Rhetoric Guide to Five (+1) Steps for Skilfull yet Relaxed Lesson Planning

— Cicero’s Five Phases of Preparing a Speech Applied for Pedagogical Planning

Cicero (De oratore, 55 bc) said that every speaker should go through five stages when giving a speech: Invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery.

In this article I apply these five canons (as they are now and then called) for teaching situations.

(This is the first version of this prototype-like idea for using these ideas and techniques from rhetoric in teaching. Thus changes to this article will happen out of necessity, particularly should I publish it in a journal, at some point. I will keep these changes posted here.

I would be grateful for comments, either in English or Finnish, from anyone interested—and especially if you try my rhetorician’s recipe in your own lesson planning—please, let me know how it worked for you.)

One meta-level advise: consider  planning your planning. This is especially important for beginning teachers. You could allocate some parts of your schedule just for planning, and mark clearly what lessons you are going to plan during each time slot. Then think about how long you are going to use for each stages of planning.

Invention

The stage of invention is where the idea of the speech is conceived. The perceived wisdom is: first you need to have an idea, then you can work out how to present it. (This can be challenged, since many creative people seem to come up with a phrase or a whole show (with a chorus, circus elephants and a marching band, even) before having any clue of a big idea. Thus the creative processes can be different. However, I will present here my application of the classical.)

But how you, a teacher, come up with an idea? Below you’ll find a modified version of how I teach invention at a rhetoric class.

  1. Aims?

Rhetoric is all about the changes in attitudes, emotions, knowledge, beliefs, and actions of the audience while and after the speech.

Think of what changes in, e.g., students’ attitudes, emotions, knowledge, beliefs, actions, and relations with each other you want to produce by your lesson. These are the pedagogical aims of the lesson. (You may also think of what changes you want in your own skills and capabilities. These are teacher’s personal aims.)

And think these in terms of immediate (i.e., just after the lesson), mid way (before your next lesson, couple of weeks), and long term (after the course, in five years) consequences of the lesson.

Write the aims as simple sentences. It’ll help you focus.

  1. To whom?

The focal point of rhetoric is the audience. Audience is the measure of the speech. Thus a rhetorician must know her audience. But how to apply this for teachers?

Well: Who are your pupils? This is a complex question, and there are three layers of interrelated aspects to consider: ethos (i.e., pupils perception of and attitude towards you as their teacher), logos (pupils experiences, and knowledge and belief base) and pathos (pupils emotional base). Note that learning involves all of these. We can simplify the situation by asking, for instance, the following questions.

Your ethos: How is your relationship with the pupils? Do they know you, or are you a new teacher? What they expect of you? Do you have their trust?

Their logos: What do the pupils know? What they believe? What are their false beliefs? What are their experiences? What kind of evidence they would believe and learn from?

Their pathos: How do the pupils feel? What excites them? What bores them? What are they afraid of? What are their hopes? What are their relationships to one another?

  1. You?

Philosophers’ motto “know yourself” is even more important to a speaker. Although the audience is the focal point, the speech happens only through the speaker. Similar truism applies to teaching: it is for the pupils and it must be thought in terms of pupils in order for them to learn, but neither can it happen without the teacher (in one way or another) teaching.

Ask yourself: “What are my qualities that have helped me before in similar situations?” In other words, figure out your strengths and weaknesses. Think about how you can use the lesson to strengthen your weaknesses. And how you can use your strengths as assets.

I have found that these first three stages of planning take relatively more and more of my planning time as I have become more experienced as a teacher. And for a good reason—once I have figured out my aims, my pupils and my qualities, rest of the planning comes to me almost automatically.

  1. Topic?

Given your pedagogical aims, what would be the topic that helps you to achieve them? Think here of the curriculum: how can it help you to achieve the aims? Think here of the bigger picture: which topic would fit the place in the course?

Notice that I have separated the topic from the aims. Aims first, topic then, because like a boxer you want to hit past the surface. First, think of what will happen later, then come back to what happens in the lesson. Backwards—like a chess master, who figures out her strategy  backwards from the desired outcome to the move she is about to make.

  1. Narrow down

Topic is usually too much for a lesson, so choose an aspect of that topic as the focal point. Keep the aims, “to whom?” and “you?” in mind.

  1. Keywords?

Think and list the keywords (and concepts) that relate to the aspect you have chosen. Then work them into sentences.

