Two long, stressful years have passed since we last gathered in person for the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) Convention, and I am sure we could all use a “booster” as we exit the allegorical cave of COVID. This year, CATE’s theme is “California Dreamin’: Reimagining the Future of English Education Together.” And the ERWC strand for this coming convention presents best practices not only in the traditional classroom, but also in light of the new world in which we educators find ourselves and our students.
You can choose from sessions that address the difficult subjects of inquiry, transfer for learning, metacognition, scaffolding, and integrating ELD into the ERWC course. There are also sessions that apply a digital face to ERWC by including media studies, writing for the ERWC blog, and looking at the recently fully Quality Matters (QM) certified ERWC blended course for Canvas. You will probably need to bring some colleagues with you because some of these sessions occur simultaneously.
There is still time to register for the CATE Convention. This video can show you what to do. If you have already registered, here are some helpful hints as you get ready to journey to Long Beach. Safety protocols are in place to ensure the wellness of participants and speakers, and the ERWC community is so excited to have this opportunity to reconnect with our wonderful teachers.
Lori Campbell is the English department chair for Kern High School District’s Kern Learn Program. This is a complete distance learning program that provides students the option to take their A-G required courses online. She has taught ERWC both face-to-face and through distance learning for 10 years. She holds her master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction.
I often tell my students that our job is to be curious, to be critical, to notice the way everything around us is manipulating us, bending our behaviors. They smirk as I ramble on, assuming paranoia or overzealous, curmudgeonly zeal, worthy of temporary entertainment, and nothing more. I go on, asking them to tell me everything they know about text.
“What is a text?”
“It’s on my phone.” “Words.” “Books.”
“Is this a text?” I ask, holding up a poem. “And this?” playing a snippet of a song. “And is this a text?” pointing to a painting.
Yesses, and umms, and unsteady nos.
Eventually I reveal my full crazy idea, that anything created by a human for a purpose is a text. We quickly make it through essays, books, poems, and songs being texts. They think they are clever to state that movies are texts, because they can’t read the words. Slowly, we agree that paintings and pictures and sculptures are texts, crafted by humans, afterall, to communicate some idea. The creator of each made specific choices to reach their goal. I eventually push it too far, trying to convince the students that the desks they are sitting in are texts, built to communicate a certain belief system, to manipulate students into behaving in a specific way, purposefully designed to communicate to students that they need face this way, they need to work and listen and write right here, feet on the ground, separate from neighbors.
In my experience using the ERWC, these fundamental yet expansive ideas about text, about reading and writing rhetorically, about the rhetoric that is beyond printed words, are key to helping students to understand their role in making meaning out of the world around them. I have found that one of the most effective ways to help students understand these fundamental ideas is through visual rhetoric. If you have time, I suggest starting the year with a mini unit on the basics of ethos, pathos, logos, on speaker, audience, purpose, but to do so with “texts” that contain no printed words. The ERWC mini-module “Introducing the Rhetorical Situation”–a short unit that uses paintings as its central texts–is a good starting place.
Practicing reading pictures rhetorically is novel enough for most students to find the learning enjoyable, but it is also a way to remove a barrier your EL students might face. For a person just learning about rhetoric, the ideas can be alien enough. If you also struggle with the dominant language, that may be a barrier too many. Once students master and internalize the work of rhetorical analysis and the associated jargon, by practicing on images without printed words, they are more able to put into use the same work as you and your class move through more complicated texts. (See Glen McClish’s post “Reimagining Aristotelian Ethos” for an example of what this next step might look like.)
Yearly, I receive cards, messages, or emails, sometimes passing lines in essays or speeches, talking about the rhetoric of the chair, and I smile.
Jonathon Medeiros has been teaching and learning about Language Arts and rhetoric for fifteen years withstudents on Kauaʻi. He frequently writes about education policy and is the former director of the Kauaʻi Teacher Fellowship. Jonathon enjoys building things, surfing, and spending time with his wife and daughters. He believes in teaching his students that if you change all of your mistakes and regrets, you’d erase yourself. Follow Jonathon on Twitter – @jonmedeiros or at jonathonmedeiros.com.
