Inside Writing Rhetorically, Jennifer Fletcher examines the rhetorical writing skills and practices that help students effectively communicate across contexts while providing successful ways to foster inquiry, invention, writing for transfer, research skills and processes, rhetorical decision making, and more.
In today's episode of Teacher's Corner, Jennifer Fletcher talks with Stenhouse editor Bill Varner about rhetorical thinking and how to help students become independent readers, writers, and thinkers. Listen to learn examples and strategies Jennifer has developed in her 25+ year career as an educator in high school and higher ed.
Also by Jennifer Fletcher
Read the transcript
Bill: Hi, Jennifer. Thanks so much for talking with us today.
Jennifer Fletcher: Hi Bill, thanks for having me.
Bill: You say that rhetoric should not be just an extra unit we squeeze into the curriculum. It's a way of thinking. Can you tell us how you define the rhetorical way of thinking?
Jennifer Fletcher: Sure. So all of my work focuses on helping students make their own choices as readers, writers, and thinkers, and a rhetorical mindset is how we make effective communication choices. It's a way of thinking critically about how we interact with other people through language and about who we are in particular situations and what matters most to the people involved, so that could include thinking about the form and style of communication that we use in a specific context, such as how to manage a challenging family conversation or to discuss a problem with your coworkers.
Jennifer Fletcher: And when I talk about teaching rhetorical thinking, and that phrase has been important for my work, I'm not just talking about teaching classical rhetoric or Aristotelian concepts like ethos or pathos. For me, rhetorical thinking is that broad awareness of how audience, purpose, genre, and context impact how we read and write, and how we listen and speak and think too. And that mindset is the basis for socially responsive communication.
Bill: You describe how early in your teaching career you were doing the work for the kids. They were dependent on you and weren't learning how to become independent thinkers. How did you make the transition to teaching the rhetorical way of thinking?
Jennifer Fletcher: In my early years as a teacher, and I've been a teacher now for over 25 years, about half my career was in high school, the other half has been in higher ed, I think I was intimidated by students' confusion and struggle. And I felt like I wanted to be helpful and give them a structure and set them up for success. So, I gave out a lot of formulas and a lot of kind of do this, don't do that advice. I would give students whole essay outlines to follow or kind of paragraph templates to fill in. And I didn't really explain why I was doing this or what the big concepts were behind these scaffolds or strategies that I was using. There were missed opportunities there, like how genre features or language conventions are really important to particular audiences, and that could have made that early approach more meaningful.
Jennifer Fletcher: So, as I progressed in my career, I started to think more critically and reflectively about what my students were getting out of my courses and what learning was going to stick. And when I would use something like a scaffold with them, I'd kind of ask what they thought was the purpose behind that strategy and they'd often tell me they didn't know, and you get your same students back again. So if you're a ninth grade teacher, you're often going to see some of those kids again in 11th grade or 12th grade and that's always humbling because you find out, "Wait, they're not using those skills that I thought they mastered a few years ago."
Jennifer Fletcher: And so again, I was seeing something in my heavy-handed, teacher-centered approach wasn't quite working for students and I made the switch to a rhetorical approach when I became involved with several academic partnerships that focused on the success of post-secondary students.
Bill: How did the students adjust to this big shift in curriculum and the way you teach? Was it a long process for them to come along or did they grasp it fairly quickly?
Jennifer Fletcher: I wouldn't say they grasped some of the concepts and the skills fairly quickly, but I think the intellectual challenge is immediately engaging. They get that this is not busy work. This is real world problem solving. This is authentic communication. Students like to think critically. That's a lot more interesting than just kind of following someone else's rules or formulas. So, students will tell me that learning to do things like read with and against the grain where you're trying to understand a perspective on its own terms and then you turn it around and you're challenging the writer's assumptions. Another rhetorical strategy like descriptive outlining where you're noticing what a text is saying and doing and the doing is often the new rhetorical part because then you're talking about like, "What are the effects? What are the functions?"
Jennifer Fletcher: Students say these are game changers, that they change how they read and write, that they often feel a lot more confident when they face new rhetorical situations. They hang on to that idea. They really get what is a rhetorical situation. And so when they're facing an unfamiliar literacy task, like maybe it's an assignment their first year in college and they don't know what to do yet, but they have a rhetorical problem solving process. They've got some big concepts, like genre and audience, that they can hang onto. And they feel like they can figure it out, so I think that shift to rhetorical thinking, while it demands more students, students like being asked to do more ultimately. They like to have their intelligence honored and challenged and they can do the work.
Bill: How do these rhetorical skills equip kids for post-secondary success?
