Tag Archives: backwards design

Free Rhetorical Analysis Unit

I recently found myself in the position of having to teach AP English Language for about five weeks. I won’t get into why that happened. I have never taught AP Lang. I think I’ve taught just about everything else! I decided it would be a good opportunity to do a quick unit on rhetorical analysis, which I have at least taught in the past.

For context, my classes are 70 minutes long, and typically meet three times per week. What follows below is a day-by-day plan for my unit. Feel free to use any of this. I borrowed very heavily from others and acknowledge or link to their work where I was able to do so.

Day 1

I used a lesson from Jennifer Fletcher’s book Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response. For reference, it’s the Parlor Conversation Metaphor/Learning to Pay Attention lesson in which students examine a painting for ten minutes. I used the same painting as Jennifer and followed her lesson instructions exactly. Because her text is copyrighted, I cannot share the materials here, but I urge you to purchase her book.

Day 2

I introduced students to rhetoric. First, we journaled on this topic: Think of a time someone talked you into doing something or believing something. How did they do it? What tactics did they use? Students may share out journals. I gave students a graphic organizer with a PAPA analysis (purpose, audience, persona, argument) and picked a speech. Frankly, the speech I picked, which was Samwise Gamgee’s speech to Frodo Baggins in The Two Towers, failed spectacularly since students had no frame of reference. Note: that movie is old now. I know. It makes me sad, too. So go cautiously if you use this, but maybe pick something else. You can find a massive list here.

To be honest, I didn’t have time to make my own, so I bought a bunch of graphic organizers from Teachers Pay Teachers. Students worked with a partner to fill out the PAPA graphic organizer. Then we shared out to the class.

For homework, I assigned students an article from Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week website. Pick one you like! I picked this one about food deserts because our school is located in one. I asked students to prepare to have a fishbowl-style discussion on the article using the questions on the article (see the end). Before we ended class, I set discussion norms with the students.

Day 3

Students engaged in a fishbowl discussion of the article they read for homework. If you are new to fishbowl discussion, essentially, you divide the class into two groups. The first group is the “inner circle,” whose job is to begin the discussion. It should be student-centered, and the teacher should listen and take notes. I track discussions like this using an iPad app called Equity Maps. The second group is the “outer circle,” whose job is to listen to the first group and take notes. I set a timer for 15 minutes for the first group. Then the groups swap positions and the second group has a discussion while the first group listens and takes notes. After both groups discussed the text, we debriefed the discussion experience:

  • What did you observe during the discussion of the text?
  • What is one thing you heard that you agree with?
  • What is one thing you heard that you disagree with?
  • How did you feel while on the outside of the fishbowl?
  • How did you feel while on the inside of the fishbowl?

For homework, I assigned students to write a reflection on their learning. I have used the same template for seminar reflections for years. I stole it from Greece New York Public Schools well over 15 years ago. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available on their site, so I’m going to try to link it below.

Socratic Seminar Reflection

Day 4

I introduced students to ethos, pathos, and logos. Because students had read Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy over the summer, I returned to his work and shared his TED Talk with them.

As students watched, they took notes on a graphic organizer:

  • Speaker: Who is the speaker?
  • Audience: Who is the intended audience for this speech?
  • Subject: What is the speech mostly about?
  • Context: What was happening in history at the time this speech was given (Stevenson discusses some of this in the speech)?
  • Why do you think the speaker gave this speech?

I drew a triangle on the board and asked students to tell me which of the questions above related to who the speaker was and how he established his credibility. I wrote “ethos” next to the top corner of the triangle and defined it as an author or speaker’s credibility on the topic. Is the speaker or author reliable or credible? Is the speaker or author knowledgeable? Does Bryan Stevenson establish himself as credible? Why or how?

Next, I asked which of the questions above were related to how the audience feels when listening to the speech. I added “pathos” to the triangle on the board and defined it as an appeal to emotions. How does the text make the audience feel? What emotional appeals does Stevenson make? How does the speech make you feel?

Finally, I asked which of the questions above has to do with research, evidence, or facts (this might be a good time to point out that some areas overlap; context, purpose, and subject might appeal to both pathos and logos). I added “logos” to the triangle and defined it as an appeal to logic and reason. How do the facts and evidence support the claim? What appeals to facts, logic, and reason did Stevenson make?

