Rhetoric is my word of the year, this year. Because so many of my students come and go, I recognized the need to have something consistent, so that even if they left during Hamlet and come back during Spoken Word Poetry, there is something they already know and can apply to their learning. I’m trying to give them roots.

Rhetoric is both a process and a product. It has allowed us to study the language used in the Presidential Debates, the  Bill of Rights, and historical essays like Time and Distance Overcome by Eula Biss; how that language influences, affects and persuades us to think and feel certain ways.

I had initially planned to teach Othello in November, but as we say here “We are nothing if not flexible.” My population’s age, maturity & ability levels weren’t what I needed it to be for us to be successful, like Hamlet had been last year. On the cusp of the election, having studied the Bill of Rights, and the recent release of Ava Duvernay’s Netflix documentary made the stars align.

We started a unit inspired by  New Directions in Teaching English: Reimagining Teaching, Teacher Education, and ResearchWe began to define, identify and study the people we call Warrior-Scholars, those who are “powerful examples of people of color who use literacy as a practice of freedom, a way to assert their humanity, and to struggle for justice for their community.” 

This is what my students came up with: Link to Class Doc

We watched movie clips & interviews, read Emmy & Oscar speeches, and the students created their own definitions of what a Warrior-Scholar is to them. It became one of my favorite experiences with these kids.

The next week we began viewing & discussing The 13th. Something I don’t think I could dream of doing in a public school, but something so necessary and deeply meaningful for all of our country’s children. Duvernay, a Warrior-Scholar herself, compiles a powerful series of interviews, historical clips, visual information, and tributes to loss & culture. I had State Staff in my room each hour, not for supervision, but because they were so engrossed in the film – some even took notes.

The conversations we had broke my heart. The looks on their faces as they began to understand the systems working against them, the ignorance that traps them, the statistics that include their brothers, fathers, uncles and cousins…

Rhetoric is important. It is the effective use of language, affecting how we think and feel.

The 13th Amendment of the United States of America – the land of the free – reads:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

I am one person. Alone, I can’t change our Constitution, I can’t dispell the fear of millions or the subconscious “othering” that happens when people watch the news, I can’t fix the people who label others as “problems” or reduce them to their crimes. What I can do is tell my students, with tears in their eyes, the thing that I believe with every fiber of my being:

“You are human beings, you have and you deserve dignity. You are more than your crimes, and no matter what confines you, you control your mind and your heart. No matter what anyone says, they cannot take that from you.”

Rhetoric is important.

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