Category Archives: writing exercise

10 Minute Mini-Lesson: Logic and Lyrics, Rhyme and Rhetoric

Here is an assignment I did with my students today that came to me based on a song I heard while I was at the gym. It was great fun and just what we needed as a brief break. I teach all boys, juniors, and this might not be appropriate for all levels (but the idea of taking something and carving it up for students to put back together would still be valid). I am always interested in logic, inferences, rhetorical skills and reasoning–and this has it all. NEVER let anyone talk you out of having FUN in class (a common temptation because then you aren’t “serious” enough).

I gave the students the following set up: What follows are the lyrics to a song. You need to make 4 lines of either 6 or seven syllables. Each line will begin, “I make a…” and then you will pick one from column A and one from column B. You’ll need to account for rhyme (where should the rhyme go?) and though there are several ways to put this together, there is really only one “best” way.

Column A                                                                          Column B

1. Rich Woman                                                               A. Blush

2. Young Girl                                                                   B. Steal

3. Old Woman                                                                 C. Squeal

4. Good Woman                                                             D. Beg


The clue that I gave them was that three from column A “violate” our expectation of them and one does what is “expected.” You could, of course tell them it is two lines of hexameter (or a 12 syllable and a 13 syllable line that rhyme). But you still have to get things in the correct order. The most common “mistake” my students made was assigning the Rich Woman to Steal. That makes sense of course but does not leave a particularly good answer for the Good Woman. If you gave the Good Woman “blush” then the Old Woman would be left with either “Beg” or “Squeal”–neither of which is as satisfactory as the best way.  Here is the way that George Thorogood (“Bad to the Bone”) frames it and I’ll say a few words about thinking through the “best” organization”

I make a Rich Woman Beg,

I make a Good Woman Steal,

I make an Old Woman Blush

I make a Young Girl Squeal.

Why is this better than, say switching lines 2 and 4 or 1 and 3. You would preserve the rhyme and cadence in either case. But look carefully, this way allows the parallel construction of the old/young to be paired and both the other ways separate them. (This also goes back to flawed way of doing it from above where if the Rich Woman Steals then the Old Woman/Young Woman pairing is not as strong.) In addition, this way builds from the first three lines of the women acting counter to their nature or experience and closing with the one that A) is not a woman but a girl and B) acts as we might expect.

I was so impressed with my students as they wrestled around through some mistakes–all got the rhyme though some began with a couplet–but that wouldn’t really make the best way to sing it, now would it. In any event, we had a great time–and perhaps the unintended benefit was that the rest of the class (Chapter 23 of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) was awesome.



Filed under close reading, critical thinking, education, inferential skills, poetry, popular culture, teaching, writing exercise

“Be Like Mike” on Aristotle’s Rhetorical Playground–Ready-made lesson(s)

I love this lesson which combines two of my favorite things: 1) serious philosophical inquiry and terminology and 2) popular culture (we are right in Pulp Teacher’s wheelhouse!) (I’d say anyone from 6th grade up can get the basics and the older/more mature the students the more sophisticated the reasoning).

Aristotle identified 3 forms of appeal or persuasion–ways to convince people to do things: 1) Ethos, 2) Logos, and 3) Pathos. Working in reverse–appeals or persuasion based in Pathos are primarily emotional appeals; appeals based in Logos are primarily appeals to reason; and 3) appeals based in Ethos are appeals based in character–that of the one being appealed to as well as the one doing the appealing. It turns out that ALL forms of advertising are forms of appeal or persuasion–they are arguments (in their limited way) to get you to do something–buy a product or support a cause. Once we set this minimal intellectual scaffolding up we can do some cool things. Most advertisements, because of limited space or time, lean heavily on one or the other of these–truly complex arguments will, of course use all three in remarkably dextrous fashion. But, for teaching purposes there is nothing like the bald-faced arguments of advertising.

Every kid has seen a commercial and most of us can recognize commercials that others describe; it’s a bit trickier now with increased niche marketing but it is still easy enough to do. I habitually raise the Gatorade commercial “Be like Mike.” (Easy to show YouTube clips if you wish). It is pretty nakedly an appeal based in Ethos, to whit, “If you drink Gatorade, then you will be like Michael Jordan.” In this version there are no doctors backing this up with claims about nutrition, hydration, the science of making Gatorade (all Logos appeals) or even much of the appeal to victory, success, etc. that some times depends on Pathos. Kids always recognize appeals like the ones for Save the Children with pictures of kids in abject poverty and a voice promising that if you donate a certain amount you will change their lives. This appeal, through the visual image is primarily one of Pathos (with small elements of Logos and Ethos–though at this point I downplay the combinations until they can accurately identify main form of appeal). Television commercials that are Logos-based are harder to come by (the medium–as everyone has observed–is scarcely conducive to complex arguments) still, students can usually identify a Volvo commercial or something that cites safety statistics extensively.