Following this introduction, we discussed the speech using these questions as a guide:

  • What do you think would happen if these three different kinds of appeals were unbalanced? For example, what if the speech had no appeals to emotions? No facts, research, or evidence?
  • What if it were someone else besides Bryan Stevenson (feel free to play with different celebrities here; could Taylor Swift deliver this speech believably? Kanye West?
  • How well do you think this speech balances the three types of appeals?

For homework, students read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Day 5

I shared the background context (but not the Call for Unity letter… yet) as seen in slide 1 below. Then I posted the questions on slide 2 and asked students to get in small groups to discuss.

We reconvened as a class, and groups shared out the highlights of their discussion. Then I shared the Call to Unity letter so students could check their speculation about question 3 on the slide deck.

I introduced a one-pager assignment on Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Day 6

I gave students this class period to work on their one-pagers. I supplied paper and colored pencils for students who wanted them.

Day 7

For this lesson, I owe everything to the #TeachLivingPoets crowd. They created the whole lesson and shared it at NCTE in 2018. We read Clint Smith’s poem “Playground Elegy” from the collection Counting Descent. We discussed the following questions:

  • What do you notice?
  • What words and phrases stand out?
  • What patterns do you notice?
  • What is the argument?

Next, I asked students to work with a partner or group of 3 to create a rhetorical triangle analysis of the poem. It’s fun to use big sticky poster paper and markers, which I provided for students. You might want to display a rhetorical triangle for students as a reminder. Students should include the following:

  • Speaker/author
  • Subject
  • Audience
  • Thesis/purpose

Students put their large sticky posters up and did a gallery walk. I made them spend two minutes on each poster so they would really read it. I set a timer and everything! Then I asked them to share something interesting they noticed on another group’s poster.

The one-pagers were due for the next class, so I reminded students to finish them for homework.

Day 8

This lesson was also stolen from the #TeachLivingPoets presentation from 2018. I displayed the slide deck below.

I went through slides 1 (with Fatimah Asghar’s biography) to 5. Then I posted slide 6 and handed out copies of Asghar’s poems “Microaggression Bingo” and “Partition” from their collection If They Come for Us: PoemsStudents discussed these questions in relation to the two poems in groups. Then the groups shared with the class.

I wrote SOAPSTone on the board and gave students a SOAPSTone graphic organizer with a chart on both sides of the paper. They analyzed each of the poems using the graphic organizer as a class, but you could easily have them do it in small groups.

Day 9

I introduced an out-of-class rhetorical analysis essay and gave students a list of speeches from which to choose. I said they might also pick another speech, and one student did. I also brought in some essay and poetry collections, but all my students opted for a speech. I asked them to fill out a SOAPSTone graphic organizer on their selected speech. Then, I suggested they examine appeals to ethos, logos, and pathos with examples of each, identify style choices and details and build an analysis:

  • What is the writer’s intention?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What is the argument?
  • What is the writer’s strategy to make that argument? Why?
  • What appeals does the writer use to persuade the reader? Why
  • What kind of style does the writer use?
  • What effect does this work have on the audience?

Students had time in class to begin all this planning work.

Day 10

I decided to introduce rhetorical analysis of a film by screening Ava Du Vernay’s 13th, which is available on Netflix or free on YouTube.

As students watched the film, I instructed them to take notes on the following aspects:

  • Appeals to ethos
  • Appeals to logos
  • Appeals to pathos
  • SOAPSTone

This film is over 1:40, so we didn’t finish in one period and carried the film over to the next class.

Students continued working on drafts of their rhetorical analysis for homework.

Day 11

We finished the film and discussed it using the Thoughts, Questions, and Epiphanies method I described in this blog post. Credit for this strategy goes to Marisa Thompson. Here is what I posted for students to guide their discussion:

Students were in groups of 3 or 4, and I gave them 15-20 minutes to talk. Then they shared their top 2 thoughts, questions, or epiphanies on the board, and their ideas guided the rest of our class discussion of the film.

For homework, students finished a first draft of the rhetorical analysis.

Day 12

Writing workshop. Conference with students on their drafts, give them time to read and edit each other’s work, or work on their drafts.