“Question your most dearly held beliefs.” Puanani Burgess teaches this as a way to help us build community. Questioning our beliefs, especially those we hold most dear, helps us to understand why we believe what we do, helps us to discover when our beliefs need to change, when they are holding us back, when they are counterproductive. The interrogation of our beliefs should be commonplace. We should go through this life assuming we can learn, change, grow. Too often, we prefer the opposite, shoring up our ideas, walling them off from potential questioning.
Our large systems, like public schools, are purpose built to function on a set of “unquestionable” beliefs, beliefs so unquestionable as to be rendered invisible. Often we do not even know we are clutching to a belief, they way we do not always notice that we are breathing.
Over this strange year, we have been faced with many hardships, many forced changes, many problems to face down. But also, this year has been full of countless opportunities to question our beliefs about school, about what school is, what it is for, how learning happens and why. We’ve had the opportunity to struggle with questions of attendance, of late policies, of where and when and how to hold classes, how to encourage learning, to encourage growth, and how to measure it, if we should even try to measure it. Those of us willing to grapple with these questions, to interrogate our old beliefs, have come away with new answers, with new perspectives, with more energy and safer, more effective and inclusive classes.
One question I grappled with was how to track student growth when I can’t see students in person regularly. I think the most effective formative assessments are simple, frequent, useful to the student, and repetitive. We learn by working and part of my job, even when assessing learning, is to make sure students are always pushing themselves, still learning and growing. Assessment should be part of the learning work that students do, not something that is done to them.
So, I decided to just ask my students one simple question: What did you learn this week? I am not sure students are used to being asked this question, but it is a powerful self reflective tool, a way for students to prod and track their own learning, as well as a perfect way for me to see the students’ growth while giving regular, purposeful, useful feedback.
The question forces self reflection, allows students to dive into and identify what they are learning, how they are growing, and why. But it is flexible and can be tailored as needed. I can focus on developing writing skills. I can focus on speaking skills by having them record their responses. I can be extremely targeted and focus on supporting ideas with evidence or I can zoom out and simply focus on writing fluency.
The key is students are doing the work, investigating their own learning, mulling it over, finding pride and excitement in their own growth, particularly as the year goes on, so I can see their growth but the assessment doesn’t interrupt the learning.
Jonathon Medeiros has been teaching and learning about Language Arts and rhetoric for fifteen years withstudents on Kauaʻi. He frequently writes about education policy and is the former director of the Kauaʻi Teacher Fellowship. Jonathon enjoys building things, surfing, and spending time with his wife and daughters. He believes in teaching his students that if you change all of your mistakes and regrets, you’d erase yourself. Follow Jonathon on Twitter – @jonmedeiros or at jonathonmedeiros.com
As a student in my teaching credential program, I was involved in a heated debate in my Global Education course regarding the controversial question of “should teachers give out homework?” I, of course, vehemently argued that homework is necessary in order for the student to demonstrate the skills that they learned in class that day.
That was my trained opinion, yes, “trained” because through the span of my student career I was trained by all of my teachers from 1st to 12th grade to expect homework on a daily basis. Homework, by the way, I sometimes never saw again after it was turned in, and if I did, it was returned with a meaningless grade with no explanation behind it as to how I earned that grade. Or even, more importantly, what I could do to improve the skill I was applying for that particular assignment.
It should be clear by now as a teacher in my fifth year in a classroom, that I no longer hold the same opinion on “traditional” homework. This is not to say that the concept of homework cannot be beneficial to students. If used correctly, “homework” can help build a positive digital classroom environment and community. This may sound complicated, but it is done by simply creating “homework” that does not require any physical product and that the students can choose whether or not to “complete.”
Currently, all of my distance learning CHOICE “homework” serves three purposes. First, to get to know my students and vice versa (since I always “complete” all of our homework assignments, too). This is done by assigning something as simple as “Ask your favorite person to describe you in 3 words.” Most students will jump at the chance to tell you what their friend or significant other said (especially via private Zoom chat)! Second, the choice homeworks facilitate communication between students and their parents; this is done with assigning something that will spark a conversation, such as “ask your parents what is their most embarrassing memory from when they were your age.” I can tell you that most of my students chose to complete that one (since it’s usually the parent witnessing or causing their embarrassing moments)! Lastly, my choice homework introduces students to being aware of their mental health by having them create a weekly “to-do” list of three things that they will try to do at least once a day to help them manage their stress.