Because I have an excellent relationship with our library, I get them to give me ALL of the magazines that they are throwing away and after I divide them into groups of 2 or 3 I give them a few magazines with the request to find examples of all different appeals (say 3 each). This doesn’t take terribly long and each group reports back to the whole class showing the ad and then explaining how they grouped it. For homework, each student has to do such individually and we do a quick inventory the next day to see if everyone gets the basics. By this time, they begin to see that ads with celebrity pitch-people are usually Ethos based, ads with lots of text are Logos based, and ads that contain beautiful people (while often containing a fair amount of Ethos-based argument) are filled with Pathos as described in sex appeal or humor. Gender issues are interesting and tricky here–what appeals to a woman about a make-up ad with a model is primarily Ethos-based, the male looking at it may find it Pathos based. (While it is a bit reductive, I do tell them that for right now humor and fear are Pathos–I’ll undo that semi-lie later on).

I can spend as long as I need to and give students more and more complex advertisements. I usually extend the fun when I use “arguments” from their parents and the school–“I’ll brain you if you talk to me like that” (Pathos!); “I want you to grow up to be like your Uncle Tim” (Ethos!); “If you study hard and do well and go to medical school you will secure your future.” (Logos!) As teachers we better have all of these arrows in our quivers and now we have given the students the tools to identify the ways we talk to them. “If you don’t study you will flunk and have to go to summer school” (Pathos!) “I had the same questions as you when I was a student.” (Ethos) :”The reason to work hard in this class is to secure a good grade which will help you get into the college you want to go to.” (Logos!) Students soon realize that 1) Pathos-based arguments are powerful hooks but often do not have staying power; 2) Ethos-based arguments are difficult to control–if you don’t like LeBron James you aren’t going to buy what he is selling; and 3) Logos-based arguments are often dry and boring, require work to understand–but may have the best long-term success.

Just two steps to go and you’ll have a small army of rhetoricians taking YOUR arguments apart! Ask them to take a stance like opposing teenage smoking and create an Ethos-based, a Pathos-based, and a Logos-based argument not to smoke. They almost always hit this out of the park. Next try having them create ads for buying insurance for a young family. Next, look at political ads.

Our tiny band of Aristotelians are now ready for some meatier stuff–try these three documents from the American Revolution: Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” (Pathos–a virtual locker-room speech [I’ve also used Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” for Pathos, too]); Benjamin Franklin’s “Speech at the Constitutional Convention” which is such pure Ethos I will often term it “Be Like Ben” after they identify it. Lastly, take on the “Declaration of Independence” which for most of it list-making last three-quarters is primarily Logos.

They’ll be mixing and matching appeals in no time. They’ll construct better arguments. And, the next year you can teach them about Stephen Toulmin!

From the classics to pop culture back to the classics and into their lives–a Pulp Teacher favorite.

I think next week we take on semiotics, Ovid, and kinds of readers.


Filed under Aristotle, books and learning, critical thinking, definitions, education, inferential skills, pathos, pedagogy, popular culture, rhetoric, teaching, Uncategorized, writing exercise

First Day of Class–Awe, Wonder, and Community; and Two Certainties About Education

I probably started teaching with dozens if not scores or hundreds of beliefs about education.  32 years into secondary education and I have just two bedrock beliefs left: 1) Intelligence is NOT fixed; and 2) teaching transference of skills is possible.  I’m willing to go to almost any lengths to render these beliefs incarnate.  Virtually none of my students come to my classes believing either of these (and you may not believe it either)–all of them will believe it–and demonstrate it–by spring time. We’ll spend the next 9 months improving our intelligence. But right now they BELIEVE that intelligence is something you either have or don’t and that comes to you in fixed quantities. I suspect that this attitude is the product of being forced to take standardized tests endlessly (you are compared by percentages to others constantly), hearing about IQ tests, and being subjected to teachers who believed some kids were smart and some not–and showed that to students in some way.  It’s tough to fight against this.

On the first day of class I tell my students (juniors in high school) my name and have them check their schedules to make sure that they are in the right place.  There are some administrative things to accomplish–course policies. I have only three classroom rules: 1) you cannot put your head down on the desk because, I explain, even though you might be paying attention, I cannot tell and would not want to misread you, 2) we respect each other and you should give each speaker your attention, and 3) do not ask me to go to the bathroom–if you have to go [juniors in high school!]–then go (quietly let yourself out and back in).  I tell them if situations come up that we need a rule  for then we’ll make a rule–it rarely happens. And then the real fun can begin.