Day 13

Ugh. The test. Most of our students take AP Lang exams, so I gave them the 2021 AP Lang rhetorical analysis (Sonia Sotomayor’s speech) as a timed writing practice. We debriefed the prompt after the timed writing. I gave them a copy of the AP rhetorical analysis rubric and went over it. Then I asked them to score themselves on the rubric and add a sentence to the end of the timed writing explaining how they scored themselves and why.

Day 14

We examined the College Board’s sample essays on the rhetorical analysis for the 2021 prompt on Sonia Sotomayor’s speech and scored them. Then I revealed the scores the essays earned and explained the rationale for the score. My students nailed it. They scored each essay exactly as the College Board did! We also discussed how they feel about their timed writing from the previous class now that they’ve seen models, and most students indicated they feel pretty good. At this point, I was preparing to hand the class over to their new full-time teacher, so she took some time to get to know the students with some games.

Day 15

We played rhetorical analysis Jenga. I decided to have them examine a short piece by Temple Grandin from This I Believe. I introduced students to Temple Grandin by showing this short video.

I owe Melissa Smith and Joel Garza for the idea for the Jenga game, which I adapted from literary analysis. Here is a list of questions I used.

You will need enough Jenga games for students in groups of 3-4. Number the blocks from 1-22. You will repeat numbers, and that is okay.

I also collected final drafts of the rhetorical analysis essay.

The graded assessments in this unit were the fishbowl reflection, the one-pager, and the rhetorical analysis essay. I do not believe in grading timed writing or participation. I think it puts too much pressure on students to grade timed writing when it is practice and should be a formative assessment. I have moved away from grading participation because it is difficult to assess what students are learning. Students may dominate discussion without really learning much to rack up participation grades, or they may be introverted and struggle to speak but still learn a lot, so I just don’t do it. I grade reflections on discussions instead.

That’s it! I hope it’s useful.

Drama Isn’t a Grecian Urn

drama vase photo
Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

I was intrigued by Jennifer Gonzalez’s recent post on Cult of Pedagogy, “Is Your Lesson a Grecian Urn?” Basically, Gonzalez argues that teachers need to be careful that their favorite projects are actually assessing learning and are not fluffy ways to fill time. Gonzalez refers to the work of Wiggins and McTighe in Understanding by Design, particularly their description of one of the twin sins of design—activity-based instruction. If you are a long-time reader, you know I think Understanding by Design is the most important book on pedagogy for any teacher to read, and it has certainly been the most influential professional reading I have ever done.

I agree with a great deal of what Gonzalez says; she also adds that “all lessons have some educational value [and] any kind of reading and writing, manipulating materials and words, interaction with peers, and exposure to the world in general offer opportunities for learning.” However, she also says that teachers should ask, “Does [this activity] consume far more of a student’s time than is reasonable in relation to its academic impact?” She concludes that “If students spend more time on work that will not move them forward in the skill you think you are teaching, then it may be a Grecian Urn.” She defines Grecian Urns as activities that consume time but don’t necessarily contribute to learning, naming such activities after a Grecian Urn project she describes in the post.

Gonzalez explains that “[c]oloring or [c]rafting” should be “used sparingly” after primary school, adding “[t]his doesn’t mean you should never ask students to color, cut, paste, sing, act, or draw, but every time you do, ask yourself if that work is contributing to learning.” While I do see her point, I would argue that some might read her argument as an admonition to cut these art forms from assessments, and I can make a case for using almost all of them for educational purposes. What I fear is that teachers who do not want to incorporate these other ways of learning and demonstrating knowledge will find justification for other teaching methods that don’t work—such as coverage-based instruction (the other of the “twin sins” of design).

I ask students to cut when I give them a scene from Shakespeare and ask them to distill its essence, leaving the most important parts intact. In doing so, students are editing and thinking critically about the text. I ask students to act out scenes from literature, a method advocated by the Globe Theatre in London for teaching Shakespeare, because it helps students understand a text to speak it and create movements that communicate the characters’ feelings and actions and the time invested pays dividends in engagement and understanding. I ask students to draw symbols when creating literary reductions because these images help them explain their ideas.

