"I think that understanding literature itself as socially situated that literature doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's very much plugged into the real world."
In this episode of Teacher's Corner, Jennifer Fletcher, California State University professor and author of Teaching Literature Rhetorically, explains how rhetorical thinking empowers all students to read and write across the diverse contexts of today and tomorrow.
Teaching literature rhetorically helps your students develop transferrable literacy skills that allow them to succeed not just in their English language arts classes, but more importantly their future lives in college, career, and beyond allowing you to answer that inevitable question, How am I ever going to use this in real life?
Jennifer F.: Thinking rhetorically is really the key to communicating across different contexts. It's about adaptability, it's about responsiveness. So for instance, going into a new situation you haven't faced before and figuring out like what's important in this context? What do people care about? What do they want to talk about?
Jennifer F.: But also how do they talk? Paying attention to all those different contextual cues. So rhetorical thinking really gets at problem solving and effective communication in different situations. One of the best ways that students benefit from this kind of rhetorical approach. So I think it's deeply empowering because you're giving all this focus on audience, you really are saying, how does this text impact you as a reader? How does it make you feel? What are the effects of these writer's choices on you? And then also check in with your peers around you.
Jennifer F.: How are they being impacted by this work as well? So it really shifts students away from thinking, Oh, there's a right answer in the text. There's one right theme that I'm supposed to discover. The teacher already knows it. So I've just got to kind of figure out what the teacher's thinking to understanding how individuals create meaning, how communities create meaning and understanding all these dynamic components of acts of communication.
Jennifer F.: So it's not just kind of here's the text and it's a work of art and it's going to stand on its own, but here's the text and here's the writer and here's the reader and here's the whole social world surrounding them. And so when students understand how dynamic and how interrelated those components are, I think it really is empowering that it honors their agency as meaning makers and as participants in these kinds of conversations.
Jennifer F.: I can think of a few specific examples that kind of rhetorical reading of literature where a student maybe didn't like a work of literature. I can think of one case where a student didn't really like a science fiction novel and had said, Oh yeah, I don't read science fiction, that's not my thing. I really wasn't into it. But when we did all that kind of below the surface work and we did all that, what's the text saying? What's the text doing? How does it impact you? Check in with people around you and really analyze the writer's moves in terms of their effects and functions. The student said, "I can see why we're reading this now. I didn't like it before, but I can see that there's something in this for me."
Jennifer F.: And that the student happened to be someone who liked poetry. And so that idea of learning from the moves of other writers was something that was a real takeaway for her. I had another student who sent me an email after he graduated about how he had gone on to the Department of Defense as a tech writer. And so he'd been in one of my courses where we'd been reading literature, but we'd also been talking about audience, purpose and context.
Jennifer F.: And he said that he was given an assignment where he had to do some research for different kinds of technology solutions for a problem that his team was working on. And even though he had developed those skills, working with literary texts in an English class, he said that like, he knew exactly what to do. He could make a recommendation, he could do that review of the different sources and say here's what they say, but also here's what you should know about like what kind of a source it is.
Jennifer F.: And so it made my day to hear that he got out of the class what he wanted even though he didn't go on to become an English Teacher. So that kind of rhetorical learning combined with literary learning I think just vastly expands the applications of the work that we're asking students to do in English language arts classes.
Jennifer F.: So the book is really about teaching rhetorical thinking skills through literary texts. So doing things like analyzing genres, assessing different rhetorical situations, developing and supporting a line of reasoning. And the big idea is really how do we make the most of our opportunities to develop transferrable learning through literature and really help students to kind of get more out of their work in reading literary texts and in writing about literary texts. What teachers are going to find in the book is a really practical guide to helping students understand the reasons for the choices that writers make and also for the choices that we have as readers.
Jennifer F.: So it brings together literature and rhetoric in a way that really kind of gives students all the resources, kind of all the big concepts of both of those disciplines. The first chapter starts off with really sharing ways to help students practice integrative thinking. It's bringing together things from different experiences and really as kind of a bridge to transfer of learning.
Jennifer F.: So how do you connect your home life to your school life? How do you connect your science class to your English class? How do you blend writing arguments about say nonfiction with doing literary analysis? How do you bring storytelling into things that you might be doing for down the road for your career, for your job. So really trying to get students to think outside of kind of those categories or silos and bring everything together because those resources are their assets and rhetoric is about discovering what you have to work with and then how you make it work.