Jennifer Fletcher: I think a lot about the purpose of education and the learning that students are going to carry with them. And that ability to read and write rhetorically is what prepares students to communicate effectively and think critically across a variety of settings, including, as I mentioned, the totally unfamiliar ones. So, situational awareness and responsiveness, that's thinking rhetorically, that's the key to transfer of learning, or the ability to go into a new situation and adapt and apply your prior learning. And the really cool thing about rhetorical thinking I also appreciate is that it is about comparing and contrasting different contexts, like you're always thinking about the particularities. Like, "How is this person I'm writing for different from the last person that I'm writing for," or "How is this speech I'm going to give special for this occasion," or the podcast I'm producing or whatever. "Who are going to be my listeners, what do they care about?"
Jennifer Fletcher: And so teaching students to think that way helps them to develop independence. It helps them to be creative and it helps them when they face those new situations to not feel overwhelmed and unprepared. They've got some skills and some resources that they can rely on when they're going into a new setting.
Bill: You had some kids in ninth grade and then 11th grade, and they didn't use the note-taking skills that you taught them in ninth grade. What do you think makes rhetorical skills stick?
Jennifer Fletcher: I think what makes them stick is that this is how language works. It's real. I mean, this is how communication works. So when you see kind of the behind the scenes operations of how human beings use language in their real lives, that's compelling evidence and the results are also really convincing. I'm not someone who likes to teach with a lot of acronyms or scaffolds or kind of gimmicks. I like to help students focus on a few of those really sticky concepts, like audience and purpose, because it's that conceptual knowledge applied across multiple contexts and that interdisciplinary conceptual knowledge that stays with students and that they're going to continue to rely on, whether there's a teacher or a manager there to tell them what to do or not.
Bill: Jennifer, you ask in the book, are we preparing our children for the world we want to see. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Our public discourse has become so divided in this country and our differences and beliefs seem almost insurmountable. How can rhetorical skills help?
Jennifer Fletcher: I think a lot about the purpose of education and the learning that our students carry with them into their lives. And I'm a big advocate of practices like dialogic communication and non-defensive listening because it can be really challenging for people to understand each other. It can knock the wind out of us when we feel like someone's not listening to us. One of the rhetorical principles that I think is especially important is to understand before you argue, which is again that whole kind of reading with or listening with the grain and then reading against the grain. Obstacles to understanding interfere with our ability to solve problems together, just to work together.
Jennifer Fletcher: Think about maybe a difficult conversation that you experienced or witnessed at work and maybe how much better that conversation would've gone if the participants had brought a rhetorical mindset to the discussion. So, for instance, instead of just kind of digging in and defending our own positions, if we ask what has already been done in this situation to solve the problem? What contribution can I make? Who am I in this situation? And what are the principles of not only effective, but also ethical communication that contribute to collaborative problem solving? And those are all rhetorical questions. Those are questions about the rhetorical situation that you're entering that don't have anything to do with Aristotelian rhetoric, but about kind of real world communication today.
Jennifer Fletcher: So when you ask about preparing students for the world we want to see, I think that's where the concern over how to address the divisiveness really is something for us to think carefully about when we reflect on our own instructional practices and I can share some examples of that.
Bill: What are some of the examples and strategies that you can share?
Jennifer Fletcher: Well, maybe I can start with a non-example. If we teach persuasion through strategies for manipulating people, we're not preparing them to have productive conversations. And sometimes that sort of activity is really engaging because you kind of get into propaganda and you can talk about persuasion as we're playing with people's emotions, but I think it's important to also reflect critically on the degree to which students kind of carry away a sense of defensiveness from that. Like, "Oh, I have to be on my guard because other people might be trying to trick me." So it's the framing. If we're trying to frame toward dialogue and toward working together to solve problems, then the way that we teach something like argument or we teach communication, we're going to want it to be more aligned with helping people to negotiate different viewpoints and listen non-defensively.
Jennifer Fletcher: And I especially worry about approaches to argumentation that are combative or kind of take that win/lose approach. But I also worry about approaches that are too narrow and shortsighted. If we're just teaching toward a short-term goal, like success on a particular test or a single assignment, we miss out on the opportunities to leverage students' cultural and personal resources. I don't want my students going out into the world feeling like they have to always defend themselves kind of from attacks when they're working with other people, but also that they don't have to always follow someone else's directions.
Bill: I wanted to ask something about listening and how do you teach that skill because it seems like everything starts with that? And how do you teach how to truly listen to somebody instead of just waiting there for your turn to kind of leap in with everything that you want to say? How do you teach how to really engage with that other person and hear their ideas?
Jennifer Fletcher: Yeah, great question. I've learned a lot from Peter Elbow's idea of the believing game and the practice of listening with the purpose of understanding and trying to understand a perspective on its own terms, which means we're seeing the issue through the writer's world view. We're kind of setting our own preconceptions or our own frameworks for understanding and we're depersonalizing. We're postponing our judgment. And we're also trying to see the big picture beyond just what our personal reaction is. So, that takes a lot of practice and coaching. When we're doing that as readers, often we have to kind of come back to, "Okay, what's the writer saying? How do I know that the writer is saying this? Am I kind of setting aside those assumptions at this point in the reading and really coming up with a paraphrase that if I were in the room with the writer, the writer would say you've got it, that is what I'm saying?"
