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Given the context...

While context includes the setting of the entire rhetorical situation, I find that many students tend to think of it flatly, and ignore the layers of influence that each situation holds. The terms I teach my students are: immediate situation, ongoing situation, contextual climate, contextual place, and then I also begin the discussion of kairos and exigence. I find that students learn best when they analyze mismanaged rhetorical situations in which the speaker misinterprets the audience’s needs, values, beliefs, and background within a given context. To begin, I break them into small groups to read an article about controversial rhetorical situations. This year I selected: “13 of the most controversial ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketches of all time,” https://www.insider.com/controversial-saturday-night-live-sketches . I then give them the following AP prompt:



Students discuss how they would respond to the prompt. Then, I have students discuss how the role of humorists has perhaps changed over time. Students evaluate context in relation to audience, speaker, and message, and this is when I introduce the timelessness of Aristotle’s philosophy, as it originated in 4th century BCE, and still holds truth today. He said, “There are, then, these three means of effecting persuasion. The man who is to be in command of them must, it is clear, be able (1) to reason logically, (2) to understand human character and goodness in their various forms, and (3) to understand the emotions.” We discuss the relevance of context within each of these appeals, and students understand that each component depends on the other, therefore, a retorician must be cognizant of all these components.



I then give students a relatable rhetorical situation. In March of 2020, Vanessa Hudgens made insensitive remarks in the start of the Covid pandemic. She took to Instagram after having some alcoholic beverages and said:



They can easily relate to the mismanaged understanding of the rhetorical situation through celebrity Vanessa Hudgens.


We begin with a brainstorm:


What was going on around March 17, 2020? Answer: March 17, 2020 was the very start of our country’s shut down. People were panicked with fear, loss, and uncertainty.


We then briefly discuss the audience who makes up the contextual importance. I focus on the emotion that was felt around the world: fear, loss, and uncertainty. Because I focus on audience in another weekly unit, I do not dive too deeply into the audience, but we do discuss what the audience needed around March 17, 2020. Students recognize that people needed comfort, assurance, security, and information.

We then come back to Vanessa Hudgens as a speaker, and students recognize that she is of a wealthy class, likely less affected by the pandemic than the majority of Americans. We then talk about Hudgens’s minimization of death and the virus, and students are able to recognize that Hudgens misses her mark – by speaking carelessly, she has insulted a large number of people who (as we discussed before) need comfort, assurance, security, and information. Hudgens fails to understand her contextual situation and insults and perhaps even loses some of her fans.


We then consider Hudgens’s response:



Students love analyzing Hudgens’s apology, as they recognize the superficiality that comes with her celebrity status and the need of her fans to support her. She provides a generic apology, but at this point, her words have already hurt a large number of her fans. Context, as we learn, is imperative to any rhetorical situation.


Components of context


For context, I teach my students the following terms: immediate situation, place, contextual climate, ongoing situation. I give them the following:



We then practice with familiar rhetorical situations, and as a class, we brainstorm the contextual importance:



Here is a Power Point that has familiar rhetorical situations for which your students can practice:


Students love Greta Thunberg’s speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, and the rhetorical situation is easy for students to grasp. First I have them annotate the speech with two different colored highlighters: one color for ongoing situation, and one color for immediate situation. Students then chart out ideas for the ongoing and immediate situation:




Students often have a difficult time differentiating between the immediate situation and the ongoing situation, so I give them the tip that the immediate situation does not hold interpretation, while the ongoing situation requires the reader think critically about all the worldly events that could influence the unbiased immediate situation. When students recognize the immediate situation as objective and concrete and the ongoing situation as being open to interpretation, bias, and somewhat abstract, they can divide the two concepts and understand how to analyze each.


For climate, I have students analyze the word choice and phrasing. Take for example Thunberg’s language: “How dare you?”, “suffering,” “stolen,” “empty,” “collapsing,” etc. By examining the words and phrasing, students are able to identify the climate with words like: emotional, tense, critical. Furthermore, we then situate the speech within the “contextual place,” which is in New York at a UN climate change conference, and we apply our “contextual climate” words, an urgency and severity is established within the rhetorical situation.


Kairos and Exigence


While I develop these two terms in a later unit, I do introduce students to these two terms within this lesson. We discuss how the immediate situation, ongoing situation, place, and climate all help to amplify Thunberg’s message (Kairos). We then also discuss the force that compelled Thunberg to speak (exigence). We briefly discuss the layers of meaning within the term, exigence, because students are quick to identify that her exigence must be rooted in her invitation to speak. Yes, that is true, however, it is also important to recognize that Thunberg was only invited to speak because of her previous spoken engagements in which she felt compelled to voice her concern for climate change. We then read about Thunberg, and students learn that Thunberg’s “force” to speak about climate change is rooted from within. Thunberg’s parents report that even they had to change their ways based on their daughter’s concern for the environment. Thus, we conclude that while Thunberg’s exigence is partially rooted in her invitation, the deeper force is more instinctual.


