Rhetoric’s Power: Imagination and Engagement at Santa Fe

Oct 27th, 2015 | By | Category: Campus News, Fall 2015, Featured

Editor’s note: Inspired by a quick drop-in to Professor Cheryl Glenn’s “Rhetoric’s Power” course in June 2015, this post has been collaboratively produced with Bread Loaf students Mary Sisson, Jessica Candlin, and Hayley Shapland, along with Professor Glenn. We welcome comments from other class participants who have generously shared work samples. 

As an advocate for including teacher voice in professional learning design, I’m often asked how Bread Loaf teachers—teachers who study at Bread Loaf—emerge so powerfully transformed and so eager to shift the dynamics of their classrooms. “What’s the secret?”

While no singular secret exists, my answer always includes the intensely inspired and caring relationships among professors and students at Bread Loaf. In the Bread Loaf setting, classroom teachers occupy the figurative seats of their students. Teachers are stretched to give clear articulation to complex ideas, to appreciate and synthesize the resources close at hand—the minds and hearts of peers—to invent and reinvent, rather than simply emulate, genres of literature and writing.

Aware of these “magical” ingredients since my first summer at Bread Loaf, I was nonetheless astonished when I entered Professor Cheryl Glenn’s Rhetoric’s Power class this summer on Bread Loaf’s Santa Fe campus. When I asked to visit the class, Cheryl hadn’t hesitated, but she had warned, “Be ready. We start promptly at 9 am. You will need to bring a composition notebook, a pencil, a Flair pen, and a Uniball. I will supply crayons and colored pencils and notecards (and coloring books).”


The ground we covered in that one morning and the number of things we created while learning the principles of rhetoric amazed me. My notes contain drawings, colorings, freewrites, intricate spirals and bars drawn while listening intently to class members share poignant slices of memoir, and notes from incisive comments about Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons, connected repeatedly with refrains about the course’s emphasis on imagination and engagement.

That morning in June with its wild array of drawing, observing, and writing assignments and Cheryl’s reminder to students of upcoming digital technology projects, I noted that this was an extraordinary preparation for multimedia creation. I wondered how the 14 students, almost all classroom teachers, would shape the course. By the end of the course, when I checked in with Professor Glenn about the class outcomes, she alluded to the trust built through these extraordinary opening moves :  “The miracle of the class was this: the artistic risk-taking and sustained rhetorical engagement led to a series of scholarly, serious, brilliant multi-modal presentations. Students’ work ranged from the collaborative and pedagogical to the  academic and evaluative. Even their personal memoirs remained in the genre of the scholarly. We all took risks, and the payoff was astounding. I could not have been happier–or more proud. I suspect the students felt the same way.”

CherylBoardWhat follows is a reflection on Rhetoric’s Power by student Jessica Candlin, a teacher at New York’s School of the Future, interspersed with sample artifacts from students in the course. The reflections and artifacts provide a striking contrast to professional education that purports to “train” teachers in the mechanics of close reading or analytical writing, professional education that works to limit the roles of narrative, play, and imagination in our work with students. Ms. Candlin’s reflections on her experience in the course illustrate “how the joy and engagement . . . stem[ming] from an opportunity for self-expression” pass from professor to teacher to high school classrooms.

Sometimes, when we are lucky, we encounter information and instruction when we are most ready for it. When I came to Cheryl Glenn’s class, Rhetoric’s Power, I had just finished a grueling school year in which I taught AP Language and Composition for the first time and three sections of senior English, a college preparatory class that has traditionally included thematic units that culminated in literary analysis papers. But last spring, after reading what seemed like the ten thousandth literary essay, I started teaching narrative writing—short fiction—to my diverse and dynamic seniors and personal narrative to my AP Language students. When we shifted from writing analysis to narrative, the telltale signs of engagement appeared: bodies leaned forward, laughter erupted, the quiet hum of a working classroom took hold during writing exercises. Anyone who has taught teenagers in the spring of their senior year knows that this is no easy feat. It was the evidence I needed to confirm my belief that narrative writing needed a seat at the high school English table. And while I know that narrative is often included in elective classes, it is rarely featured as a crucial mode of writing instruction in public high school education.

My newfound commitment to teaching narrative writing was on my mind when I entered Cheryl’s class, where I knew I would be producing an “experimental multimedia project,” among other intriguing assignments, but I didn’t know that I would be drawing. Cheryl made her overall goal clear immediately. “It’s about engagement,” she said. And then in her strict but elegant way, she gave us our first assignment, “Draw a five minute self-portrait.” And then, after five minutes on the dot, “Tape your portrait on the white board. No judgment!” Sharing was not optional. We stood to look at each other’s drawings. I silently judged and compared, of course, but I also noticed how everyone captured something unique and essential about themselves. There was something childlike in some our drawings, but rather than interpreting this as a lack of skill, I recognize it now as an exercise that demonstrated our ability to represent ourselves artistically. It was something that we already know how to do, we just didn’t know that we could do it.

