The Power of Rhetoric (Day 2 of 3)

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SWBAT evaluate the effectiveness of Patrick Henry's "Speech to the Virginia Convention" by creating clear objective summaries of text and identifying the rhetorical strategies and argument structure employed.

Big Idea

@PatrickHenry If your life depended on giving a speech that successfully reversed public opinion, wouldn't you at least write it out? #crazy


At this point in the unit, we are nearing the end of our look at the literature of early Americans.  We began looking at rhetorical devices last class period, and we will practice identifying and evaluating these rhetorical devices in today's lesson using "Speech in the Virginia Convention" by Patrick Henry and an excerpt from The Crisis, Number 1 by Thomas Paine.  I chose these two works because of their complexity, historic significance, and similarity in theme.  Choosing this pair of texts also gives me the opportunity to help students identify similarities and differences in the sentence structure, organization, and argumentative devices employed in oral and written works.  

While students have been exposed to rhetorical devices for many years in our school's curriculum, our introductory look at the devices last class period revealed that students are really struggling to identify these elements within realistic contexts or to create examples of these devices to further demonstrate knowledge of the definition.  For the most part, I discovered that they can match the definitions of these skills with relative ease, but they struggled with tasks as like verbalizing the definition for "parallelism" or "anaphora" (without an option bank of definitions) or discriminating between "repetition" and "restatement."  Since so many students have such a basic knowledge of these elements, today will be focused mainly on "shoring up" their knowledge with practical, contextualized examples of the strategies.  We will continue the highly guided activities of today with more independent practice, formative assessment, and reinforcement in class periods after this one.


15 minutes

For today's opening activity, I want to get students thinking about how they already employ well-chosen verbal argument strategies in their daily lives.  Parents are obviously the easiest "targets" for this discussion, as most students have made a "longshot pitch" to their parents for something at some point in their lives (or know their parents well enough to consider what it would take to orchestrate such an endeavor)!  I will also include questions about how they would best convince other kinds of audiences of something equally as unlikely in order to get students to recognize the need to adjust their strategies to fit their intended audience.  These other audiences can be anyone, but I will choose people that are either entertaining to students or well-known as being hard-to-convince.  These other examples will also be people that all students in the room know so that they can suggest alternate strategies or debate the likelihood of a strategy's effectiveness with their peers instead of simply sharing their ideas.  The additional step of debating, defending, and discussing is important to ensure all students are critically thinking, evaluating, and defending their positions.  In addition to using each student's parents for an audience example, I will choose to use a brilliant, eccentric, and well-loved science teacher, and our administrator, who has a reputation of being extremely serious, stern, and "down to business."  (I feel compelled to say that while his principal "persona" is very serious, he's hilarious and would approve of both the students' characterization of him and my use of him as an example!  But hey, if you can't use your principal as an example, what fun is it?!)

As students enter the classroom, I will project the following scenario at the front of the room for them to respond to on paper or using Google Docs and their Chromebooks.  

Scenario: You have been invited to accompany your best friend's family on a 14-day trip to Costa Rica!  They will cover all the accommodations and food costs, but you will have to come up with the cost of your round-trip plane ticket, which will be approximately $1,000.  The trip will take place over the entire duration of your Winter Break, so you won't have to miss any school.  However, you will have to miss visiting your crazy Great Aunt Hilda to celebrate her 80th birthday, and you won't be able to babysit your younger brother for the 3 days you already agreed to babysit him over break.  Your task is to convince your parents to let you go on this trip and to do so in the next 3 days (as travel arrangements must be completed by October 1st through the travel agency).  How would you convince your parents to let you go?  What strategies would you use?  How would you organize your argument?  