Another concern I have is that many people automatically assume technology-based projects are Grecian Urns. Yes, some are. But some are excellent projects, and Gonzalez makes the difference between valuable technology projects and Grecian Urns very clear. I do think some of the commenters on the article read the article as permission to dismiss technology. I would argue that in addition to considerations of time, which are important, we should also consider the value of the assignments, even if they take some time. Could the assignment be done more efficiently without technology? Does technology add any value to the assignment?

For example, I find working with digital texts cumbersome. Annotation of printed texts is much more efficient, though tools do exist to annotate online texts. If you have access to a printed text, however, it makes more sense to me to use it. My experience using these online annotation tools is that they just don’t replicate or work as well as what we can do with a pencil and printed text. We should never being using technology for the sake of using technology, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss it as a Grecian Urn. To be clear, Gonzalez isn’t arguing that we should dismiss technology. But I could see some folks twisting her argument a bit to imply that technology is a time-waster.

Time isn’t the only factor we need to consider. We really need to figure out what it is we want students to know and be able to do as a result of a lesson or unit. As Gonzalez advocates, we need to use backwards design and design thinking to plan learning for our students so we can avoid Grecian Urn assignments, but I would suggest that we also think carefully before we decide a project is a Grecian Urn. And if it is, Gonzalez is right—it needs to go. I have stopped doing quite a few assignments over the years after holding them up to Wiggins and McTighe’s description of the “twin sins.” But there is a lot of value in integrating the arts and technology, and we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss that value just because rich arts and technology projects take some time.

Remembering Grant Wiggins

Grant Wiggins and Dana HuffIf you have been reading this blog for a while, you know how influential Grant Wiggins’s thinking has been on me (and so many other educators). Many years ago, I decided to read Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe after Jay McTighe visited my school and led a helpful PD session. I was new to backward design, and it’s one of those things that once you see it, the light bulb goes off, and you say, “Ah, yes. Of course. That is exactly how to plan learning for students.”

We managed to cobble together a reading group here on this blog. Without thinking about it, without asking permission or anything, I created the UbD Educators wiki. I was so taken with the ideas in Understanding by Design, and the only thing I could think about doing was the work. And the best way I could think of to do the work was to share and collaborate. In hindsight, Grant and Jay McTighe could probably have sued me, but they were also much more interested in spreading the work, so instead, Grant commented on my blog.

Great blog! And I really appreciate the time and thought that is going into your reading. Yes, ubd is not for those looking for a quick fix. Nor is it great to be lonely – I hated that as a teacher myself. But there is actually a lot you can do on your own to sustain the work. The [key] is to take small steps – try out a few ideas here and there; work on 1 unit a semester – especially a unit that now is so boring it bores you to teach it. Learn the various ‘moves’ but only use the ones that appeal. And, finally, avail yourselves of the various forums and resources we and others have put together to support the work. Go to bigideas.org for starters. Check out the ubdexchange. Go to the virtual symposium on ubd and differentiated instruction run through ascd. And write the poor authors, who rarely get this kind of lovely feedback!

Later, he offered wiki members an extra boost:

Because I want to be supportive of this, I am going to give all those who use this wiki access to our still-not-public course on ubd. Go to http://www.authenticeducation.org/courses . The enrollment key is Hopewell. I would love you to use it and give feedback – there is also a book study guide. I’ll also build in a link to this wiki.

Last year, when we finally met in person, I was able to thank him for not suing me. He laughed. But the truth is, Grant cared deeply about design and making learning experiences better for students and teachers. He changed everything about the way I teach. He was such a supportive coach and mentor.

I was thrilled when he asked me to be one of his education bloggers on the Faculty Room (it’s defunct, and as far as I know, no longer exists anywhere). Some of you might have some vague memories of that blog.

He met a lot of people, and in the last couple of years in particular, he was becoming more and more active online both on Twitter and his blog. I didn’t always agree with Grant, but he was hugely influential in my thinking and teaching, and I have to admit that most of the time, I thought he was right.

