Soon my students will be engaging with some challenging nonfiction texts in our upcoming rhetorical analysis unit. Their ability to identify rhetorical devices the author uses in a text and interpret how they shape its meaning is increasingly important; Common Core State Standards prescribe increased focus on nonfiction texts to balance the traditional overemphasis on fiction texts in school. Additionally, nonfiction is booming as a genre, and it is important to introduce students to engaging titles, showing them the genre exists outside of dry textbooks.
This increased focus on nonfiction texts manifests itself in state tests, which include substantially more nonfiction passages. Even the SAT essay question has consistently been a rhetorical analysis prompt. I want my students to be able to meet the demands of this, but I also want them to be citizen rhetors who engage in wide reading of the substantive topics the genre offers.
Working towards the CCSS outcomes for interpreting key ideas and authorial craft is no easy task. Rhetorical analysis is like seeing the forest for the trees; mature readers understand a text’s meaning is not only developed through words, but also by the elements of craft the author chooses—they see the text for its individual “trees.” Early in rhetorical analysis units when foundational skills are being introduced, students often ask, “Oh, you mean reading between the lines?” I try steer them away from this understanding as it implies the meaning of a text is hidden. Instead, I want students to understand the techniques an author chooses are as apparent as the individual words and are to be read just like words for meaning.
Using visual texts is a valuable bridge to this understanding. They serve as a resource showing students how meaning can be constructed in a text without words, prompting them towards the critical thinking I want them to be able to do with nonfiction texts. I have been using visual texts as a bridge to the complex skills of rhetorical analysis for a few years and have zeroed in on a few apt texts for this purpose.
- Lego’s Imagination ad campaign
Early in the rhetorical analysis unit, I will show them this Lego advertisement. At first most students merely see stacks of Legos. I will ask them to interpret the main idea, which does not produce many perceptive responses. Then I will point out a relevant feature, like Marge’s blue hair, and suddenly most will see the reference to the Simpsons. Not only does this help introduce one or our first techniques for the unit, allusion, it is a launch pad for interpreting how elements of craft can shape meaning. Once students see the reference and understand allusion as a technique, they produce more perceptive interpretations. One student wrote, “The advertisement uses allusion to emphasize the creative value of Legos.” This is the type of interpretation of a nonfiction text I want them to be able to develop.
- Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, 1969
Before showing a clip of Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, I will ask students to interpret the main idea of our national anthem. Responses to this tend to focus on ideas of patriotism and military fortitude; however, this is almost the opposite of Hendrix’s purpose in his performance. As we watch the performance as a class, we will focus on the parts in which he includes discordant noises resembling bombs and plays a few notes of taps. Musicians in class will identify the specific techniques he does for these, such as legato, dive-bombing, vibrato, and sampling. I value their input to help the class understand Hendrix’s craft and interpret his performance’s purpose not as a patriotic call but rather as a reminder of the chaos of war and protest to the national anthem’s glorification of war.
Analyzing meaning in texts with no words helps students to then identify and interpret the meaning produced by an author’s craft in written texts as it reveals that diction is not the only tool authors have. How might these visual texts or ones like them help you achieve the outcomes you strive toward in the classes you teach?
When outside of the classroom, I enjoy mtn. biking, skiing, running, and grilling good food, but don’t enjoy karaoke or green beans, mainly because I can’t sing and was afraid of the Jolly Green Giant as a kid.
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