Introducing Rhetorical Analysis with Documentaries

  • High School
Scott Cleary

In just a moment my students will start class viewing documentary films they recently selected in small groups. Non-fiction has exploded as a genre and the Common Core State Standards prescribes balancing the traditionally fiction focus of English classrooms with more informational texts. I have searched diligently over the past several years, meeting this demand with finding articles I thought students would find engaging.

While I have found several that have been successful, the challenge of getting students proficient at rhetorical analysis was always soon to follow. Adapting content from a module on the College Board’s AP Central site, I found success using documentary film as a bridge to rhetorical analysis of written texts. After all, a documentary is similar to any other argument in the way it presents and develops claims, and the director has the same task as an author to “write” appropriately for his/her audience and select effective techniques to shape a message. A primary goal of teaching rhetorical analysis to my students is not to give them lists of obscure, uncontextualized terms, but for them to understand the rhetorical situation and several rhetorical techniques well.

The visual aspect of documentary film was the key to scaffolding instruction toward this goal. When students can see the director shaping his/her argument, it helps them build an understanding that texts are not written, but rather are crafted with rhetorical choices. The module from the College Board I adapted this idea from discussed using An Inconvenient Truth to introduce rhetorical analysis, and I had great success with it as well, mainly because it is well-crafted, lending itself to perceptive analysis.

Over a couple of class periods, we watched the first 25 minutes together, pausing several times to analyze the rhetorical choices made in the film. As we did this, students relied on their previous knowledge to identify certain techniques used in the film. Other techniques I would call to their attention. At the end, we had thorough notes on how certain techniques function to shape the film’s message, including:

  • Auditory Imagery: The documentary opens with a nature scene in which Al Gore describes nature sounds, serving as a reminder that nature has restorative value and, therefore, is worth saving.
  • Juxtaposition: Throughout the documentary are contrasting images of peaceful nature followed by images of violent nature. At one point, Al Gore shows pictures of retreating glaciers, emphasizing the extent climate change has affected them.
  • Appeals to Logos: Along with emphasizing the dire state of glaciers, hard data is provided to convey their value past beauty. Al Gore notes that forty percent of the world’s population obtain their water from Himalayan glaciers. Students who are already familiar with the classical rhetorical appeals will note this statistic also appeals to pathos, evoking sympathy for those affected.
  • Allusion: Providing a bit of comic relief, a clip from the television series, Futurama, is included, portraying a futuristic world in which the government’s solution to global warming is periodically dropping a large ice block into the ocean. Even if students are not familiar with satire, they readily understand the criticism of political action in response to climate change.

After guided practice with analyzing An Inconvenient Truth together, I have students select a documentary to view and analyze in small groups, culminating in a rhetorical analysis essay. Using documentary film to teach rhetorical analysis lends itself even more as an instructional tool now than it did five years ago when I first used it. In her article, “The Rise and Rise of the Documentary,” Eve Pierce notes our culture has shifted toward valuing fact-based entertainment. This increased commercial appeal has led to a boom in production. When I first started this assignment, I struggled to find a few like Super-Size Me that could be streamed, supplementing the rest with library rentals. Now, not only are more available through streaming services, but Netflix has produced several original ones. Below are a few I have found to lend themselves to the objective of the assignment and appeal to students:

Blackfish (2013): Relying heavily on testimony from former whale catchers and trainers, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite portrays the captivity of whales as inhumane and dangerous.

Amanda Knox (2016): Combining archival footage of the investigation with present day interviews of those involved, this documentary explores how the media influenced the arrest and trial of Amanda Knox.

Just for Kicks (2005): Although not on any streaming service I am aware of, I always make a DVD copy of this one available since it appeals to students who are into hip-hop culture as it explores the reciprocal relationship between sneakers and hip-hop over the past few decades.

  • Common Core State Standards
  • Media
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