After much practice with fearless brainstorming and drawing, students in Rhetoric’s Power were charged with the task of creating a graphic literacy narrative that illustrated the twelve steps of their literacy development.

At the beginning of each successive class, we drew a new portrait, and with practice we became more adventurous and more confident. Without any praise or criticism, some of our judgmental instincts fell away. The exercise modeled “low stakes” experimentation, and a display of our progressive self-portraits at the end of the course showed dramatic improvement in skill. By pushing us to work on drawing alongside writing, Cheryl pushed us to go outside our comfort zone into the realm of multimedia, multimodal expression. Just as I wanted to push my students to be creators rather than consumers of narrative, Cheryl pushed us to be creators of multimedia texts and in doing so illustrated the range of means available to us as rhetors.

In the spirit of the “new media literacy” theme featured in Henry Jenkins’ Reading in a Participatory Culture, students cut their literacy narratives into 12 individual images and “remixed” the evolution of their literacy with the lines of a poem called “Dreams” by Thomas Treherne.

While the self-portrait exercise was an effective method for developing a graphic rhetorical persona, a variety of guided and independent journaling exercises prepared us to compose the written narrative for our final multimedia narrative. Against the backdrop of theory and prompts connected to assigned readings, Cheryl guided us through increasingly complex journaling exercises. We began with the “five minute journal,” where we simply recorded what we did, saw, and heard, along with a “drawing of the day.” My observations become more specific over time, and themes emerged across the days of weeks of my entries. My drawing improved. These entries became a source of joy as well as a place to hone our skills of observation. Outsideclass, I reached for my notebook more often and paid increasing attention to my sensory experiences; these tendencies do not just make us better writers, they make our lives more pleasurable. In class, we shared our observations by choosing a few to write anonymously on the board. Reading them over gave us a sharper understanding of the rhetorical effect of various images. And when I sat down to write my multimedia memoir, the summative assignment for the class, I drew on this understanding in my work.

Pecha Kucha by Mary Sisson. Students were reminded of the power of a single image and concise speech with the PechaKucha Book Talk Project. The style is based on a 20×20 formula. A Pecha Kucha presentation must feature only twenty slides, and the presenter may spend only twenty seconds on each slide.

Submitting our proposals for our multimedia memoirs was a significant step in the course. As I spoke to my classmates inside and outside class, it became clear that we all had a story we felt compelled to tell, and many of us were nervous to tell it. In order to access the memories that would fuel our final project, Cheryl guided us through and then assigned “X-journals.” We made a large “X” on the page to symbolize our commitment to the writing. Then we answered a series of questions about specific memories. The first time, we were expected to immediately share without judgment what we had written. Cheryl instructed us to avoid looking at each other and to color or doodle while we listened. This approach reduced the pressure to be the best and the fear of being the worst in terms of our craft and mitigated the sense of exposure that comes with being one of only a few to share. One by one, each person shared. There were no comments or discussion. By the end of the cycle, twelve unique perspectives on a topic had emerged. Many of my initial presumptions and judgments about people dissolved; I began to realize their complexities and styles. Simultaneously, I came to appreciate the value of my own experience and voice. The continuous practice of low stakes, required participation without judgment was transformative.

Six-minute memoir by Hayley Shapland. The six-minute multimedia memoir was the culminating project of Rhetoric’s Power. Students applied their knowledge of rhetoric to the creation of six-minute memoirs that featured an impressive array of media, including narration, interviews, music, sound effects, photographs, hand-drawn illustrations, and paintings.

None of this would have been possible if Cheryl had not set the rule that what was said in the class stayed in the class. She also modeled risk taking and mutual respect by sharing her own personal stories. This is not to say that students were persuaded to share their deepest secrets; instead, it provided a space in which we could safely and artistically explore and express the stories we were compelled to tell. Some of us chose to tell stories about traditionally taboo topics—romantic relationships, familial conflict, self-discovery, cultural alienation, death—in other words, the stuff great literature is made of.

In six weeks, Cheryl guided us through the recursive process of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. In doing so, she gave us the opportunity to turn our lived experience into art. I know I was not alone in my experience of feeling Rhetoric’s Power. Its impact reverberates in my classroom today  where I am teaching narrative writing with a renewed sense of enthusiasm.

-Jessica Candlin


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