by Sara Hoeve
Early last week my husband and I attended the annual Open House at my daughter’s high school. After the parents had settled into the small, metal desks, the English teacher began to review the units she had planned for the year: Narrative writing, Dystopian texts, Shakespeare drama, Argument… The moment the teacher mentioned the unit on argument, my husband nudged me. “Your daughter doesn’t need to be taught about arguments,” he said with a smirk. He’s right. My 16 year-old daughter has had ample practice in argument. She has bickered with her brothers, fallen out with friends, and successfully persuaded me that she needed an iPhone, a car, a later curfew, and a Starbucks Frappuccino every time we get groceries. And my daughter is not unique. Many of the students I have worked with over the years know how to navigate through their own arguments with ease and success.
However, in my daughter’s class and in my own college classroom, a study of argument is not just training students to make a convincing point, as my husband assumed. Rather than evaluating the speaker’s position, we examine the complex influence of audience, occasion, and purpose on the speaker’s choices. The study of argument asks how the speaker presented the argument, why they might have made those choices, and what impact the argument would have on a variety of audiences.
Last spring, the presidential race began to heat up at the same time I was preparing to teach argument to my college freshman. Soon everyone, from my Facebook friends to Sunday morning political pundits, was talking about the primary candidates and the arguments they were making.
Media sources extended the conversation even further by evaluating the rhetorical power of the presidential hopefuls. Donald Trump was being called “the master of classical rhetoric,” while news articles dubbed Bernie Sanders’ arguments “revolutionary” and “quixotic,” often in contrast to the “measured” and “pragmatic” Clinton. Conversely, the political language was also labeled “shameful” and “dangerous,” and even President Obama publicly voiced his dismay at the “vulgar and divisive rhetoric.”
Although I had never considered using politics as a tool to teach writing, each new tweet, press conference or debate made the conversation louder and the option more difficult to ignore. If most of America was talking about the political arguments, my students could find them relevant and engaging as well. The election cycle was offering authentic texts for our study of argument.
Creating the Right Classroom Climate
My first priority in starting a writing project based on the election was protecting my classroom from contentious disagreements or social media squabbles. Our classroom had become a safe space as the students built trust with one another, and, to maintain that environment, our objective needed to be clear. We were not interested in an evaluation of the argument’s success or failure, whether the speaker’s position was right or wrong. Instead, our study of argument and subsequent discussion focused on how the speaker presented the argument, why they might have made those choices, and what impact the argument could have on different audiences. With these clearly defined boundaries, the discussions never devolved into heated debates on gun control or immigration; instead, the analyses focused on the content’s relationship with the context, like the persona of Donald Trump, the kairos of Bernie Sanders, and the limitations of Hillary Clinton.
Navigating the Assignment
As a class, we began by collectively analyzing a variety of visual, digital, and text-based arguments. Then, each student chose transcribed speeches, social media posts, and public statements from political candidates in the primary race. First in small groups and later in an independent analysis, students deconstructed the arguments by studying the rhetorical situation: contextualizing the speech (including exigence, location, and language of kairos), then identifying the candidate’s purpose, target audience, constraints, and the rhetorical techniques in the speech. In an effort to understand persona and decorum, we accessed video footage of the speech as well, noting dress, voice, props and body language. (A copy of the assignment can be found here and it can easily be modified for any grade level.)
Celebrating the Results
As I began conferencing with my students, I was impressed by the depth of their analyses.
- One student focused on the three common phrases used to discuss gun laws: gun control, gun violence, and gun rights. Tracing the use of these three phrases through three different speeches, she explained the varied emotional responses to the small shifts in wording, one that was intentional and beneficial to the each candidate’s position on guns.
- Another student noted the candidates’ mention of Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Apostle Paul. He examined the connotation tied to each notable figure, connecting a candidate’s motives for the reference to the specific audience.
- A different project focused on Donald Trump’s use of pronouns and repetitive phrasing, the “you” and “we” alongside the unnamed “them.” After she deduced “them” to be illegal immigrants, Syrian refugees, Muslim extremists and liberal Democrats, she incorporated scholarship on vague pronouns and the ways in which they can impact the audience.
- An engineering student identified the location of Marco Rubio’s speech as Miami’s Freedom Tower, a meaningful spot for children of refugees, further emphasizing Rubio’s promotion of his American Dream.
- A religion major was interested in Ted Cruz’s religious rhetoric, from overt Scripture verses to broader Biblical themes, and aligned his speech to the values and positions of Conservative Christian Republicans.
The Case for Politics in the Writing Classroom
In “The State of English Education and Vision for Its Future: A Call to Arms,” the National Council of Teachers of English published a collective vision for the future of English Education, which claims that “Creating a just society whose citizens are critically literate about their world” is “our ultimate rationale for the teaching of language arts.” Incorporating current, authentic arguments, from school policies to social justice, encourages student writers to become those critically aware citizens, ready to participate in local communities, digital environments and our globalized world.
While the use of politics helps create a connection between the classroom and life outside of school, it has the potential to do even more. In a meaningful study of argument, students acquire the necessary skills to recognize manipulation and bias, critically assess the speaker’s aims, and identify arguments that move beyond empty phrases, misinformation, or demonization. Rather than become passive listeners, argument analysis compels students to take the role of thoughtful, informed citizens, ones who ask questions and demand responses from elected leaders. As a parent to that teenageer close to voting age, I know how necessary it is for young people to develop these skills. And I know other parents will agree.
- The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, by Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy, offers suggestions and guidelines for handling social and political issues in the classroom. The authors also answer common questions and concerns on NPR’s “Politics in the Classroom: How Much is Too Much?”
- “Great Free Resources for Teaching Election 2016,” published by The New York Times Learning Center, provides instructional strategies and free websites.
- Letters to the Next President 2.0 encourages authentic writing and can be paired with a study of argument.
- Teach Arguments offers articles and ideas for teaching with politics.
Sara Hoeve is a former secondary English teacher and Instructional Coach. Currently, she teaches in the Department of English at Calvin College, while also completing her Ph.D. in English Education at Western Michigan University.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.