Demosthenes Practising Oratory by Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouy
Classroom Philosophy and Strategies Rhetoric
The following statement of philosophy and strategies of rhetoric apply primarily to upper-level humanities education and reflects my personal opinions and convictions which, I believe, are grounded in and supported by Platonic and Christian principles.
- Lecturing has its place in the classroom, but not first place.
- Better teachers are navigators, not dictators, of discussion.
- Dialogue (Dialectic) is the highest sphere of Socratic contemplation. Better teachers are dialogues, not monologues, who understand the art and science of the question. Teacher-supplied information lends itself to a more passive intellectual response from the student, whereas “the question” requires of the student more active intellectual engagement in the process of discovery. The well crafted question knows the answer it seeks and queries the student in such a way that s/he experiences “heuristic” learning, “heuristic” derived from the Greek word heurisko (as in Eureka!), meaning “I find,” or more traditionally, “I found it!” This phenomenon is also called “the flash of insight” and “turning the light on.” Confucius says, “When the best leader's work is done, the people say, 'We did it ourselves!'” That is the heuristic experience of learning– the discovery of knowledge and wisdom– and derives from the art and science of the question.
- Better teachers know how to listen well, which allows the teacher to ask questions that consistently move classroom dialogue “upward.” After all, even in a non-Christian setting, the purpose of the Socratic method is transcendent contemplation of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. That contemplative goal must be infinitely more important in a Christian setting where transcendence toward the Absolute should be the ultimate aim of every discussion. Transcendence is the aim of dialogue; this is the essence of Plato's dialectic, Socrates' method, and Jesus' didacticism.
- Jesus Christ used the power of the question, particularly in one-to-one and small-crowd encounters, e.g., “Where is thy husband?”, “Wilt thou be made whole?”, and “Whom do men say that I am?” Like Socrates but in a higher way, Jesus Christ always knew the answers to the questions He asked, and He knew how to phrase questions in such a way as to guide His student to a transcendent, heuristic experience. Better teachers follow the examples of Socrates and Jesus Christ, but that pursuit requires the teacher to be knowledgeable, discerning, articulate, and always in pursuit of transcendence.
- Better teachers know how to involve all students in class discussion.
- The word “education” derives from the Latin term educare, meaning “to lead out of” or “to bring forth.” Better teachers lead their students “out of” mundane conversations about people, things, and events and “bring them forth” into the higher sphere of ideas, especially absolutes.
- “Circle seating” enhances and democratizes discussion and fosters a much better environment for the Socratic dialogue; vertical lines and rows lend themselves to monologue, not dialogue, and increase the student's dependency upon the teacher while decreasing the student's sense of “belonging” to the discussion. Circle seating also enhances facial encounter and eye contact among the group, which are key catalysts to meaningful group discussion.
- Better teachers put the weight of responsibility for class leadership upon the student. Individual students should frequently be “up front” with the responsibility to lead class discussion. Practical methods to accomplish this include the following:
- short presentations about assigned sections in the history or literature texts, and
- longer, formal presentations.
- The best class discussions (and essays) are those that are “text-tethered,” which accomplishes a three-way intersection of brains: the student's brain, the teacher's brain, and the brain behind the text which, typically, is the brain of a genius; hence, “text-tethered” discussions “nod to” and “salute” genius, which elevates both the teacher and the student into a dialogue with genius. Biblically understood, this is the phenomenon of “iron sharpening iron.” Of course, the biblically informed teacher will seize key opportunities to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God,” and “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
- The teacher is himself/herself both interested and interesting, well-informed, articulate, and passionate about the text.
- Better writing and better speaking derive from better thinking.
- Better teachers model elegant and eloquent rhetoric. Better teachers think well, write well, and speak well. A teacher cannot expect his/her students to think, write, or speak well if s/he does not. Exemplary rhetoric is both the professional and ethical responsibility of the teacher toward the student, especially in a classical and/or Christian school. Bad rhetoric, such as verbal garbage, off-color comments, and mundane subject matter, has no place in the classroom and is not only linguistically “vulgar” but is also detrimental to the student.