I also make my students do a brief inventory, redacted below:

  1. My favorite/the best movies I’ve seen are XXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXX; I think this because…
  2. My favorite musician(s)/songs are XXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXX .  I like them because…
  3. The best book(s) I’ve read or The favorite book(s) of mine is/are XXXXXXXXXXX.  It’s the best or It’s my favorite because…
  4. This summer I read XXXXXX and I thought XXXXXXX
  5. At DeMatha, I participate in …
  6. I don’t participate in XXXX but it looks interesting
  7. Intelligence means…
  8. I learn best when I…

I rarely find an intriguing choice of movie, song or book–but I love watching the reasoning.  Part of the goal in introducing movies and music (before books) is to convince them that ALL THE WORLD’S A TEXT.  Next challenge, convince them that reading with me will make them better “readers” and thinkers, smarter and more intelligent.  After I collected these I asked two varsity quarterbacks if they “read any defenses” this summer.  They said they did but did not list that among the things they read; and, we had a fascinating discussion about what counts as a text and what needs to be “read.” But my favorite part is when they define “intelligence” (I have appended their definitions below).  I’ll teach numerous stories–especially in the first part of the year–that give us a chance to redefine and evaluate intelligence and to test our own reading.  I call your attention, as you read the following, to how many students believe that intelligence has a moral dimension–and how many don’t; to how many believe that intelligence has a practical dimension (do something with it) and how many don’t; to how many believe “speed,” “memory,” or “capacity” are important.  Note the occasional tautologies which I think are working to something deeper that the student doesn’t quite have the vocabulary to express. Hang with the blog long enough and I’ll define intelligence, too.  Though I suspect most readers of the blog could do a fair job of deducing what I think about intelligence.

Dr. McMahon’s World Lit Class–Definitions of Intelligence 2012

  • Intelligence means that you can show an expertise or skill at something.
  • Intelligence is the whole [of] ideas produced by a human.
  • Intelligence is knowing a lot of information about all kids of subjects, not just knowing a lot about one thing.
  • Intelligence means the collection of knowledge that someone may have based off of studies and travels and being able to share that knowledge.
  • Intelligence means being mentally adequate to complete different tasks.
  • Intelligence is the act of taking a situation and analyzing what has happened, in order to respond in a certain way.
  • Intelligence is what you know after you apply yourself and learn information.
  • Intelligence means displaying a sense of logic (i.e. knowing right from wrong) and being good at certain academics.
  • Intelligence is understanding of learning and remembering the material given
  • Intelligence is the measurement of someone’s ability to understand and comprehend the world around them.
  • Intelligence is something you gain based on experiences and something you gain throughout your life.  Has to do with knowledge and the way you think.
  • Intelligence is being smart.
  • Intelligence is being able to use your mind to understand something and be able to learn things quickly.  It is also common sense.
  • Intelligence is being aware of the world around you, and reaching/making decisions that correspond to it.  Intelligence is like smarts.
  • Intelligence is understanding. Humans are intelligent because of their ability to understand.
  • Intelligence is how someone or something can comprehend and understand things to full capacity.
  • Intelligence is how much you know and how much you can learn.
  • Intelligence is something that is used to measure a person’s character
  • Intelligence means doing something smart.
  • Intelligence is the ability to be self-aware, acknowledge your existence and the capacity to learn.
  • Intelligence means knowledge of a certain area or areas which you profess or base your career off of.
  • Intelligence is using reasoning and logic to interpret and understand certain subjects or topics.
  • Intelligence is a level of knowledge that can vary from nothing at all to everything that can be known.  Every animal living falls somewhere in between.
  • Intelligence is how much someone knows
  • Intelligence is being able to understand what is happening in the world around you but may not fully comprehend what is going on [sic]
  • Intelligence is a way of being smart with your decisions and thinking. Intelligence is not only book smart to me, intelligence can also be street smart and smart how you live. Being intelligent is being smart.
  • Intelligence is the knowing of what’s right and what’s wrong. It is common sense that a person has to choose the right thing to do. I’m not saying it is the sense of choosing good or bad, but to make the decision of what is better.
  • Intelligence is the ability to apply what you learn or obtain information and apply it to a situation that is necessary.
  • Intelligence is having knowledge on different things.
  • Intelligence is how smart you are book-wise or streetwise.
  • Intelligence is making wise decisions from your own and other’s understanding.

Next week, an imitation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations! And, a list of summer dreck that I read searching for “a few good ideas”–as befits Pulp Teacher.


Filed under books and learning, definitions, definitions of intelligence, education, inferential skills, opening of school exercise, pedagogy, teaching, theories of reading, Uncategorized, writing exercise