Pronoun Unification and Divide


Thunberg’s speech is a perfect opportunity to teach pronoun unification and divide. The accustary “you” in opposition to the “I,” “our,” “we,” and “us,” clearly divides the authoritarians from the other people of the world. We discuss who specifically does Thunberg isolate with her repetitive “you.” We look at the ongoing situation to consider the past and present decision-makers who may have influenced our worldly view on the current climate crisis as it exists today. We then discuss the divide by charting out Thunberg’s examples:



With their completed charts, students discuss the emotional attachment and detachment associated with pronoun unification and divide. We discuss the “you” as targeting and isolating and thus “destructive” while the “we” and “us” as unifying for the greater good. Pronoun unification and divide is a common rhetorical strategy and students often have great success in their ability to identify and analyze the speaker’s intent in incorporating it.


Extension Lesson for Pronouns


In discussing pronoun unification and divide, I love introducing our human fixation with labels. Because gender pronouns have become so prominent in our society, I use the lesson on pronoun unification and divide as an entryway into a discussion about labels. I pose the following questions:

  • If pronouns are a way to generalize us into categories by taking away our identity, then what is the significance of pronouns also providing us with an identity?

    • For example, my name is Jamie, which gives me a concrete identity, but my identity is blurred when I enter into the larger pool of associations with she/her. However, the same “blurring” identifier contrastingly provides gender uniqueness for many people today.

  • Why are we so fixated on labels? Why do we choose to label ourselves in selected scenarios?

    • For example, I am partially Italian, but I really only emphasize my Italian heritage when I am with Italian family or in an Italian restaurant. Similarly, I am partially Irish, and I never fail to celebrate St. Patty’s Day without declaring my Irish blood. But I really only highlight those “labels” in opportune times.



I have students discuss gender pronouns and labels in small groups and then in a large group.


Evidence and Reasoning


My lesson then builds on the claims we learned about in our previous week’s lesson (Speaker and Persona with Ashton Kutcher), as we learn about evidence and reasoning. We discuss the difference between qualitative and quantitative evidence, and then we identify the flaws that exist within each. Many students are quick to label quantitative as most believable, but then I play segments of this podcast https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/02/podcasts/the-daily/midterm-elections-vote-polls-data.html which discusses the problems with polls. And we recognize other ways that quantitative evidence can be faulty. I then provide them with this scale:



After we discuss evidence, we then apply our learning to Greta Thunberg’s speech. I have students identify her claims, evidence, and reasoning, and we write them out to discuss:



After we have identified Thunberg’s evidence, we place her evidence on the 0-10 scale. Students recognize her evidence as being somewhat vague: “sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2” as an example. We look at the examples and discuss how Thunberg could have made her evidence more convincing. I then pose the question: What makes her speech so compelling, if her evidence is weak? Students mostly agree that it is in Thunberg’s passion that they feel moved; students feel emotionally and ethically moved by her intensity. And it is here that students can see that evidence is only one aspect of making a convincing argument.


Writing Assignment


For the final step of this assignment, students construct an argument, where they write a blog about whether ice cream should be bitten or licked:



Students are so creative with this writing assignment, in which they cleverly offer insights, like:

  • “The consensus is apparent to me: like sipping is to tea, like slurping is to soup, and like crunching is to chips, licking is to ice cream.”

  • “I mean pictures of people biting ice cream just are not cute!”

  • And students who think contextually: “We live in such a divided world; with polarizing politics, cancel culture, and many other dividers, we must cling to the simple things that make us happy, like ice cream, whether bitten or licked”

Thanks for reading!



If you purchase my unit, I will send you one week lessons on:

  • Ashton Kutcher: speaker, persona, anaphora, claims

  • Greta Thunberg: context/occasion, pronoun unification and divide, evidence & reasoning

  • Lou Gehrig: audience, epistrophe, evidence, reasoning

  • Malala Yousafzai: exigence, repetition, sourcing

  • Selena Gomez: message, anecdote, claims, reasoning, sourcing

  • Coach David Belisle: purpose, sentence length, multiple choice

  • 2020 Obama Eulogy annotated for all of the learning practice in this unit

  • Rhetorical analysis and argument assessment

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I am a passionate high school English and Digital Media teacher whose lifelong purpose is to ignite creativity and critical thought in young minds. With an unwavering commitment to nurturing imagination and fostering intellectual curiosity, I thrive on embracing each student's unique voice and I hope to inspire other teachers with my own journey.

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