After taking attendance, I will walk around the room to make sure all students are on task with this informal writing assignment.  I don't expect students to wander off task on this project, however, because in my experience students absolutely delight in opportunities to share their stories about the artistry of parent-trickery with their peers!  The scenario I designed here is meant to help students connect more with the Patrick Henry speech we're reading in the next section of the lesson.  Both are what I would consider "high risk, high reward" speeches.  While students speaking with their parents would be in no danger of being hung for treason, the scenario definitely creates potentially damaging consequences for students who are unsuccessful in their argumentative quest, including being seen as disrespectful to crazy Great Aunt Hilda, irresponsible for breaking the babysitting commitment, and selfish for abandoning the family during one of their few extended time periods together.  At least in my household growing up, I would certainly go out of my way to choose my words and arguments carefully to avoid being seen as disrespectful, irresponsible, or selfish!  Using a scenario like this will help students evaluate their own use of argumentative and rhetorical strategy in a context which requires careful consideration of the audience, which will be an important scaffolding activity to help students identify and evaluate Patrick Henry's strategies in "Speech in the Virginia Convention."

As writing slows down (about 5 minutes or so), I will ask students to begin sharing their strategies with me.  As strategies are shared, the class will be instructed to identify the strategy as one that is specific only to that student's context or as one that is used by more than that student or considered "commonly successful."  This is essential to weeding out the suggestions that are only applicable to a very small portion of the group, who may have suggestions like "my dad gives me whatever I want when I cry profusely" or "my parents would just be happy I left, so I'd start with something about if they wanted a vacation from me."  Once those scenarios are out, the class is left with a list of argumentative and rhetorical strategies that are common to most arguments.  The items that the class agrees are "commonly successful" and used by the majority of the class will be noted with examples on the electronic document under the scenario.  Once all suggestions are heard and sorted by the class, I will ask students to agree on the most successful organization of the strategies and points that they have brought up to argue this issue.  As agreements are reached, I will reorder my list of strategies to reflect the agreed-upon "best practice" order for this argument.  

To emphasize the point that rhetorical and argumentative techniques must be specifically chosen based on the audience's characteristics, I will continue asking students to identify effective argumentation or rhetorical strategies that would probably be the best ways to convince other types of people common to all students.  Those questions will be as follows:

  • How might you adjust your argumentative or rhetorical style if you were trying to convince Mr. B. of something controversial?  What would you probably include more or less of in this case?
  • How might you adjust your argumentative or rhetorical style if you were trying to convince our principal of something controversial?  What would you probably include more or less of in this case?


Responses to these questions will also be noted on the scenario document so that we may refer back to our organic argument structures after we look at Henry's polished argument to pull out similarities and differences in approach.

Building Knowledge

60 minutes

After completing our opening activity, we will segue into looking at Patrick Henry's speech.  Today's activities will be focused around improving students' comprehension of complex texts and identifying and evaluating rhetorical strategies and argumentative structure used.  As my curriculum reflects, the Common Core Standards have an increased focus on student interaction with informational text, but the Common Core also requires analysis of the foundational U.S. documents, like those presented in this lesson and unit.  In my classroom students have always been exposed to these types of materials to help them understand more about the context from which all American literature emerges, but students do absolutely struggle with the analyses of these texts at the beginning of the year and will, therefore, need more guidance with these texts at the outset.  While this can be frustrating to students, who can get "sick of old-time language," it provides an invaluable platform to model reading and vocabulary strategies that students will be using for the remainder of the year!  Additionally, the teaching of these texts helps to bridge their content knowledge from other disciplines and see the literature we read as more relevant to their own lives.  

Before launching directly into the text, I will have students open up their "Speech Notes" which we took last time to review the terms and concepts we will be looking for today.  Then, I will ask students to briefly give me an example that illustrates the definition of each concept to refresh their memories on what the term actually looks like in use.  I will also ask students to open a new Google Doc, title it "Revolutionary Texts," and put "Speech in the Virginia Convention" or "Patrick Henry" at the top.  We will use this document to summarize the content and identify the rhetorical skills and argumentative strategies in each paragraph of both "Speech in the Virginia Convention" and The Crisis, Number 1.  