However, as you might recall I did not start off with, what some might call a “New Age” idea behind homework’s use. This type of homework promotes positive rapport, an inclusive classroom culture, and builds community that bridges the gap between the school, parents, and their students. Facilitating such bonding and relatable content, sparks increased socioemotional learning, connection, and engagement when students and families need it the most.
As a meek novice teacher, I continued to follow the educator’s norm of assigning “traditional” homework (i.e., we did this in class, so surely that means you can apply this skill perfectly on your own) even if I did not always see the value of it.
The main issue I constantly encountered, however, as I would walk the class and grade their work, was I found myself RETEACHING yesterday’s essential skill to at least one student per group. This would happen DAILY. Sound familiar to you? As to be expected, I was frustrated, but I could only blame myself for not doing more…This pattern helped me realize, why wait until the following day to see what your students didn’t understand. Better equipped with this self reflection, I immediately solved this issue by transforming what would have normally been homework into an exit ticket, which was then checked in real time during class. By using this strategy, I was able to address the miscommunication right then and there!
Since distance learning began, at least from my experience, I have witnessed many teachers assigning homework as a means to squeeze in material that they could not cover in class due to shortened instructional time. This creates more workload and subsequently more stress for BOTH teachers and students. My suggestion is to concentrate on what skill they are supposed to practice that day and create an opportunity for them to demonstrate their level of proficiency,” Therefore, establishing a stress free and manageable check for understanding, enabling students and teachers to monitor their learning.
I know that we can no longer for many reasons “lurk” over our student’s shoulders to check for their understanding, BUT, thanks to easy to maneuver online learning platforms we are still able to accomplish the same means digitally! For this purpose I prefer Google classroom, Padlet, or Peardeck since these all allow you to view what the student is doing in real time.
This real time check for understanding exit ticket using technology eliminates the need to assign homework for your students to demonstrate what they know or don’t know. Thus, avoiding student disengagement and excess stress for all parties involved by checking for understanding in class when there is still time to correct student-teacher miscommunications. And if you must assign “homework,” then please consider using your homework as a means to nourish the class environment at a time when student buy in is extremely vital for their success.
Marisol Puga is the favorite (ONLY) freshman English Teacher at Health Careers Academy in Stockton, CA. When she is not teaching, you can find her running, reading Victorian novels, and posting her “Teacher Outfit of the Day” on Instagram. You can follow her @marisolpugarangel.
Getting students to engage with their reading, to read deeply as we say, has always been a multifaceted challenge. Now we add one more complication: the impact of digital texts on comprehension. The issue is driving much research and is frequently debated. However, the question should not be whether print or digital is better, because our students will be reading both. It should be, “How do we read well in any format?”
Goal setting and the metacognitive and reflective questions in the ERWC Assignment Template lend themselves to delving into this issue with students because they put the student in the driver’s seat. It is up to the individual to determine what works best for them. Additionally, to help students in determining this, we must ask the students two questions:
How do you read best?
How do you know this?
While students may be able to voice their preferences, few have truly explored their options or can articulate how or why it works for them. Most simply read when the teacher says to. Others pretend to read and wait for the class discussion to get the gist of the assignment. So how do we develop student motivation and skill to be self-directed readers? How do we become the warm demanders that both expect and support this?
I shouldn’t be but always am surprised by the students’ ability to solve their own learning challenges. My role is to present them with options and guide them in finding what works best for them. Modeling strategies and allowing students time to share with each other what works gives them the opportunity to understand themselves as learners, which results in self-knowledge and a lasting impact.
Consider these strategies and let the students tell you what works from there.
One of the strongest assets of digital texts is the ability to manipulate the way we see it. From font size and background color to layout and design, students can choose what helps them focus and comprehend. Modeling this process is key as some students may choose what they think looks good compared to what actually helps them read. For example, they may love creative fonts such as Edwardian Script or Curlz MT, but these will most likely be difficult to read in longer texts. Have them set criteria for how they will know their design choice works best and then experiment. Have them consider
Background color: decrease the contrast of print and background.
Font size: find the just right size
White space: manage by line spacing
Ebook devices or apps have reader choices for this. Web browsers allow for increasing of font size but note the reader view features explained below for further options.
Our students are so used to advertising and links in their reading that they may not even see them as distractions. Modeling how to eliminate advertising and when to open a link or skip it, can focus their attention on this.