In the last year or so, we really became friends. He would comment on the oddest things I posted on Facebook. Things I wouldn’t expect him to care about at all. The last comment he left in response to a silly cartoon I posted:

Who's on FirstCommentA lot of times, he passed over educational posts completely, but I did get to know the Grant Wiggins who was a lifelong learner and musician and loved his family deeply through Facebook. Seems really odd that Facebook helps us forge those connections. That was just a few days ago. I am in shock. I can’t believe Grant passed away so suddenly and so soon. My condolences go out to his family and friends. I will miss his contributions to education. We owe him so much. But even more than that, I think I’ll miss his funny little comments in reply to the oddest things.

The last exchange we had on Twitter was just about week ago.

I replied, and he said, with his typical wit:

Grant knew there was still work to do, and the best way we can honor Grant is to carry on with the work.

Rest in peace, Grant, and thank you for everything.

Grant Wiggins at Worcester Academy
Grant Wiggins teaching teachers at Worcester Academy. Photo credit Shirley Balestrier.


On the Horizon

On the Horizon photoI’m interrupting my alphabet series as the year closes. Today was our last day of post-planning, or post-sessionals, as my school terms it. I had a great year. My students were awesome, and I tried some great things in my classroom.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned my changing role on this blog yet. A few years ago, I went into technology integration. I am going back to teaching English full time next year as the English department chair at my school. I am very excited about this changing role, and I believe in some ways it’s a return to my first love. I did enjoy technology integration, but if it had ever taken me completely out of the classroom, I’m not sure I could have handled it. I don’t think this transition means I will not be talking about technology. I do anticipate this blog will shift back towards more of a focus on teaching English, however.

My school is moving toward backwards design/UbD, and long-time readers of this blog will know how thrilled I am about it. Many of our teachers already use the format for planning, but with a more institutional focus on UbD, I think the teaching and learning will become even better. I work with some excellent teachers, and I think we have the best kids anywhere, so I’m really excited to see the ways in which project-based learning and UbD makes my school even better.

Even more exciting than seeing our school embrace UbD? Grant Wiggins is coming to our school to do a workshop during our pre-planning (pre-sessional) meetings. I am so excited to have the opportunity to meet Grant and learn from him in person.

I also recently had the opportunity to attend a CLA/CWRA Performance Task Academy led by Marc Chun. If you have ever struggled with creating performance tasks, I can highly recommend the workshop, which really helps break down the process and offers opportunities for you to build your performance task with Marc’s guidance.

In preparation for working with Grant, my school has combined our curriculum mapping (which greatly resembled UbD) with our new learning management system. I was one of the early adopters, and I was asked to flesh out one of my unit pages so that I could model use of the LMS to colleagues. I chose to flesh out my unit on The Catcher in the Rye. I will be teaching the novel again next year in a sophomore World Literature class (and I will also be teaching American literature again after a few years’ hiatus—perhaps folks who have been reading a while will remember I taught American literature for quite a long time, and that it was the focus of many blog entries and lesson ideas posted here). Because I’d recently been to the Performance Task Academy, and also perhaps because I love planning, I couldn’t just build my unit page without actually tackling my UbD unit for The Catcher in the Rye. I did borrow the idea behind the performance task that Wiggins and McTighe describe on pp. 199-200 of Understanding by Design. I have used the performance task before without as much success as I would have liked. I realized at the Performance Task Academy that the missing piece was grounding the performance task more solidly in a real-world situation and giving more definitive parameters. The general idea is the same, but the performance task as I revised it will make more use of real-world tools and materials and will have real-world stakes that more closely mimic the work a psychiatrist treating Holden might do. I am really happy with it, though the unit as it is posted is still a little incomplete, as I haven’t finished thinking about discussion questions I will want to use in class discussion.

I have also been fortunate enough to find a fabulous friend and mentor in my Dean of Faculty, Cindy (and I hope she doesn’t mind my calling her out on my blog when I didn’t ask first). It’s been so refreshing to work with her this year (and last), especially as I transition into my new role. She’s my English teaching soulmate, and anyone who has ever worked in a vacuum with no like-minded administrators knows how it feels to find someone like that in your workplace. It doesn’t just make it easier to go to work every day, it makes it fun, invigorating, and challenging (in the best way) to go to work every day. Under her leadership, I joined our school’s Vision Committee, and it has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve done with colleagues. Together we designed a professional development day unconference.

With all of this buzzing around in my mind, I’m so eager to get started on planning for next year. I’m really excited about the work on the horizon.