The Rhetorical Situation

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Lesson Plan: Teaching “The Rhetorical Situation”

Teacher: Donna Pierquet

Objective: Students acquire a working understanding of the basic elements of the rhetorical situation, both in theory and in practice.
Introduction of the “Rhetorical Situation” (Lesson 1 or 2)


I would introduce the concept of the rhetorical situation through the use of a Power Point lecture and handouts. The style of my lecture would be conversational so that students would have a chance to ask questions along the way. The Purdue OWL has a clear explanation of the elements of the rhetorical situation and I would use their basic outline: author, audience, text, and context as the framework for the lecture. I would also include a diagram of the rhetorical triangle so that students could see a clear visual example the elements of a rhetorical situation.

(from the Ohio University website:

Along the way, I would give a simple example. For instance: Asking your boss for a weekend off. The employee that is asking for a day off has not been productive or reliable. I would walk students through the situation by first explaining that the employee would be making an appeal to the boss. Will the employee’s appeal be: logical, ethical, or emotional? I would remind them of the rhetorical triangle again and discuss the employee’s purpose, the context in which they are making their request, and then work through how the boss may react. The history that the employee has with the company does not help to make the boss open to this suggestion. I’d explain the importance of using the appropriate word choices to persuade him/her of why the employee should receive the time off. I would then begin to discuss the preconceptions that the boss already has for this employee.

  • How does this change the rhetorical situation?

  • How will you effectively communicate in order to get the result you are seeking?

  • Does it change your appeal?

This example of a rhetorical situation in which preconceptions are present will be the precursor for the essay the class will read by Sherman Alexie, entitled “What Sacagawea Means to Me.” On a Power Point slide I will pose a question:

Sacagawea, who assisted Louis and Clark on their explorations of the West, is viewed very differently throughout history. Do you believe Sacagawea was a victim or a heroine? Explain.

I’d like this question to be a classroom assessment technique (CAT) of writing a one minute paper to assess their pre-conceptions on the topic of colonialism and Native Americans. After the brief writing exercise, I’ll ask the students to get into groups and discuss their thoughts and ideas. Each group will then report to the class on their observations and differences in opinions.

  • Did your group have similar opinions regarding Sacagawea?

  • Are there similarities/differences in how she is portrayed in history compared to your group’s opinions or thoughts?

In the last portion of the class, I will follow-up with another group exercise. In the same small groups, I will pass out children’s books about Sacagawea and ask the students to take about ten minutes to read their book. I will request that each group presents to the class the answers to the following questions regarding the rhetorical situation:

  • TEXT:

    • How is Sacagawea represented in the book? Heroine? Victim?

    • How are Louis and Clark represented? Heroes? Villains?


    • How does the author’s choice of words and illustrations affect the reader’s opinion of Sacagawea?

    • What tone is reflected in the story?


    • Did the author make any type of appeal to the reader to view Sacagawea or Louis in Clark in a certain way?

    • How did your own pre-conceptions of Sacagawea change how you viewed the story?


As I am writing this I’m concerned that although I think this is a fascinating topic, students may not. Yet, I don’t believe that everything they read needs to be about popular culture. However, I am hopeful that the brief minute paper and the children’s books will get students interested in the topic and start an active discussion in the class. I think the children’s books will be a fun way to introduce and transition into reading Sherman Alexie’s essay.

Students Read:

For the next class, read Sherman Alexie’s essay, “What Sacagawea Means to Me.” Take notes and comment on anything you find surprising, confusing, striking, difficult, or noteworthy. Also describe what about the essay you take for granted. Then turn your observations into questions. What do the choices Alexie made in his article suggest to you about what matters to him, and what is he trying to do with this short essay?
Part 2/Day 2

Lead the class in a discussion of Alexie’s essay.

Identify the elements of the rhetorical situation in Alexie’s article:


    • Sherman Alexie presents himself in the essay as a proud Native American. He discusses his gratitude and admiration for Sacagawea and he is honored that she is a part of his heritage. However, he cannot deny that he has the blood of a white man in his veins as well. The article discusses his battle with contradictions: in history, in colonization, and in himself.

    • The tone of the essay begins with a sarcastic description of learning Sacagawea’s story through a “multicultural theme park called Sacagawea Land.” In this brief, succinct paragraph Alexie captivates the audience with the seriousness of this woman’s life experiences while maintaining a sarcastic tone.


    • Sherman Alexie is speaking to an audience that is willing to hear the story of Sacagawea from another perspective. An open-minded audience who are free to reanalyze and think again about what Sacagawea’s experience truly was with Louis and Clark. The audience is also given the option of questioning colonization and accepting the contradictions that exist in history and within themselves.

These notes regarding the elements of the rhetorical situation will be the basis of the follow-up lecture on Alexie’s article. I will introduce the class to some background information about Sherman Alexie. This will give them more of an understanding as to why he struggles with his heritage and views that he presents in the essay. I will give the students 5-minutes to re-read the article. I purposely chose a shorter article (2 pages) so that it was accessible and easy to break-down in class

Students Produce:

Students will take the comments that they turned into questions from their first reading of the essay, along with any additional notes and observations they learned from the lecture, and write an interpretive essay of their own. I will share a quote from him with the class from another of his essay’s “Captivity”:

The best weapons are the stories and every time the story is told, something changes. Every time the story is retold, something changes.”

If this is true, how does Alexie’s background, history, experiences change the story of Sacagawea and the audience’s perspective of her experiences? Does the retelling of her story change your opinion of her experience?

For the next class, pull your questions and tentative answers together into your own interpretation of Alexie’s rhetorical situation (purpose, audience, and context) for writing this essay. Use quotes from Alexie’s essay to support or negate your opinion of the text.

(The paper should be 2-3 pages)

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