- The use of a simple marker board to highlight key information, or other modes of visual reinforcement of verbal instruction, are highly effective tools.
- Film should be chosen carefully and used sparingly and complementarily. Documentary films with scholarly content, or highly artistic films, are preferred.
Writing Workshops, In-class Essays, and Re-writes
- Reading (which includes listening), writing, and speaking are the “holy trinity” of humanities learning.
- Reading, writing, and speaking constitute a triple reinforcement of important ideas requiring tactile, visual, and auditory modes of learning.
- Students should both write and speak formally about every major work of literature they read.
- The writing workshop produces multiple benefits:
- it decreases homework time for students;
- it provides many opportunities for one-on-one instruction about content and style;
- depending on the rhetorical maturity of the class, it sometimes provides the instructor with much needed time for reading, grading, and preparation.
- The in-class essay is the most effective method of essay writing for several reasons:
- it ensures authenticity;
- it provides an accurate “x-ray” of the student, giving the teacher a clear, unfiltered “look” at where the student actually "is” intellectually and rhetorically;
- it fosters spontaneity and scintillating brilliance in the student;
- it allows for face-to-face interaction between the teacher and the student during the writing process;
- it puts “healthy pressure” upon the student to produce well written ideas within fixed and certain time limits;
- it prepares the student for the Advanced Placement tests in multiple subject areas;
- it prepares the student for university-style examinations;
- it preserves the art and skill of writing with the hand as a critical element of rhetoric and a beneficial component of learning through tactile and visual means.
- “The only kind of writing is re-writing.” (Hemingway, A Moveable Feast)
- Re-writing should be based upon meticulous grading for errors in grammar, organization, diction, and content.
- Re-writing requires the acquisition of editorial skills.
- Re-writing conforms to AP methods and expectations.
- Historically, I have made re-writing an option for the attainment of an additional one-letter-grade improvement of an essay score; beginning this year, I will require re-writes of all essays by all students.
- I require re-writes to be typewritten and thus allow technological aids in the re-writing process. Only skilled writers should use technology as their “first pencil” since technology artificializes grammatical, formal, and compositional knowledge and skills by means of the “tools menu.” The skilled writer knows more than his computer; typically, students are not skilled writers and are now increasingly dependent upon the artificial intelligence of technological resources, which has had a most detrimental effect upon both writing and speaking skills. Relegation of technology to a secondary role in the writing process allows the student to “suffer” the pains of a non-technologically-assisted first draft that inherently requires the use of more “brain power” in the writing process, such as wrestling with diction and spelling, and visually recognizing errors in writing without the effortless and non-instructional assistance of technology.
- Re-writes are an out-of-class assignment and must be completed within one week after the return of a graded essay with a maximum reward of a one-letter-grade increase.
- In the rewriting process, students learn from their first-draft mistakes and thus improve their writing.
Exception to the AboveI allow only one exception to the above writing methods: major research papers. For a major research paper, I allow more use of technology in the research and writing process; however, I never assign a research paper until I am thoroughly familiar with a student's writing style and level of diction. If I know my student's writing well, that practically guarantees that I recognize inappropriate input. That approach assures the authenticity of the student's work. I also forbid outside editors including tutors, other teacher, parents, and fellow students, and I require research papers to be turned in via a plagiarism filter such as turnitin.com.
- Spoken language is potentially sacred and sacramental. Aristotle defines diction as “the power of saying whatever can be said.” Perhaps a better definition is this: “Diction is saying the best thing in the best way.” We should remember that the eloquent and profound sayings of Socrates, Aristotle, and Jesus Christ were based upon, not what they wrote down, but what others wrote down who heard them speak. Speaking well is as important an element of rhetoric as writing well. Arguably, speaking well is more important than writing well since all people are speakers but few people are writers.
