Saint Ignatius High School

Masters of Rhetoric

Assistant Principal for Faculty Formation Tom Beach observes classrooms as part of his job, witnessing the unique ways our teachers communicate with students year after year. Here, he shares a method that has proven to be a teaching success.
“Tell them about the dream, Martin!” gospel legend, Mahalia Jackson, yelled up to Dr. Martin Luther King.  In August of 1963, King had just delivered seven paragraphs of prepared remarks.   

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King in this extemporaneous section repeated the phrase “I have a dream” eight times in what has become our most memorable evocation of the longing of the Civil Rights Movement. 

King uses a rhetorical technique called anaphora (a repeated phrase or word, typically at the beginning of a sentence). There are, of course, several other rhetorical tools of emphasis with fancy academic names: anadiplosis, aporia, epistrophe, and epanalepsis to name a few. However, they are all simple and powerful ways to emphasize ideas.

I was reminded of this power recently in a homily given by Fr. Ross Pribyl and in a lesson in Mike McLaughlin’s Sophomore Service Seminar.

Ross concluded with “But, I live for the moments when Jesus actually gives me that ‘wisdom in speaking that all my adversaries are powerless to resist.’ And I live for the moments when he helps me ‘overcome my disbelief.’ Those moments happen; maybe not as often as I would like, but they happen as often as I need. May you get a couple of these moments too.” Here, Ross uses anaphora in his repetition of “I live for the moments.” (He even snuck in an epanalepsis by repeating the word “moments” at the end of a clause!) He memorably emphasizes important ideas in the homily.

Mike announced to his students “We are going to have a man-to-man talk.” Students stopped moving and all eyes were on him. “What picture are you trying to paint? What picture do you want your future self to remember?” He spoke of the Catholic Social Teaching principle of dignity: “How many of you have done something to make another feel bad? How many of you have felt badly after an interaction with another? How does this happen here at school?” he asked. After some responses, Mike would follow each comment with the “Is that the picture we want to paint? No” (also a fine example of aporia—a feigned doubt!). With these, Mike did a magic trick most teachers envy: holding the attention of a classroom full of sophomores.

Want to make the abstract or the difficult more accessible?  Need your students to remember the core idea of your lesson?   Behold—masters of rhetoric among us!