  1. Study

Look at your keywords and concepts. Can you explain them in terms that your pupils understand? You might need to brush up with something, think it through, and figure it out. Write simple examples and definitions for your own use, to help you to teach these concepts to the pupils.

Remember that there is a psychological truth: more confident you are about something, less likely you are to know it well (the Dunning-Kruger Effect). So, keep a check on your confidence: if something feels like a triviality to you, try to explain it in terms that would be clear to your pupils.

 

Arrangement

Classically speaking, arrangement, or disposition, is all about how to make your message transfer from you to your audience. It was paramount to get audience to listen to, pay attention to, react to, remember, and act upon on what you said. Same applies to teaching, obviously.

Aristotle said that every talk has a narration and a proof. He means that the speaker must tell us what she is talking about, and she must present some reasons for us to believe her. This, as it is, is yet to be helpful. But truism is, every lesson must begin, have something in the middle, and it also must end.

Not only rhetorical theory, but also psychology will tell you that mind is most recipient at the beginning and at the end of an activity. That’s why you should pay extra attention to them both. How you engage pupils into the topic? What way you move them smoothly or quickly from their previous activities and thoughts and discussions into your lesson? In what way you make sure they will remember the most important message of your lesson, take it to heart?

What’s in the middle is “your proof”. This could be presentations, examples, or experiments. However, it is most likely engagements of the pupils minds into some exercises, or dialogues, pair and group works, and inquiries. And it may be a combination of some of these methods of teaching.

So “proof” in teaching is not necessarily something you as a teacher say, it may be produced through all kinds of learning activities.

Think how to keep the pupils alert, focused, and strengthen the learning by making transitions clear and smooth. Transitions are the points where you may more easily get your message into the pupils memories, because these are also ends and beginnings of activities.

So figure out (1) how your lesson will begin, (2) how end, and (3) what will take place in the middle. Think of these in terms of your aims, “whom to?” and “you?”.

(It would be interesting experiment to try out Cicero’s general speech structure in a lesson: (a) Introduction: engage students, get their attention; (b) Narration: presentation of the topic and aspect you have chosen; a story that tells the undisputed facts; (c) Division: discuss the possible points of agreement and disagreement people may have about the topic and aspect; (d) Proof: demonstration on the behalf of one side of the disagreement; (e) Refutation: demonstration of weaknesses of the other side; and (f) Conclusion: presentation of the moral of the lesson.

This might work for some topics brilliantly and not so well for other…)

 

Style

Style is a complex thing for rhetoric. Classical period knew several now obsolete ideas about good style. Usually the present day style is to be catchy, short and to the point: clear in your talk.

Think of what would be your style and teaching method to play out the different parts of your lesson? What would be the style and method that would engage the pupils best? What methods of teaching would suit the situation? The topic? Your aims?

 

Memory

Memory was important to classical speakers, who rarely could rely on notes. Teachers regularly carry notes and all kinds of tools and things (e.g., teacher’s books, handouts, slides, videos and teaching apparatuses) that help to remember. But it is hard still to remember your ideas for the lesson in the environment where surprise is more common and, hopefully, a welcome guest.

It is obvious that you must be able to keep track of your lesson: you must have a plan.

Many experienced teachers have learned to remember quite complex lesson plans by heart just by thinking them through in their heads. But that is far from being necessary, and many teachers rely on notes (I know that I do).

Beginning teachers usually need a bit of help in plan writing, so this is what I suggest.

  1. Write plan

One way to proceed is to write a module based plan for the lesson, where each module is formed of components of (a) beginning and ending time, (b) topic of the module, (c) aim of the module, (d) method (and style) of the module, (e) activity of the teacher, (f) activity of the pupils, (g) tools needed, and (h) other relevant factors. (Remember to have transition modules between the main teaching modules.)

This script can be written as a flow chart or a table.

Think of which modules are the most important and which are such that can be skipped or left for another lesson should something unplanned happen (like engaged discussion on a related important topic among the students, which is the most typical interruption to my plans as a teacher).

Also think of an extra module you might include should the class move faster than expected.

  1. Strengthen your memory

Once you have a plan, go through it in your head. Visualise what will happen at every point of the lesson. This is what I teach professional speakers to do with their speeches as well.