We will begin by reading the brief historical information about Patrick Henry contained at the top of the "Speech in the Virginia Convention" text.  Then, students will view Peter F. Rothermel's painting, "Patrick Henry Before the Virginia House of Burgesses," to analyze the image to point out visual cues that Patrick Henry is speaking to a hostile crowd or about a subject matter that is very controversial.  The painting is exceptional for this activity, because there are so many faces and reactions that the possibilities for discussion here are nearly endless.  Clues like the sword nearly being drawn, glove on the ground, numerous expressions and sideways conversations, and even the women in the balcony all point to the tense environment which Henry's speech creates.  While I don't always spend a lot of time looking at images, this one presents a great opportunity for students to make inferences based on evidence (like that the man in the dark outfit looks like he may be equivalent to the leader since his chair is the fanciest, he's motioning to the man who is drawing his sword to wait, and he is behind what looks to be a very important marble section all by himself), and it actually serves to garner more student interest in what we will read since everyone in the painting seems so riled up.  

After a careful examination of the painting, we will begin to read and summarize the "Speech in the Virginia Convention."  I will have students popcorn read, as I usually do, reading at least a sentence and no more than a paragraph (in this case) before calling on someone else.  We will pause each paragraph to summarize his points in colloquial language with an emphasis on the artistry of his argumentative approach, especially in the first paragraph, which could have led to his arrest for treason if he did not immediately engage and hook his audience.  In addition to summarizing each paragraph as we go, we will pick out the rhetorical and argumentative strategies that he uses to strengthen his case and note them in a "Rhetorical Strategy" section after each paragraph's summary in student Google Docs.  A student's copy of the summaries and rhetorical/argumentative strategies can be found in the resources section.

Some questions I will be sure to ask throughout this process to draw attention to other focus points will be: 

  • Do you think the men Henry is addressing were aware of what the speech's message would be prior to its delivery?  Why or why not?  
  • Did the men who spoke before Henry support going to war?  Use evidence to explain how you know.
  • Is this an example of a speech that would have been delivered from a fully written out text or as an extemporaneous speech?  Support your answer.
  • Why does Henry go out of his way to mention the word "treason" in the first paragraph?!?!  I would think that he wouldn't want to mention that he's probably breaking the law.  I mean, if I were a shoplifter, I wouldn't chat the clerk up about shoplifters.  So why did Henry mention it here?  (Students will likely say that Henry is trying to "redefine" what he means by the word "treason" by making himself loyal primarily to God and his countrymen rather than the King.  They may also point out that the audience would likely be distracted by the thoughts of the possible treason if the issue weren't addressed upfront.  If they don't get there, I will ask students if they have ever been in a situation where there was a metaphorical "pink elephant" in the room that everyone was refusing to address.  Once this connection is made, students will be able to better grasp Henry's multiple reasons for mentioning treason immediately.)
  • If a listener were to miss the allusions to The Odyssey or the Bible, would their comprehension of this speech be limited?
  • Would you rather be "dumb and happy" or know everything but be miserable?  Explain your point. 
  • With so many mixed emotions about if it's better to know all or know little, do you think it was smart of Henry to bring that up here?  (Students will still generally support Henry, because he is talking about a matter that will impact every person, regardless of their status, in the very near future.  If anything, he is giving the men a pass on "ostriching" (as I call it!) the issue for so long.)
  • He "classes up" his statement about learning from our history with that beautiful lamp metaphor, but do you think he needed to do this to convince the men?  Or would have approaching it by simply saying that they shouldn't continue to be fools and ignore the past have a better effect?  (Students will likely snort at this obviously-playing-Devil's-advocate question.  That's intended!  I enjoy it when they vehemently argue that he needs the figurative language to soften that message up and make it more palatable to the men's delicate sensibilities!)
  • What does insidious mean?  Where have you heard it?  What does an insidious smile look like?  Show me.  When do you see them?
  • He's pointing out an increase in "fleets and armies" in the you think that's happening?  Why haven't the men noticed them?  Why is this a smart way to argue?  (Students will probably say that fleets and armies have probably been increasing, but the men have blown them off or ignored them because they preferred it to thinking about the alternative.  They will also probably say it's a smart way to argue since he's pointing out things that are signs of war that are really close to inarguable.  I will add here my own little flare about the effectiveness of this argument by making a connection with several movies.  I will ask students to briefly consider what the movies Fight Club, Inception, Shutter Island, and The Sixth Sense all have in common.  They may or may not get that they are all movies with some sort of "big reveal" in the end that makes the viewer go back and see everything differently both in their memory and every time they ever watch that movie again.  I will compare with Henry does here with that phenomenon, by pointing out that even if the men have been ignoring the signs of war or missing the signs of war, he has already yanked back the curtain for the "big reveal" that will never allow them to see these implements the same way again!  Even, then, if they didn't pass the resolution to go to war that night, every future interaction in the world where they saw these "signs" Henry points to in his speech would only go to strengthen his argument.  And THAT, my friends, is a Patrick-Henry-sized skill level.)
  • "Delusive phantom of hope..."  That's an exceptionally gorgeous way of saying what?
  • Henry talks a lot about freedom, defining what it is and is not, and relating its significance to the colonists.  He also talks a lot about oppression and the various ways the colonists are being oppressed by the King.  How do these two themes interact to strength the overall perspective of this speech?  (Students will say that the Henry has to prove both that the colonists deserve to be free and independent and that Britain will always oppress them in some way or another, be it taxes, troops, or some other "enslavement."  If Paine did not develop both of these themes in his speech, colonists may still not want to go to war with Britain and instead may just take the "diplomatic" route that they have been on for the last decade.  One theme actually helps prove the other, making the whole argument stronger.)
  • Outside of the argumentative and rhetorical strategies Henry uses here, is there anything else that makes his speech especially convincing?  Is there anything he could have done better?  (Students will likely say that they would be more likely to listen to him because he's willing to do it alone with no help from anyone and that he believed in his cause so much that he was willing to stand up and speak about it, even when simply speaking about it could land him in the gallows for treason.)