Block pop-ups: Check the security section of whichever browser you are using. (Search for block popups in Chrome or whichever browser you use.)
Open the reader view: This feature will take out the advertising, pictures, buttons, etc. (This is in the title bar of Firefox and Explorer and is an extension in Chrome.) Reader view also changes the font and background. Click here for an example of reader view.
Determine when to click or not click a link: Have the students consider if following a link will help their comprehension or interrupt it. Model this with examples of how some links may clarify meaning as with definitions and how others can lead us completely off track. Have the students develop their own guide for whether to click while they read, after they read, or not at all.
Practice highlighting and notetaking: Whether it is one of many apps or browser extensions available (Evernote, OneNote, Google Keep, etc.), a note taker in an ebook or whether students simple copy and paste the text into a Word or Google doc, getting adept at highlighting and notetaking will boost student comprehension and retention of what they read.
Ultimately, the success of comprehending digital or print texts derives not only from skill but from students accepting their role in their learning. If we want our students to be able to dip their “oar into the water” (They Say, I Say, Graff and Birkenstein) in rhetorical reading, discussion and writing, then they need to see themselves as connected readers (Connected Reading, Turner and Hicks) who make decisions on how they read well based on their own experience.
Molly Berger is a secondary English teacher currently working as an English Language Arts specialist and program coordinator at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia, Washington. As a Washington lead for the ERWC i3 Grant, she has served on the ERWC Steering Committee, supported Washington teachers as a coach and workshop presenter, and written modules.
Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 4th edition. W.W. Norton, 2018.
Turner, Kristin Hawley and Troy Hicks. Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World. National Council of Teachers of English, 2015.
In a recent meeting of English teachers one of my colleagues asked, “What are the things you see from students that make you say ‘oh no, not this again?’” Over the laughter, one of the other teachers said, “A ‘revision’ that is the same as the previous draft. I try so hard but I just can’t get my kids to revise. They feel so good about finishing something that they don’t want to keep working on it. They have so much to say and so much greatness in them, I wish I could get them to revise.” The chorus of agreement was so loud I had to turn down the volume in the Zoom meeting.
I think about this lament a lot and I always come back to what I’m doing to help my students meaningfully engage in revision. I’ve tried many different approaches over the years, but without much success. Finally, though, I’ve found that what works best isn’t about me at all. In some ways, it’s not about the writers either, it’s about their readers. Student writers care about the views of their peer readers in ways that are profoundly different than the way they care about me, the teacher-reader.
In Asao B. Inoue’s “Teaching Antiracist Reading”, he advocates for antiracist reading practices that “ask [readers] to…investigate the deep and hidden structures that make up their personal reading habits, personal reading habits that are also structural and social.” The varied practices Inoue outlines in the essay involve a series of steps that boil down to two core elements. First, Inoue asks readers to pause while they are reading and ask “What am I feeling right now reading this text? Why am I feeling that? What in the text did that to me?” Next, readers ask themselves “Where in my world do I get the ideas that help me respond this way? Where do those habits come from?” Using these two steps in the process of peer review can help readers engage with their fellow students’ writing in ways that improves their reading process and provides feedback that inspires writers to revise.
Based on Inoue’s ideas, I now ask readers in peer feedback to use these questions to share with their classmates how the writing made them feel and what specifically in the writing made them feel that way. Early in the process I support them with sentence prompts to make specific references to the writing. I also ask them to tell their fellow writers how their response to the writing relates to something in their life or experience. Writers, then, reflect on whether the response the reader shared is the one they were hoping for and how they might revise their writing to increase or alter the reader’s experience. This can then lead to more detailed discussions about how to apply the key elements of rhetorical reading and writing in ERWC.
It may be our lament as teachers that students don’t always reach the goals we set for them, but maybe it’s the “we” in that process that is the problem rather than the students. If we focus on what students are already doing and can do well, we can see them reach goals we hadn’t even anticipated for them. If we turn the experiences of reading and writing over to the students more fully we may find that they reach their own goals, which may be even better than the ones we dream of for them.
Dutch Henry teaches English at Shoreline Community College north of Seattle, WA. As the Higher Education English Lead for the Bridge to College Project in Washington, he has partnered with ERWC on module development, coaching, and professional learning.