Here is a nifty trick (applied from my rhetoric classes) not only to remember your plan, but to be more confident about it:

  • Vision the worst case scenario.

 

Think of what could happen. The very worst. This is useful because your mind will do so anyway: nag about all the problems that you might face. Embrace them. Let them come and think them through.

Is this the worst? Could it be even worse? So what? If the worst comes to happen, would you not live through it? Survive.

Now think about concrete steps you can take to make the worst case less probable, to prevent it. Think of your qualities, your strengths. How they may help you to escape from the worst case scenario.

  • Vision the best case scenario.

 

Think of what should happen. The very best. This is useful because your mind will do so anyway: dream of all the triumphs that you will have. Embrace them. Let them come and think them through.

Is this the best? Could it be even better?

Now think about concrete steps you can take to make the best case more likely, to help you achieve some of it. Think of your qualities, your strengths. How they will make it more probable.

  1. Review and revise

Simply go through the whole process, and revise your lesson plan according to your aims (or revise your aims according to your plan).

 

Delivery

Classical delivery is all about the use of voice and body language in engaging the audience and delivering your message. The basic principles of delivery in teaching are mostly the same.

Your voice must be heard, thus, it should be calm and clear. Your body posture should simply be such that your voice comes out clear; and it should speak of calmness and caring for the topic and the pupils.

How to achieve this? Here are some tips applied from my rhetoric teaching. They are mostly based on the ways we can consciously affect our nervous system, and tell it to relax.

  1. Use relaxed but appropriate clothing

Remember to choose clothing that makes you feel comfortable, and that is appropriate to your role as a teacher. Pay attention to your shoes: you will be standing for most part of the day.

  1. Breathe

You can calm yourself by breathing calmly, by taking deep relaxed inhales and letting the air exhale. Do this before your lesson for a minute or so.

  1. Stand

You can calm yourself by standing in a strong pose. Go to the classroom before the lesson, alone. Take a wide stand with your feet. Cross your fingers behind your neck and lean gently but strongly backwards to your hands, and stand as tall as you comfortably can. Yawn. Hold this pose for 20 seconds, and relax.

  1. Care

Be aware of the well being of your pupils. By being caring and empathetic teacher, you’ll come to notice that the pupils also care about the lesson and their own learning—and even about their teacher. And this awareness helps you to relax.

One way to show (to yourself and your pupils) that you care is to keep the classroom organised, clean, and void of unnecessary distractions.

Another way to show this (to yourself and your pupils) is to keep the pupils informed of what is about to happen during the lesson and, separately, during each of your teaching modules.

  1. Teach

Concentrate on and enjoy teaching. Keep your aims in mind, and be aware of time. Tell the pupils the amount of time they have for each task and make sure that there is enough for each module to go through (if not, skip the least important ones). You are not in a hurry when you and your pupils are aware what will happen and how long it will take.

 

Afterwards

As a rhetoric teacher, I always tell my students to be reflective about their own planning and speaking. The same applies to teachers.

Your mind will go through the previous lesson anyway (even if you don’t want it). This is because human mind has an intrinsic need for closures. No lesson is perfect, and there are always something left open. Thus your mind perceives the situation as a problem it will try to solve.

So why not use your mind’s automatic response to the teaching situation for your and your pupils benefit?

Think of what was the lesson like: How did you feel during the lesson? What were the emotions that the pupils felt? Did the lesson meet your aims?

Think of your qualities:  What were your strengths in the lesson? What were your properties that helped you to teach it and meet (at least some) of your goals?

One way to be reflective, and what I strongly support, is to keep a teacher’s journal of your development. I suggest that you describe what happened as objectively as you can, be honest about your feelings, triumphs and disappointments.

However, even if something happened that you were not happy about, always write how you at very least survived whatever happened. (It is more than likely that your lesson worked out at least better than the worst case scenario.) This is partly because you want to get better as a teacher, and focusing on the lower steps (instead of the ones on the top) in the progress makes it easier for you to take the next one. Partly this is because instead of making these “problems” in your lesson to stand out as failures in your mind, you are focusing on how they were mere obstacles—obstacles that you were able to get (or live) through (however hard it was). And this strengthens your confidence to meet these obstacles yet again: you got through before, so, you can get through again.

Finally write down what were your qualities that helped you (“at least to survive”). These are your strengths, and they will help you later on in similar situations. So, pay attention to them.

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