Comparing Rhetoric: Carson vs. Bill McKibben

2 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


SWBAT recognize how the rhetorical strategies used by authors exploring the same topic can change the central idea and reader response.

Big Idea

Rhetorical choices have a strong influence on central ideas.


Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature from 1989 covers a lot of the same ground as Rachel Carson regarding the influence of humans on nature, but with a far more fatalist tone, at least in the excerpt from the book’s conclusion in The Language of Composition 2e (pg. 918) textbook.  The similarity of content with a different approach in tone led me to pair these two so students could more clearly see how choices by the author in their rhetorical approach can lead to a different feeling about a subject, and how language and tone choices can be used take a different persuasive approach.

As with the previous piece by Rachel Carson, I had students read the entire piece at home, but will focus only on the first three pages today in class to practice the kind of close reading of an excerpt they will be assessed with in a couple weeks (there are two sections; I’m interested in the second section mostly because McKibben writes about Edward Abbey, whose book Desert Solitaire they are reading now—this will give Abbey more credibility for the students).  

Bill McKibben in Context

10 minutes

Before beginning our work with the text, I wanted to show students a short video of Bill McKibben on the Colbert Report so they can hear his voice and understand a little of his importance to the modern environmental movement (and also to give him some credibility for a younger audience, since he comes across as quite fatalistic in the excerpt—I think that watching this video will allow students to look at the piece more objectively). 

I will add a little more information about his initiative (I’ll test all the students who were in AP Environmental Science to see if they understand the reference to 350!), but mostly the video is to put a face and voice to the author, since it is available.

Close Reading and Discussion

50 minutes

As usual, when we get to the text I will begin by having students read the three pages before we address them as a class so they can continue to practice reading short excerpts and recognizing the rhetoric immediately, as they will during the test.  In this case, after they’ve read the section I will have them free-write in their journals about the approach in tone McKibben takes to influence the reader, how it compares to Carson, and which one is more effective, in their opinion (today is a shorter class due to professional development, so we don’t have time for group work).  I won’t collect these—the journal writing is simply a way for all the students to consider the prompt before a full group discussion, so more may feel comfortable speaking, and so they all have a context for listening to the discussion.  I will tell them, too, to use quotes as practice for their rhetorical analysis essay on their AP exam (a little extra motivation to use quotes in this case!).

Once students have written for five or ten minutes, I will ask someone to start by sharing their thoughts, and see where the conversation goes from that point.  The students are all comfortable enough in class that I may cold-call on some to hear other voices (since they all have written some thoughts in their journals that they can turn to), depending on how the conversation goes.  I will also have both this piece and Carson’s available on the Smartboard so we can go to the quotes (as they share, I plan to ask “where do you see that in the text” if they don’t offer a quote, so we are always looking at words from the text in our discussion).  If they really struggle to get started, I will simply turn to the first paragraph and discuss words providing tone there as a way to get going, and compare that to Carson's tone (I don't anticipate this problem, but it is always good to prepared just in case!!).