Just as we cannot conjure safe spaces from midair, we should not expect the familial intimacy, vulnerability, and forgiveness needed for meaningful race conversations to emerge from traditional classroom relationships.
Frankly, that’s nothing compared to page twenty-seven. On page twenty-seven, my note in the margin is an expletive.
That’s where Kay chronicles an informal conversation between his poetry club students in the immediate aftermath of Ferguson–or, more specifically, in the immediate aftermath of a black student suffering through a class discussion about Ferguson. Kay’s students offer raw revelation of what many students are probably thinking when teachers lead such discussions.
My takeaways were layered, and they came in depressing waves, but here is a big one: Many kids wear masks during difficult classroom discussions. And during race conversations, some kids might wear the mask. I’m just going to leave that there for a second. For any teacher who wants to help students use their voices and activate their agency, it’s a crushing thought. But let’s be clear–the mask itself is not the problem. All of us disguise our vulnerabilities from most people, for good reason. All of us have public and private selves, and each of us alone decides who sees what.
OK, so combine that reality with our reality, that nearly every ERWC module could be a touchy subject or tap into someone’s past trauma. ERWC teachers are routinely doing what Kay describes as opening “academic” discussions around topics that are “visceral” for some of our students. The whole course is designed around dialogue aimed at productive conflict. But productive conflict requires openness and honesty.
For me, the practical implication is this: it doesn’t matter if I think I’m an ally; it doesn’t matter what’s in my heart; it definitely doesn’t matter what I do with my free time; it doesn’t even matter if my students love and respect me. What matters is that my students trust me with their bruised and battered insides. And trust not just me, but their classmates. Only then can I hope that students will decide, when they are ready, to be real–in front of me and everyone else in the room.
Like–I was already a person who loses sleep the night before a touchy classroom discussion. So around page twenty-seven, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed, doubting Kay’s ability to offer a workable solution, particularly one for me, an especially private person myself. But then he got down to it.
His first chapter offers specific protocols to build a safe space. Three simple discussion norms and three routine activities honor students as individuals and develop a classroom culture devoted to building and maintaining relationships. They require class time and commitment, and perhaps a mild restructuring of the value system driving instructional decision-making.
His second chapter introduces discussion moves designed, not to eliminate conflict, but to help make conflict productive. For example, “Surfacing the Conflict”: teachers figure out what category of conflict is at hand (around fact? process? purpose? values?) in order to determine their most useful next move directing discussion traffic. I’m pretty excited about this approach, because in an ERWC class, the rhetorical thinking involved with categorizing the conflict can be farmed out to students, giving me more time to figure out my next move.
More value added in Chapter Two? It closes with protocols for discussion prep using hypothetical case studies. By imagining various scenarios, I can anticipate the more likely conflicts or diversions that could derail discussion and ready myself with some “next moves” in advance. Then I can go to bed and actually get some sleep.
Though there’s 24k gold in the rest of Kay’s book, I’ll start by trying to implement Chapters One and Two–or maybe just Chapter One. Whatever my measured first step, I’m all in to take it. Because when students’ sincere and passionate engagement with a topic is perceived as a risk, it’s a gross, malignant irony. And because Matthew Kay shows us, guiding real talk about hard things isn’t about being a natural-born Mr. Keating; it’s about the groundwork we lay in advance and our ongoing commitment to the cause.
Meline Akashian is an experienced ERWC teacher with grades 7-12 and former Riverside County Teacher of the Year. She has co-written modules for ERWC and is a member of the ERWC Steering Committee.
Kay, Matthew. Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. Stenhouse, 2018.
As teachers, we know in theory that we should value the languages that students use at home and in their communities, but what does that look like when we know that our task is to teach them to become proficient users of English? It turns out there are a number of ways to incorporate linguistically sustaining practices into ERWC classes, but teachers may not always realize what these practices are.
Using Texts that Incorporate Other Languages
Perhaps most obviously, we can select texts for our students to read that reflect their experiences as users of other languages. Even better, some texts also incorporate those languages into the texts. Reyna Grande’s memoir, The Distance between Us, and the poetry of Diana Garcia in “On Leaving” and “On Staying Behind” both exemplify ERWC module texts where the use of Spanish is integral to the craft of the texts.
