Oratory and the Common Core Standards

February 4th, 2013

Over at the EDSITEment “Closer Readings” blog, Michael Steudeman, a former secondary school English teacher in New Orleans and currently a Ph.D. candidate in rhetoric at the University of Maryland, has some great tips on using oratory to meet Common Core Standards. “Great speeches,” he notes, provide “a way to combine instruction history/Social Studies with English Language instruction.” Specifically, speeches are a great way to meet two Common Core standards for English Language Arts, both of which emphasize teaching primary texts in their historical context:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.6: Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.

Using two speeches appropriate for students studying Black History Month as examples—Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 “We Shall Overcome” address to Congress and Stokely Carmichael’s “Black Power” speech at the University of California-Berkeley in 1966—Steudeman provides some guidance on how to get students interested and involved in the speeches they read in class:

Speeches integrate text and context in ways that many literary and other written texts do not. This poses a challenge for teachers: With so much history to parse through, what should be the focus of the lesson? I recommend a simple rule of thumb: only pre-teach what students need to understand the text but cannot learn from the text itself. For Johnson’s speech, students will need to know something about the significance of the Voting Rights Act in the broader movement for civil rights led primarily by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The actual goals of the legislation are outlined in Johnson’s speech, however, so students can learn about them from a close reading of the text. It also helps to create one overarching context for both speeches while acknowledging the particularities of each. […]

I have found that students are attracted to speeches because a real person stood in front of a real audience and actually said those words. The nature and significance of the actual audience for a speech should shape your planning. For instance, in the Voices of Democracy teaching resources for Carmichael’s speech, [Kalen M.A.] Churcher recommends asking students about the alienating effects of discussing “Black Power” before a mostly white audience, or contrasting Carmichael’s reception in 1966 to how he might be received today.

This is the beauty of teaching history through oratory: rather than judging the speech solely from the perspective of the students’ own time, they have to adopt multiple perspectives. Throughout your discussions, you can continually urge students to question their own beliefs, values, and judgments and imagine how others might have reacted. Put students in the shoes of a prejudiced business owner who feels he can deny service to whoever he pleases. Have students think about what it might have been like for blacks who lacked voting rights in a country that boasted of its democratic principles. Then read Johnson and Carmichael’s speeches in the context of their own political motivations and the opposition each man faced.

The greatest value of reading speeches is that they reveal the dynamic and complex nature of our nation’s history. Rather than viewing the past through the static account of a textbook, putting speeches in “conversation” allows students to see the past as an ongoing process of controversy and debate. Johnson advocates for legislation to bring the nation more in line with its founding ideals. Carmichael warns white people that they need to get out of the way and distance themselves from an oppressive system. This prompts some serious philosophical questions that students must draw on research and textual evidence to answer. Is American society inherently racist? Is genuine equality ever possible? Is violent revolution ever justified, or is incremental change preferable? In the classroom, a series of debates and writing prompts can play these perspectives against each other. 

Click here to read more of Michael Steudeman’s suggestions on using oratory in the classroom. 

Related: Our ebook on “The Meaning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day” has some great speeches (each of which comes with an introduction giving historical context and providing guiding questions for discussion) that can be used as students celebrate Black History Month

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