AP Annual Conference 2023

Achieving Rhetorical Efficacy and Establishing Equitable Discourse

There’s an art to arguing well, and Kristina Cavallaro wants her students to master it. A former lawyer who now teaches AP® English Language and Composition at a Florida high school, Cavallaro offered an APAC session full of great ideas and classroom exercises to get students talking about the subjects that matter most to them.

Our students are rhetorically effective if what they truly believe and think is effectively communicated in the classroom. When a student enters our space, they should be able to feel wholeheartedly, authentically themselves.

Kristina Cavallaro, AP English Language and Composition Teacher, Florida

With many students reluctant to speak up on challenging or potentially divisive subjects, Cavallaro emphasizes the power of formal, written exercises to get the conversation moving in a productive direction. “A lot of students are afraid to speak,” she said. “We have very engaging, lively conversations. But we still have these students with all this passion, and they don’t let it out in class, even though it would be amazing to have that expressed.”

She demonstrated an exercise that asks students to spend a few minutes writing a free-response essay on a topic of interest to the student, and then trading drafts with a classmate. Each student then reviews their partner’s work and identifies a point they agree with, something they empathize with, and an area where they disagree. The students trade papers back and forth, discussing points of alignment and departure, until they can come up with a short statement of shared insight about the topic.

“I started in life as an attorney, and that’s what really drew me to this,” Cavallaro explained. “Looking at facts and placing them in different contexts, seeing multiple perspectives, understanding how different people might look at the same set of facts.”
Her classroom also features an exercise where students bring in news articles or clips they found interesting, along with a short reflection—usually just 3–5 sentences—about why they found those particular articles meaningful. Cavallaro then distributes the articles and reflections anonymously to other students, who annotate them and provide feedback. “Now everyone has been exposed to several interesting or challenging topics,” Cavallaro said. “Within a few months, they’re almost always freely expressing their opinion in the classroom. They’ve seen both sides, and they’ve gained confidence in what they think.”
Another lessons has students listening intently to someone who holds an opposing point of view, then repeating back what they believe they heard. It’s a way to demonstrate understanding and show that the speaker was heard. 
Cavallaro thinks a lot about the long-term civic impact of this style of teaching, showing students that it’s OK to disagree about important things, as long as it's done with respect and in a way that allows every voice in the room to be heard

I really do believe this is the most important work we do. We’re trying to create civically engaged students who aren’t afraid to navigate the world and define themselves.

Kristina Cavallaro, AP English Language and Composition Teacher, Florida