However, we should not simply assume students will get the message that Spanish is a valuable resource that skilled writers use; in the spirit of an inquiry-based curriculum, we need to ask students to think about why Grande and Garcia used Spanish when their audience would include many English-only readers. What was their rhetorical purpose? How did they go about doing it so that English speakers were not excluded at the same time Spanish speakers were privileged (for a change!). And then the most important question–what can students learn from these examples about ways and reasons to incorporate their own languages and varieties of English (for example, African-American vernacular or Hawaiian Pidgin) into writing they do for school and beyond.
Encouraging the Use of Other Languages in Class
Another strategy is to encourage students to use their dominant language as a tool in class. Although the days when students were physically disciplined for using their home languages in school are over, many teachers still believe students should leave their other languages at the door of their English classroom because how can they learn English if they spend time speaking and writing in Korean or Cambodian or Russian or whatever their primary language might be? But we now know that encouraging students to use that language strategically can actually facilitate their acquisition of academic English and not only because it strengthens their own sense of agency.
Our multilingual students move among varieties of English and from one language to another constantly. Making them aware of this amazing capacity benefits them while using them as experts when questions of language and translanguaging emerge works to the benefit of every student in the class, whatever the varieties of English and other languages they have at the tips of their tongues.
Robby Ching is a professor emerita at Sacramento State in English and a member of the ERWC team since 2002. She has written many ERWC modules, most recently those with an ELD focus.
“It is hard for a student to unlearn empathy, to forget discernment, to dismiss the importance of solid evidence once they’ve grown used to demanding it… if we are training the next generation of teachers, entertainers, lawyers, and politicians; if we are molding thoughtful citizens, wise counselors, and people of righteous passion; then our classrooms must be deliberate in their approach to conversations about race. The next generation needs to be far better at this stuff than we have been. They are coming of age in a world of artfully disguised injustices, most of which will stay both invisible and vicious if people never learn to learn to meaningfully discuss them.”
–Matthew Kay, author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Conversations about Race in the Classroom
By Frank Mata
It is clear that Matthew Kay is aware of the barriers that block educators from broaching race with both colleagues and students–fear of backlash, defensiveness, the potential re-traumatizing effect, “not knowing enough to foster discussion,” or ultimately, a potential loss of professional standing. (There are so many ☹.)
In an hour-long professional development session recorded in 2016 (“How to Talk about Race in Your Classroom”), Kay first challenges listeners to identify exactly what it is that “gets in the way.” Immediately, he spotlights participants’ humility when asked of their fears. At that moment, I found this approach as defying conventional classroom power dynamics. Through a teacher’s admission of humility, to not be the expert on race, this approach invites students’ voices to be an added and authentic means of “teaching the teachers.” It showcases what “assets-based teaching” looks like. In the autonomy of our four walls, dare we welcome this while resisting the presumed duty of measuring students’ responses?
The question then surfaces–are we, as teachers, ready to detach ourselves from the professional authority we hold in the classroom, the very entity that we often base our professional identity, our academic pride, or sense of intellectual security, in the manner that equalizes us with our students? Clearly, the culture of education does not promote such vulnerabilities, as evidenced in the presumptions of merit as associated with years taught, letters after our full name in our email signatures, or even our ability to cold-read aloud a poem with that academic accent juxtaposed to youth language.
The onus is within our position as facilitators, not teachers, when it comes to conversations about race. Matthew Kay introduces and implies to fellow facilitators, in the same inviting way we ought to embrace students’ voices, experiences, and knowledge for all of us to learn from.
In order for the safe space environment to allow for this to happen, Kay highlights his three listening norms of the classroom: 1) to listen patiently, 2) to listen actively, and 3) to police [our teacher] voice. He concludes that through this purposeful structure of how to listen, “it creates a built-in reflection space,” which exposes to us how these norms create the culture of invitation for all of our vulnerabilities.
Hearing this specific tip creates a tangible skill-set for us not as teachers, but as fellow race-discourse participants, to authentically engage with each other. However, to do so, we teachers must be ready, willing, open, and secure enough to set free our conditioned, even mythical, sense of power when engaging in meaningful conversations about race. Though we might spend our own dollars, energy, or efforts in creating the literal learning environment to our tastes or liking, this same space is not exclusive or limited to our own platform. As teachers, our presence is not paramount.