- Speaking well is more difficult than writing well:
- writing allows for patient editing and reflection;
- speaking typically cannot be edited except for a split second before the word is spoken; the rapid spontaneity of speaking is therefore more prone to
- redundancy and superficiality in diction, tone, and content;
- bad speech habits, such as verbal garbage and cliches; and,
- errors both in content and style.
- Speaking well is practically a lost art in contemporary society and should be a primary goal of the classical and/or Christian school.
- Speaking is potentially a sacred and sacramental act. I lecture all my classes annually on the sacred and sacramental nature of language, which more than implies that speaking and writing well are ethical and spiritual responsibilities.
- God calls His precious son ho logos, “the Word”; therefore, we should recognize the sacred potentiality of language;
- Every word is trinitarian in nature, and always reflective of a holy or unholy trinity.
- “the invisible” is the idea behind the word, and corresponds to God the Father;
- “the breathable” is the breath or pneuma upon the flesh (vocal chords, palate, lips) which, respectively, exhale and articulate the idea; breath is an essential component of speaking, and corresponds to God the Holy Spirit or the “Holy Breath,” to pneuma to hagion. As Jesus said, “The words that I speak to you are [S]pirit.”
- “the articulable” is the word itself, informed and inhabited by the idea, inspired and invigorated by the breath, and framed and phrased by the flesh, and corresponds to God the Son, whom God calls “The Word made flesh.”
- The trinitarian nature of the spoken word means that every word we speak should be spoken with the utmost care. Solomon teaches us that “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” and Jesus Christ teaches us that “every idle word that men shall speak they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment; for by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” Therefore, it behooves us to speak wisely, purely, and beautifully. In Platonic terms, our speech should aim for The Good, The Beautiful, and The True.
- Moreover, every word potentially has sacramental power, the capacity to be an oracle of wisdom and a conveyer of Goodness, Beauty, and Truth; conversely, every ill-spoken word has the capacity for badness, ugliness, and falsity. Our words are like ferry boats and cargo ships; they always carry something to others, whether good or bad. We should “load our boats” with good cargo and remember that our speech can be sacramental.
- Formal presentations elevate and polish a student's rhetorical abilities.
- Graded formal presentations raise a student's awareness about the importance of speaking well including
- the use of good grammar, diction, tone, and organization; and,
- the eradication of verbal garbage and other bad speech habits, such as monotony of tone or predictability of diction.
- Formal presentations, including “dressing up,” raise a student's awareness about how others perceive their speaking.
- Formal speaking polishes a student's public persona.
- Formal speaking prepares the student for leadership roles in “the real world.”
- Formal presentations make students literally “think on their feet.”
- When a student speaks well in a formal presentation, other students learn from that student and thus work to refine their own rhetorical abilities.
- I require formal presentations on all major works we study.
- I require students to base their formal presentations on their previously written essays.
- I require students to use a literary-critical device, such as theme, symbol, irony, imagery, etc., to analyze the theological, philosophical, and literary texts we study. We call such literary-critical devices our “microscopes” and our “scalpels” by which we closely examine and dissect text. That method ensures that students are always synthesizing three important ideas: the students' own ideas, the idea behind the literary-critical device, and the idea within the text.
- To me, the student's voice is the most important “voice” in essays and speeches, more important than the voice of the critics or the authors they study, at least more important in the sense that my highest responsibility is to the student and his or her improvement as a writer and speaker.
- I allow no notes, though I do teach students how to create and use the “memory palace” techniques of the Greeks if they choose to do so.
- I cultivate in students a “high reward expectation” for formal presentations.
- I grade formal presentations rather gently.
- I draw out students in my lectures, calling upon them specifically by name.
- Almost on a daily basis I require student-led discussions.
- Here are a couple examples of typical shorter presentations I assign students:
- Choose a canto from Dante's Inferno and identify and explain Dantean analogy;
- Identify and summarize the key ideas in a specific section of a history or literary text;
- Explain what is the author's tone in a given passage;
- Identify and explain the various kinds of imagery in a stanza of poetry.