Bill: Have you heard from a district or a school or any individuals that are using the book?
Jennifer Fletcher: It's been really great to hear from teachers who are using the book. There's a group in Michigan, for instance, that's doing a book study and really focusing especially on how do you cultivate students' autonomy and expertise and get away from some of the over scaffolding that tends to happen in writing classrooms. I've been hearing from teachers that activities like the choosing a logo for an animal shelter, which is an exercise in analyzing rhetorical situations. It's one of the activities in the appendix and there are lots of graphic organizers that go along with it. That's immediately engaging, but also intellectually challenging. And it's not using a lot of heavy-handed rhetorical theory. It's engaging students in talking about different options for visual images, like what's the best logo to put on a uniform or a mug or on an animal shelter's website.
Jennifer Fletcher: And so that has a lot of appeal as kind of an introductory move for helping students to start to understand what it means to think rhetorically. I hear from teachers too about the says and does strategies, so the descriptive outlining, going beyond just summary to get into that rhetorical analysis of the effects, the functions, and the purposes of writers' moves too, and that's something that really helps with things like studying mentor text. Mentor text is all about genre analysis. So if you've got more of a language and you've got more ways to think about what it is that writers are doing and why they're doing it in particular situations or particular genres, then you've got a framework for helping students to make their own choices as writers.
Bill: Some people might look at this book and go, well that's explicitly secondary. How do you think this book...
Jennifer Fletcher: This is a book about teaching writing for transfer and transfer is always about the whole educational journey and how the choices we make as teachers, we want whatever we're doing at each stage of that journey to be aligned to where students are going next and we especially don't want to set up roadblocks to transfer, where what students are doing to kind of get by in a particular class is only going to be valuable in that context and isn't going to help them be successful in multiple diverse contexts moving forward. So, teaching students at the middle school level and the upper elementary level to start to think rhetorically about how they write, about how they communicate, is really great preparation for getting that kind of extra critical thinking stretch from them as they move on into high school and beyond.
Jennifer Fletcher: And what that's going to look like at that level is questions about things like identity and perspective taking and reflection and writer's choices. So, when you ask kids, "Who are you in this situation where you're talking to your friends or you're talking to your teachers or you're giving a speech at your eighth grade promotion," you're asking them to think rhetorically.
Jennifer Fletcher: And so you're developing their responsiveness, you're developing their awareness, you're doing it in a way that is fun and engaging and is not overwhelming at that level, but that's going to set them on that path of success, where in high school they have these concepts to build on.
Bill: Back in grad school I taught freshman comp and I taught it much the way you did early in your career. I thought for the students. So, let's say we were having a conversation back then and I was really intrigued with teaching rhetorical thinking, what would you say to me to get me to really embrace it?
Jennifer Fletcher: I would say that when we teach for change instead of trying to just prepare students to kind of cope with the status quo, we're really doing right by our students because they are going to struggle. And I think about what we lived through the last few years with the global pandemic and with the radical disruptions and changes that all of us experienced in our lives and what it feels like to be confronted by kind of radical novelty. I see my college seniors really being concerned about their futures and that fear of change is kind of natural to that transition. When I taught high school, I would see those 12th graders be worried about what's next for them. And when I worked with first-year college students or when I worked with ninth graders, I would see the anxiety that students experience being in a new learning environment on a new campus.
Jennifer Fletcher: And we can't take that struggle away from students, but if we are teaching just kind of rules and formulas and one size fits all approaches where it feels like, "Hey, the world is never going to change, so you learn this one way to write the five paragraph essay, you're done. You're covered for the next 50 years." That's a real disservice to students because that's not going to be the reality of their lives. Change can always be anxiety-producing, but if you've got concepts that are all about noticing change and comparing and contrasting concepts and being able to adapt when kind of the ground shifts underneath you, that's a tremendous confidence boost and it's also going to help the students to negotiate those really difficult transitions from high school to college or from school to career.
Bill: Jennifer, do you have a favorite lesson or activity in the book and can you tell us a little bit about how that went once?
Jennifer Fletcher: One of my favorite activities because its so much fun to do with students and it really showcases their brilliance is collaborative rhetorical problem solving where we have been engaged in doing some readings together, we're looking at a question at issue like, "What do you do about the problem of food waste," and then the students start to brainstorm some kind of rhetorical action to take in response. And so we move out from, "Here's the issue or the problem we want to address," to start thinking about, "Okay, well, who actually has the power to do something about this," which is a very different kind of approach to an assignment from just like, "Here's your prompt, you're writing for this audience, you're writing for this topic, you're writing in this genre," where all the decisions are already made for students.
