By Jonathon Medeiros
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.”
“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 with students 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.