Frank Mata has been in the classroom for seventeen plus years. His current project is developing an ELA 12th grade course focusing on social justice and equity. He teachers at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, CA.
Kay, Matthew. Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. Stenhouse, 2018.
As a teacher of classical rhetoric and composition, I’m struck by the ways ancient concepts both empower and limit how we help students understand persuasion. Take, for example, the power and constraints inherent in the Aristotelian concept of ethos, or the rhetorically constructed character of the rhetor—the speaker or writer.
Ethos, according to Plato’s most famous student, is a form of proof comprising three interrelated components. Here is George Kennedy’s translation of the well-known passage from the Rhetoric briefly describing the trio (I’ll leave out the Greek):
There are three reasons why speakers themselves are persuasive; for three things we trust other than logical demonstration. These are practical wisdom and virtue and good will; for speakers make mistakes in what they say through [failure to exhibit] either all or one of these; for either through lack of practical sense they do not form opinions rightly; or though forming opinions rightly they do not say what they think because of a bad character; or they are prudent and fair-minded but lack good will, so that it is possible for people not to give the best advice although they know [what] it [is]. These are the only possibilities. (112–113)
There’s power in Aristotle’s ostensibly exhaustive groups of three, and this trio is practical, authoritative, and convincing. Yet what he neglects is telling. The ablest of observers, Aristotle describes the rhetorical practice of ancient Athens, a racially homogenous, stratified society in which privileged, native-born men dominated the public sphere. They argued about many things, but their debates were more pragmatic than ideological because they shared common standpoints and beliefs.
Thus, Aristotle’s components of ethos assume that a convincing speaker would have more in common with the audience than otherwise.
But this homogeneity—and its effect on ethos—does not characterize all cultures, particularly ours, in this or most eras of its existence. Therefore, establishing an effective ethos in our society is not always simply a matter of checking off the categories of wisdom, virtue, and good will—other features may be as or more salient in crafting persuasion.
Let’s consider a specific example. Here is the late poet and activist Audre Lorde, speaking at the “Second Sex Conference” in 1979:
Why weren’t other women of Color found to participate in this conference? Why were two phone calls to me considered consultation? . . . In academic feminist circles, the answer to these questions is often, “We did not know who to ask.” But that is the same evasion of responsibility, the same cop-out, that keeps Black women’s art out of women’s exhibitions, Black women’s work out of most feminist publications expect for the occasional “Third World Women’s Issue,” and Black women’s text off your reading lists. (113)
In this famous speech, Lorde’s ethos strays from the sort advocated by Aristotle; exposing her audience’s entrenched racism cannot be described simply as “good will,” at least not as the Greek text suggests. In fact, Lorde chastises her audience with the force of a scolding parent—or perhaps, more accurately, a prophet, fearlessly speaking truth to power.
Beyond the scope of Aristotle’s theorizing, this prophetic character—known in scholarly circles as the Jeremiadic ethos after the Old Testament prophet—distinguishes African American rhetoric since the early nineteenth century. To more fully appreciate this construction of rhetorical character, consider this passage from Frederick Douglass’s prophetic speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1852), in which he diminishes the assumed primacy of logos (as well as Aristotle’s practical wisdom) while cataloging the scalding rhetorical strategies he yearns to marshal to melt the moral complacency of his degraded country: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke” (71).
When different values or perspectives separate those who—inhabiting the same space—must work together for the common good, the characters rhetors create to persuade may not conform to Aristotle’s tripartite formulation of wisdom, virtue, and goodwill. They may make audiences profoundly uncomfortable. Yet doing so may effect profound change. This is one of the key lessons about ethos gleaned from outsider rhetors such as Lorde, Douglass, and—most recently—leading voices in the Black Lives Matter movement.
What other productive ways is Aristotelian ethos complicated in the rhetoric of our multicultural society?
Glen McClish is a teacher of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at San Diego State University and a longtime advocate of K–16 language arts articulation. He has an abiding interest in African American rhetoric, from the American Revolution to the present day.
Works Cited Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civil Discourse. Translated by George Kennedy, 2nd ed., Oxford UP, 2006. Douglass, Frederick. The Speeches of Frederick Douglass: A Critical Edition. Edited by John R. McKivigan, Julie Husband, and Heather L. Kaufman, Yale UP, 2018. Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. The Crossing P, 1984.