Jennifer Fletcher: When we brainstorm together, they then go from choosing an audience, like for food waste maybe it's restaurant owners, maybe it's food bank managers, maybe it's consumers, maybe it's parents, whoever, maybe it's schools. And then they narrow down to a particular target audience, like "Okay, I want to reach out to restaurant owners." So then you brainstorm, "Well, what's the best way to reach those people?" And now, students are thinking about genre. Should it be an email? Should it be a tweet? Should it be a face-to-face conversation, or my goodness, even a phone call. These are genres of communication or forms of communication. And so that kind of high-level critical thinking where students are being empowered to make decisions about audience and genre based on their purpose. I think that's one of my favorite things to do because it really shows students where they're going next with these skills. They're going to put these skills to use in real situations.
Bill: I know teaching for transfer is a big part of the book. Can you tell us how you define that?
Jennifer Fletcher: People like Robert Haskell, David Perkins, and Gabrielle Solomon describe transfer as the use of prior learning in new situations, including situations that are significantly different from the context in which those skills and knowledge were originally acquired. And I want to share a story with you of one of my students. So one of my seniors is a former elite football player who is now pursuing a career as a personal trainer and health advocate. He's producing a podcast featuring interviews with athletes for my class, and that's an example of transfer. He's applying these key interdisciplinary concepts and skills across multiple contexts in innovative ways. And that's what transfer and teaching for transfer makes happen that I think is so important that students look for opportunities to carry over learning from say their English class to their social science class, or from their science class into their English class.
Jennifer Fletcher: That inquiry process that you use for a science project, or maybe an engineering design project, that you can follow those same kinds of steps of researching the problem and starting to develop a prototype and testing it out and kind of getting feedback and modifications. That's an example of transfer across content areas. So what transfers are those big ideas that students understand at a deep level and this is another way that we support students across those critical transitions that can personally be really challenging.
Jennifer Fletcher: My student talks about how he made this pivot when he could no longer play competitive sports. That was a big change in his life. And some of those big life changes hit us really hard. They can be kind of a shock to our system. But those critical transitions, they are deeply stabilizing and I think that preparing students for being resourceful, being flexible, kind of being resilient and coaching themselves through those changes, when students understand the way to make their own transfer of learning happen, they're much better prepared for negotiating kind of those challenges in life. We can't take the struggle away from students, but we can help them develop the capacities that help people navigate and lead change.
Bill: This is your third book with Stenhouse, the first two being Teaching Arguments, Teaching Literature Rhetorically, and now Writing Rhetorically. How do you see them fitting together?
Jennifer Fletcher: So all of my work focuses on fostering students' rhetorical literacy skills and critical thinking skills. And Teaching Arguments is a great entry point into this. It's really introducing students to those big ideas of rhetorical thinking, like audience, purpose, and occasion, and setting them up to go beyond kind of their surface level understanding or their beginning understandings into more sophisticated and complex work. I'd say Teaching Arguments is a great kind of introduction for teachers too who might be newer to rhetorical theory and practice. And I've heard from a lot AP Language teachers who have found it helpful for their work.
Jennifer Fletcher: Teaching Literature Rhetorically, my second book, takes some of those concepts, but also goes a lot further with framing instruction for transfer and digging into the dynamics of rhetorical situations and looking at how transfer from reading say non-fiction text works with reading literary texts. And so being able to talk about the claims in a poem or the logical development of a speech in a play. These are high utility skills that when we frame literary learning with this goal of, "Okay, what are the takeaway understandings that students can carry with them," then they're getting more out of their literary study.
Jennifer Fletcher: I'll say too, with Teaching Literature Rhetorically, this is where teachers are going to find a chapter on genre analysis and using mentor text and really that rhetorical understanding of genre where it's not like just, "Okay, genre is a fixed category that never changes like short stories or plays or poetry," but that genre, from that rhetorical perspective, is a way of doing some kind of work and that genre, as rhetoricians say, are typified responses to recurring rhetorical situations, which just means these are common ways that people have responded to these same situations, but it doesn't mean that they're always going to keep responding the same way.
Jennifer Fletcher: My new book, Writing Rhetorically, really makes an argument for why teaching for transfer, why teaching for independence, and why fostering rhetorical thinking is so important for students' agency and autonomy. And I have to say, I feel like I said what I wanted to say in this new book. It does offer alternatives to over-scaffolding and formulaic writing instruction that can get in the way of transfer and students' independence.
Bill: If listeners want to know more about you or the book, where can they find you online?
Jennifer Fletcher: So I blog at rhetoricalthinking.com and I tweet @JenJFletcher.
Bill: Thanks again so much for talking with us today. I really enjoyed it.
Jennifer Fletcher: Thank you. It was my pleasure.