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JTB_5

Rhetoric with Substance

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've taught Rhetoric in some capacity for about a dozen years, and ten of those in classical education. One of the enduring difficulties of teaching students to speak well has been helping them have beautiful style that isn't just fluffy nonsense or pandering to a like-minded crowd. Admittedly, I find my own writing often lacks the sort of substance I want for it, so perhaps it is a problem in the teacher as much as in the students, yet it is frustrating to try to give good feedback when students are technically doing fine, but don't really have anything meaningful to say. Am I alone in this difficulty?

In recent years I've been trying to draw upon some specific sources to help me get more out of students than their maturity and my own limitations afford. I've turned to Shakespeare mostly, but even this year I'm doing more imitation exercises of substantial speeches rather than prompts that draw more heavily upon student reserves. I have been pleased with how the students gain facility with the style and delivery of Shakespeare, though I don't know to what extent their own writing or speaking has been influenced by the bard.

What are some strategies you use to help students speak with substance and not just with shimmer or shine?

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This is an excellent question. I do not work in a classroom per se, however, I do work with many students one on one. I have found the students that speak well and write well also have read well most of their lives. They have beauty to draw from that has had many years to be tended to. I'm not sure it will be something you can give them in one or two years, but perhaps you can inspire them in their future speaking and writing. 

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Good reading and good writing/speaking often go together, though good reading is not always a necessary component in my experience (some folks have a gift for writing or speaking without being readers, though probably all of the good readers were capable writers and speakers). As I've thought about it more, I think attentiveness and selection make a difference. If one is attentive to people, one hears a lot of words--both wise and foolish. Being able to recognize the difference and select the wise seems like a gift or skill that can be cultivated.

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On 9/18/2018 at 10:48 PM, JTB_5 said:

've taught Rhetoric in some capacity for about a dozen years, and ten of those in classical education. One of the enduring difficulties of teaching students to speak well has been helping them have beautiful style that isn't just fluffy nonsense or pandering to a like-minded crowd. Admittedly, I find my own writing often lacks the sort of substance I want for it, so perhaps it is a problem in the teacher as much as in the students, yet it is frustrating to try to give good feedback when students are technically doing fine, but don't really have anything meaningful to say. Am I alone in this difficulty?

In recent years I've been trying to draw upon some specific sources to help me get more out of students than their maturity and my own limitations afford. I've turned to Shakespeare mostly, but even this year I'm doing more imitation exercises of substantial speeches rather than prompts that draw more heavily upon student reserves. I have been pleased with how the students gain facility with the style and delivery of Shakespeare, though I don't know to what extent their own writing or speaking has been influenced by the bard.

What are some strategies you use to help students speak with substance and not just with shimmer or shine?

You're definitely not alone in this difficulty. I'm in my fourth year of teaching literature and history to Rhetoric school students, and I too struggle to guide them towards more mature content and styles. It's frustrating to read ten essays in a row that follow the same formula and simply repeat what we've discussed in class without any apparent effort to discover something in the text. As you said, they're not wrong, just a little boring.

I found some reprieve via a Joshua Gibbons (he teaches the Great Books course on Classical U) blog post on the Circe Institute. In that post he describes a test that mimics the way God tests us, one where we're allowed to use our books and one where it is our character being tested. Students write an essay giving advice to a friend who can't seem to grow up once he's in high school. The advice the students give must be based on the literature covered in that unit. This kind of test helped kick my students out of the formulaic rut and encouraged some of them to dig into the text (we were studying Huckleberry Finn) with more enthusiasm.

Assignments that shock my students into thinking differently can be some of the best ones.

Best,
Paul

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This question reminds me of this quote from Augustine's City of God:

Quote

And, therefore, as infants cannot learn to speak except by learning words and phrases from those who do speak, why should not men become eloquent without being taught any art of speech, simply by reading and learning the speeches of eloquent men, and by imitating them as far as they can? And what do we find from the examples themselves to be the case in this respect? We know numbers who, without acquaintance with rhetorical rules, are more eloquent than many who have learnt these; but we know no one who is eloquent without having read and listened to the speeches and debates of eloquent men.

Which is to say--I think you are on the right track when you have your students deliver/imitate existing examples of excellent speech/writing. I honestly think the full fruit of this method will not be observed in high school students. In my experience, a good foundation bears fruit in the college years, when the students have gained a little maturity and experience, and find that they have the words and capacity to express their thoughts because of the reading they have done. Not long ago, I heard a homeschool mother testify that they had not really done a great job with writing during high school. However, her son went to college and impressed all his professors with his ability to write. He told his mother, "Churchill is in my head." (He'd read a lot of Churchill in high school.)

Edited by KarenG

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14 hours ago, Paul Dixon said:

You're definitely not alone in this difficulty. I'm in my fourth year of teaching literature and history to Rhetoric school students, and I too struggle to guide them towards more mature content and styles. It's frustrating to read ten essays in a row that follow the same formula and simply repeat what we've discussed in class without any apparent effort to discover something in the text. As you said, they're not wrong, just a little boring.

I found some reprieve via a Joshua Gibbons (he teaches the Great Books course on Classical U) blog post on the Circe Institute. In that post he describes a test that mimics the way God tests us, one where we're allowed to use our books and one where it is our character being tested. Students write an essay giving advice to a friend who can't seem to grow up once he's in high school. The advice the students give must be based on the literature covered in that unit. This kind of test helped kick my students out of the formulaic rut and encouraged some of them to dig into the text (we were studying Huckleberry Finn) with more enthusiasm.

Assignments that shock my students into thinking differently can be some of the best ones.

Best,
Paul

Paul,

Thank you for the reply. I've read Josh's blog post and agree that, where possible, testing students on character and openly using the resources they've received eliminates the tedium of many assessments, and allows students to grow from the assessment as opposed to simply regurgitate information. For essays and speaking assignments in rhetoric, I've tried to accomplish something similar by giving scenarios of deliberative or forensic cases, which the students must argue (sometimes on both sides). One of my favorites is to use the facts from Twelve Angry Men without telling the students, to see whether they can discern how many holes in the witness testimony and evidence there are, or whether they get caught up in the status of the boy and his relationship to his father. It proves a good lesson in seeking out justice.

32 minutes ago, KarenG said:

This question reminds me of this quote from Augustine's City of God:

Which is to say--I think you are on the right track when you have your students deliver/imitate existing examples of excellent speech/writing. I honestly think the full fruit of this method will not be observed in high school students. In my experience, a good foundation bears fruit in the college years, when the students have gained a little maturity and experience, and find that they have the words and capacity to express their thoughts because of the reading they have done. Not long ago, I heard a homeschool mother testify that they had not really done a great job with writing during high school. However, her son went to college and impressed all his professors with his ability to write. He told his mother, "Churchill is in my head." (He'd read a lot of Churchill in high school.)

Thanks for responding Karen, and for the encouragement. I agree that results of education are often delayed, particularly with young men. Perhaps classical educators and parents should develop more consistent ways of telling the stories of students who have demonstrated and reaped the fruits of their education? I certainly hope my students have Shakespeare in their head. Maybe one day I'll also get Homer in their heads as well (not that Churchill shouldn't be there, too!). Better still, I hope students will be able to sense their need to choose a model or models for their own writing, believing that the model will inspire their own creativity, rather than stunting it.

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