come from all the other chaos in the world: racial injustice, unrest in our communities, attacks on our democracy from multiple fronts. I started as a debate teacher and then shifted to a course focused on rhetoric–AP English Language–so thorny, political issues have always been at the center of my teaching, and my students have responded pretty positively. We look for quality research to support our arguments, listen and respond with critical questioning, and above all else, respect one another. I have had a few class discussions go wrong for sure–but for the most part, I’ve felt equipped to guide my students as they engage with important political issues. 

This year feels dramatically different. I had an eye-opening (and horrifying) discussion with my stylist as she cut my hair for the first time in six months. She’s definitely been paying attention to the news–but we have NOT been listening to the same news. It was like looking in a terrifying funhouse mirror. 

I fear my students have spent six months at home marinating in like-minded opinions. Many are going to be incredibly angry about the state of the world–but angry on opposite sides. And just to keep it interesting, there will also be a handful of students who spent the last six months blissfully unaware of the world around them and eager to stay that way. 

What am I going to do with these kids? 

There are some easy options, of course. I know some teachers are choosing  (or even being told by admins) to stay away from anything political or touchy this year. “It’s just too tricky when we are also virtual” is a common argument. Building community virtually or with half my kids every other day is going to be rough, and it’s tempting to pull out all my least controversial texts and stay safe this year.

 But the passionate words of  West Virginia Council of Teachers of English Co-President Jessica Salfia keep ringing in my ears: 

What books you teach, whose voices you elevate and validate, what perspectives you ask your students to consider: these things don’t just matter, they contribute directly to systemic racism in this country. And avoiding controversy, ignoring the blind spots in your teaching, backing down on issues you know to be right, swallowing your outrage in favor of silence: these things allow this system to continue operating.

I highly recommend her entire blog post on the  All Y’all Social Justice Collective website  if you need a strong kick in the pants. 

So, that’s going to be my beat this year at Moving Writers. How do I teach argument and rhetoric and research in this angry, divided world? How do I guide readers to critically question everything they’re reading instead of knee-jerk discarding things? How do I push back on writers with narrowed perspectives and help my students see the voices that are missing or marginalized in conversations? How do I create an environment where all of my students feel heard and valued?  How do I hold myself accountable to doing the work of anti-racist teaching when this would be an easy year to hit pause?

I have a list a mile long of things I need to figure out. I’ve accepted that I’m going to make some missteps and I’m prepared for a rough class or two, but I know that committing to write about it will keep me honest. 

Since I’m writing this post before I have students in front of me, I thought it would be helpful to share the three questions I’ve been returning to as I plan my first unit. 

Well, hello there, Aristotle..

One of the first concepts I introduce  in AP English Language is Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle–the connection between speaker, audience, and message. Any hope of a message landing the way a speaker intends lies in careful attention to the rhetorical triangle, so I should start there.

What’s my role as speaker in the classroom?

I’ll admit I used to think I had to keep my political views to myself in the classroom. I wanted to nudge my students to make their own decisions from neutral ground, but the last five years have shown me that that’s just impossible. Silently standing by while racist or homophobic beliefs are shared simply doesn’t work. 

I need to own my views in the classroom and be honest about my moral and ethical standards. Still, I can’t cross that line of belittling their views. I’m an adult with years of thinking and reading and questioning built into those views.  At sixteen they probably count as adults, but they’re young adults just testing and forming their views. Their brains are developing and–this is an oversimplification so I encourage you to read this article–sometimes they can have awesome, rational discussions and sometimes they just can’t. Their emotions can take over and it can get ugly. 

It is not my place to debate them. 

It’s my place to guide them to think and read and question for themselves.  Many are hearing a whole lot at home and church and other places from trusted adults. I’m a new, untested adult in their world, so I need to tread carefully.  Especially early on, these students have no reason to trust me and I could end up shutting them down or amping them up even more if I start sermonizing.

I’d encourage you to spend some time reflecting on this–go for a walk or sit down with your notebook and think about who you are, what’s important to you, what and how you share that with your students, and how that impacts your relationships with them. 

Who is my audience? 

Lol, who knows?! As of this writing, we are less than 72 hours from the first bell and I still don’t have accurate class lists.

When I ask “who is in my room”, I’m really asking “What’s the make-up of my school?” or “What can I reasonably expect in front of me in my classes based on what I know about our population?”  These are important questions that each of us must answer individually because our teaching contexts are all so different. 

My group this year will likely be very diverse, and almost twenty years of teaching in this community has taught me that there will be a wide variety of worldviews. I will have fervent Trump supporters, Black Lives Matter activists and everything in between in my room. Some will loudly share those views, and some will sit silently and wait to hear what I have to say. All of them will be my students and they all need something a little different from me.  

What’s my goal?

So what the heck IS my message? What do I want my students to do, think, or believe? That’s the question we return to over and over when we examine texts in AP Language, so it’s the question I must return to as I choose texts and design learning experiences in class. For me, it’s this:

What do I want them to do

  • Examine everything they read with a critical eye. Whose voice is centered? Whose voice is left out? What’s the bias of the speaker? What’s the background or agenda of the speaker? What parts of the story am I missing?

What do I want them to think:

  • Language is powerful. They can use it to persuade, inspire, and critique. They can use it to elevate those missing or marginalized voices they identified.  They can also use it to harm, belittle, and disparage. They can use it to further entrench systems of oppression.  They need to think before they speak or write and match their words to their purpose. 

What do I want them to believe:

  • This is where it gets extra tricky.  I almost bought this downloadable print on etsy to make into a poster for my classroom this fall, but after writing this post, I think it’s not quite right. 

I know there will be kids in my room that don’t believe these things. I want them to believe these things but hanging a poster and then praying they’re on board isn’t going to cut it. There are things I won’t tolerate being said in my room. There are positions that are simply indefensible. Kids are probably going to say those things and I’m going to need to shut it down. I pray that in the moment I have the grace and patience to do it the right way, but I might mess up. I need to put the work in all year to get them thinking and questioning and engaging in quality dialogue about these issues.

I found one that says “I believe” that I’ll hang instead. That’s where we start our work. 

–Hattie

How are you dealing with controversy in your ELA classes this year? I’d love some thinking partners on this! Comment below or connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie or on the Moving Writers Facebook page.

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