Jennifer F.: Aristotle says that "Rhetoric is the ability to discover the best available means of persuasion in a given situation." And if we kind of swap out persuasion for something like problem solving, what are you going to do to deal with this problem? That's where rhetorical thinking is really helpful, but that's where also not limiting yourself to just a really narrow set of resources.
Jennifer F.: If you know things from all these different fields, you have all these different skills, that's going to give you a whole lot more leverage to actually solve those problems. And then the other thing that happens with that, because rhetorical thinking is about figuring out what's important for audiences or purposes or contexts. So the focus on context is what helps students to adapt and apply their learning in new situations. When you can compare and contrast context, then you can figure out, okay this is relevant in this situation, maybe it's not so relevant over here.
Jennifer F.: And I want to bring all of this to work with literary texts because literature is so important. Literature is where we learn about our identities, we learn about other people's identities, we develop empathy. We have that kind of wonderful experience with just the total pleasure of reading and enjoying somebody else's craft. And so that learning is too important to be left behind.
Jennifer F.: If you can't change it up and transfer it for new situations, if you can't carry what you know about literature into your work in the business field or into the medical field or sports or wherever you might be going in life, you're losing out on a lot of those resources that can help you communicate more effectively and solve those problems but also be a happier human being who contributes to your own well-being and the well-being of others.
Jennifer F.: The chapters are going to take readers on that journey from integrative thinking. So bringing together literature and rhetoric and then through the nuts and bolts of those kind of critical communication skills. So you've got a big chapter on reading closely and critically, you've got another chapter on assessing rhetorical situation because that's where it all starts.
Jennifer F.: First thought is what kind of situation am I getting myself into? And we can look at models of how literary characters respond to different situations and kind of learn from the moves that they make. But we can also think about the ways that literary texts are situated in specific, social, historical, ideological context. And when we do that, work with students, that's really deep analytical work. And so, you're getting a lot of really rich valuable learning out of bringing in that idea of a rhetorical situation, which is, that's not something we typically talk about with literature.
Jennifer F.: We're usually talking about, plot and theme and imagery and figurative language and now all of a sudden we're talking about audience and purpose and occasion. But when you bring that together, students now have this kind of really adaptable tool kit and they've got some deep understandings of concepts that they're going to be able to carry with them into all kinds of diverse settings.
Jennifer F.: Students are also going to, or teachers are also going to find in the chapters support for teaching critical reasoning, teaching genre analysis, which I think is super important. I don't think we've as literature teachers done enough to help students understand the ways that genres change. And that the genres are a part of rhetorical situations. We tend to teach literature with kind of these fixed categories. You've got your short stories, you've got your poems, you've got your dramas.
Jennifer F.: So it feels like there aren't any choices to make about genre because the choices have all been made. That's how the literature anthology is organized. And so changing that thinking, shifting that thinking toward a more rhetorical stance where students say, Oh genres do change and here's why they change.
Jennifer F.: And here's how I can be a part of that change too and make my own choices. That's another high utility competency. There's also support for negotiating different perspectives and voices. And then the book ends with a chapter on reading and writing with passion and really kind of tries to make that final case for why we need literature. Why literature changes our lives, why it's important to pay attention to emotion and communication that emotions not something that we need to necessarily kind of fear or avoid?
Jennifer F.: And academic work that emotion can be a really important data point. And so really embracing that idea of we hold on to the learning that's been really emotionally engaging and personally valuable for us and literature should be a huge part of that. One of the best things we can do for our students is give them that confidence and give them the problem solving skills where they feel like they can go into any situation and figure out how to be successful.
Jennifer F.: Knowing that they don't have to wait for the teacher to tell them what to do. They don't have to wait for someone else's directions, but that they can draw on their own knowledge of things like audience and purpose and context and genre to figure out what's called for in that situation. With literature often kind of literature is taught as if it's in its own world.
Jennifer F.: We talk about universal themes or kind of timeless voices and timeless visions. And I think that understanding literature itself as socially situated that, literature doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's very much plugged into the real world. And so helping students engage literature in a way where they're really bringing it to life, bringing to life all the different perspectives in the conversation and not treating literary texts as if they're just something kind of on the bookshelf that only exist in English classrooms.
Nate Butler: Teaching Literature Rhetorically is available now at Stenhouse. Visit our site stenhouse.com to preview and learn more about Jennifer's work. Next time on Teacher's Corner, Katie Cunningham shares how the science of happiness informed her new book, Start With Joy, Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness.
Nate Butler: We hope you enjoyed today's Teacher's Corner and we'd love to hear from you. If you have any questions or comments, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.