Rhetorical Analysis: "Letter From Birmingham Jail" Day 1

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SWBAT closely read passages of a text and recognize the rhetorical strategies an author is using to develop rhetorical appeals for influencing the audience.

Big Idea

Every word, phrase, or clause can have rhetorical purpose for building central ideas and appealing to an audience.


The students were very clear in their self-assessment that they are still not particularly comfortable with recognizing organizational moves of a writer for rhetorical purposes.  This matched my own thinking, that their writing has been improving, but that their challenge is noticing the micro-moves and how they build from one another for rhetorical appeal.  My initial idea when I outlined the course last summer was to kind of teach the course twice within the year:  in the first half I would cover all the AP standards of the course, then the second half I would do it again, focusing on those skills that students need more practice with from the first go around, and simply deepening their knowledge.  Given the results of the practice test, their reflections, my reflections on their work over the first half of the year, this still seems like a good plan.  So today, and for the next couple days, I will kick off our renewed focus on the basics of rhetoric with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail" (while this text is noted in Appendix B of the CCSS for grades 9-10, I have to say I don't pay that much attention to those suggested texts for specific grade levels.  While the list can help in getting a sense of how the standards writers define text complexity, it ultimately comes down to what I think is best for teaching particular skills to my students, based on the data I have.  And, for teaching new reading skills, it is better sometimes to work slightly below the text complexity so students can master the new skills).

Sharing Interpretations: First half of letter

25 minutes

Last Friday (today is Monday) I was not in school, so students were left with instructions to read the first twenty five paragraphs of “Letter to Birmingham Jail” (while an amazing piece, it is also quite long; the reality is that if I had them read it all in one pop and do some written analysis, that analysis would be weaker simply because they see the remaining pages.  Therefore, I’m breaking it up into a couple chunks), and answer the first seven questions on pages 294 and 295 of the Language of Composition 2e textbook in the “Questions on Rhetoric and Style” section.   Many of these questions focus on organization, either within paragraphs or from paragraph to paragraph (for example, question 2 asks why King arranged paragraphs 2-4 in the way that he does, and what reversing them might do--I like this question because it asks students to actually consider another way of writing the piece in order to better understand the rhetorical effect.  Another asks why King goes into such detail to explain the basic principles and process of a nonviolent protest movement, again addressing organization and its effect on the reader).  This allows the students to focus specifically on reading informational texts standard 5 regarding  the effectiveness of structure in an argument.

 To jigsaw the questions and make sure everyone gets a chance to verbalize their thoughts on the text, I will break students into three groups and assign each group two questions (we will do number seven as a class if we have time).  Each set of two has one that focuses on organization in some way, so distributing them chronologically is best for this activity (often, because the questions are chronological, I will break them up differently so all groups have something from the first half of the text, and something from the latter part).  The groups will take about fifteen to twenty minutes to share their answers to the question and identify specific evidence from the text to support it when they share out to the group.  I will circulate to assist as necessary and prompt to search for more evidence, to look deeper at words, etc., and also to check how thoroughly they did their homework.

Large Group Discussion

45 minutes

As we are six months into the year, this class has bonded together really well and have become more adept at having large group discussions without as much organization.  Because of this, the group who had each question will share what they came up with regarding answers and evidence, and I will prompt the rest of the class to continue the discussion, with particular emphasis on those questions that focus on organization.  Numbers two and six specifically ask the “what if it was this way?” type of question, which I think is a really important way for students to recognize the influence of organization for building meaning in a text, because they are providing themselves with an alternative to compare to.

Next Steps:  Students will read the second half of “Letter to Birmingham Jail” and answer the remaining questions.