Using occasion to drive the writing of arguments in the AP® English Language class flows naturally out of class discussion of any current event, and inspires excellent writing—in part due to the critical relationship between occasion and tone, which is clear to students when they approach a current topic. For example, in the weeks following the Arizona shooting, it became clear that tact, discretion, and appropriate restraint are nuances of rhetoric that relate specifically to occasion and to audience. My students expressed immediate and passionate views on political rhetoric and its role in the shootings, on gun control legislation, and on mental health care. Yet how they expressed their positions, and to what specific audience they would write would be crucial. The differences they noted between President Obama’s response and Sarah Palin’s response were differences centered in an awareness of audience coupled with the ability to be tactful and use proper discretion and restraint.
I assigned students to research factual grounds and evidence that would support the position they wanted to take on one of the three topics they felt strongly about: rhetoric, gun control, or mental health care. In addition, they were to find a minimum of five opinion pieces on their particular subject, examining each for tact, discretion, and restraint. I am continually reminded that honing Internet research skills for current events is a necessity, for students are so accustomed to simply “Googling” anything they want that they don’t realize how well a search can work when they know where and how to search.
For a news or op-ed search, students typically need instruction on Boolean search techniques. Simply using quotation marks, they quickly discover, makes all the difference. For straight news searches, the old standby, AltaVista.com, does an excellent search. Since AltaVista doesn’t sort in the same manner as other search engines, it doesn’t really compare to Google News, a section of Google that many of my AP® students are unfamiliar with. A class is well spent in the computer lab having students work in groups to sort out the special features of Google News by varying search combinations and noting how the Web site groups articles (and how it connects to additional articles in colored text links). Students quickly learn that the better the search terms, the better the results.
For op-ed pieces, two Web sites are highly efficient in locating pieces on specific topics. Daily OpEd and Opinion Source will locate the significant opinion pieces from the most respected news sources with ease, leaving out, for the most part, lesser known periodicals and blogs.
A current event–driven writing assignment raises awareness of our country at play on the international stage. Students were very surprised that the Arizona shooting was covered and commented on so thoroughly around the world; it was something they originally thought of as just a local and national event. In addition, event-driven argument creates a deepening of student understanding of the Greek concept of kairos: the awareness of what the moment requires and that rhetoric in a given moment carries tremendous power.
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