While we will have already read and discussed this very theatrically (how can you not get theatrical reading such a strong speech?  I think I broke my podium the first year I taught this...), we will finish our look at the content of this speech by watching a 7:29 clip of the 1936 short film "Give Me Liberty" which contains most of this speech.  While viewing, students will get a second exposure to the text of this speech (which they will now completely understand) and will be asked to note areas of the performance that they feel were done exceptionally well with how they imagined Henry's performance and our previous oral reading of the speech.  We will discuss their reactions to the clip in reference to the text and our earlier reading after the clip.  


10 minutes

As a final component to our lesson today, students will begin working independently to begin summarizing each paragraph and identifying the argumentative strategies used by Thomas Paine in The Crisis, Number 1.  They will continue their work within the same "Revolutionary Texts" document, and it will be due at the start of next hour.  While the students do not know it, I will only be using their summaries and strategies as a formative assessment to track their progress on writing objective summaries of the text and identifying rhetorical and argumentative strategies in context. 


5 minutes

Before students leave, I will ask them to share with me their initial reactions to the effectiveness and structure of Thomas Paine's work.  Students usually point out that his sentences are much harder to understand due to the length of them, so I will remind them at this time also to use commas, colons, and semi-colons as opportunities to break complex sentences down even further to aid comprehension.  I will also ask them to consider while they are reading why Paine's sentences are so much longer than Henry's when they were addressing the same topic in the same time period.  This question will be the beginning point for our discussion comparing the two works' delivery styles, content, and effectiveness.

Next Steps

Between this period and next period, I will unabashedly "creep" on students' Google Docs to monitor their progress on their summaries and strategies.  I find that having the ability to look at student work at nearly any time of the day makes them much more accountable, but almost more importantly, it allows me the chance to know about and counter issues that are showing up as common on the very next class period instead of waiting for students to tell me on the next class period, then having to address it the following period.  While I initially thought kids would be uncomfortable about their teacher creeping around their documents, the more this year progresses, the more they are just leaving me notes and dropping me emails asking me to check out progress they are proud of or concerned about.  

Next class period I will review any common issues I have discovered in student work, then we will discuss the summary and strategy work students did for homework.  Students will also work through one more political text (though this one will be from about a decade later!) and complete a graphic organizer to analyze each piece's argumentative, rhetorical, and content elements.