Archive for Politics and Rhetoric

Analyzing Graduation Speeches

It never fails; I always cry at graduations.  I’m not sure if it is the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the feel of polyester gowns and mortarboard hats, or the foolhardy grins on the faces of seniors when they cross the stage, but I always cry.18160844_s

While I love graduations, I’m usually lukewarm at graduation speeches.  They are typically trite and overwrought with clichés while trying to impart wisdom that is rarely understood by the burgeoning youth who are only thinking about how many checks they will receive in their graduation cards.

However, there is some benefit to studying the speeches from a variety of standpoints.

They would be a great way to introduce the rhetorical situation and a rhetorical analysis can be done of some the most well-known graduation speeches. Students could be asked to do a variety of things to have a close reading of the speech.  While there are many great graduation speeches available, I have paired specific activities with specific speeches.

Consider asking students to…

  • Identify the top five lessons the speaker seeks to impart and evaluate the effectiveness of communicating those lessons.  The purpose of the graduation speech is to share words of wisdom to the listener.  This might be an activity to first use with a speech to aid comprehension and ensure students understand the message or argument.
  • Analyze the way in which the speech is unified and evaluate the use of a framing device that keeps the speech focused.  It might be content or it might be style, but effective speeches are focused and organized cohesively.  This is clearly seen in Steve Jobs’ speech to Stanford University graduates.
  • Determine which 2-3 devices or strategies are used most effectively and therefore become representative of the speech itself.  A good speech has a clear voice.  Ask students to determine what devices and strategies the speaker uses to maintain a cogent voice.  An excellent graduation speech to analyze for voice is David Foster Wallace’s speech to Kenyon College graduates.
  • Consider how the speech is tailored to a particular audience.  For this, the students might think about the immediate audience by analyzing the college enrollment itself.  Before providing the speech, ask students to provide first impressions of the university itself.  Then, ask students to read the speech, considering how the speech addresses that audience.  Consider using Joe Biden’s speech to the graduates of West Point or Stephen Colbert’s speech at the University of Virginia’s Valediction Exercises, which honors top performing students and professors the day before the official graduation.
  • Then, ask students to think about the broader audience of the speech.  Have students evaluate how the speaker addresses what is occurring socially, historically, or politically during the time of its delivery.   Bono’s graduation speech at the University of Pennsylvania does an excellent job of addressing the cultural climate of the time.

Compare and contrast speeches.  This option steps up the rigor by requiring students to have close knowledge of two speeches.

  • For example, students can analyze two speeches both delivered to Harvard.  I think JK Rowling’s speech pairs nicely with Bill Gates’ address to Harvard graduates.  Both address the nature of failure in interesting ways.  Students can draw inferences about both the speaker and the audience when comparing and contrasting these speeches.
  • Many leaders have addressed graduates multiple times.  Oprah Winfrey has made her rounds as a speaker.  Provide students a copy of her speech to Harvard University (2013) and Howard University (2007).  Students can do an in-depth look at how audience and occasion impact the construction of the speech.  They can also evaluate the consistency of style from one speech to the next.  Are there some trademarks to the speaker’s style that transcends setting?
  • Students also struggle to identify satire, so another option is to have them evaluate the humorous graduation speech.  Both Will Ferrell and Conan O’Brien  have addressed graduates at Harvard University.  Ask students to compare and contrast the techniques used by both and how those strategies enhance the purpose of the speech.
  • Lastly, if working on synthesis, provide students three graduation speeches from the same year and ask them to identify common themes that emerge and begin to consider what these speeches reveal about the time period.

Regardless, keep a box of tissues nearby to curb any tears the speeches bring to mind!

Law in the Classroom: Overview

I hate math.  I really do.  I have a hard time multiplying any number past 7.  So much of my dislike of math is that I struggle to see its purpose in my life.  Why do I need to know the quadratic equation?  When will it ever impact my life?  However, I finally saw some meaning when my teachers would offer word problems, like “you are 90 miles away from the nearest town.  Your car gets 23 miles to the gallon.  How many gallons of gas will you have gone through when you get to the town?”  While I still had a hard time with basic arithmetic, I liked the applicability of these problems.  They made math seem more common place and useful in my world. Read more

Monument Presentations: The Proposal

Statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial (237.00.00)The Common Core stresses student’s ability to work independently.  This is met through the final component of this project which is an actual application of all the skills practiced throughout the week.  The premise of the assignment is for students to work in groups and determine one person or event that they feel deserves commemoration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  We open by discussing the symbolic significance of having a monument located here as opposed to other places Read more

Determining Logical Soundness of an Argument

As an extension of yesterday’s post, today will be a continuation of the visual rhetoric of monuments.  I open by asking the students to pretend they are architects and have been tasked with creating a floor plan for a department store.  I give them no other instructions in the hopes that the drawings will be varied and unique.  Then, I ask some brave volunteers to present their designs and tell us why they constructed it in the manner that they did.  The rest of the class pretends to be Read more

Analyzing Persona With Text and Images

Before I introduce the project to students, I want them to think about the connection between writing and persona.  I want them to study a well written speech and evaluate the primary argument and how it is constructed.  Analyzing the construction will help them identify the main intent and purpose of the speaker, while also helping them recognize how the style and voice of the speech is reminiscent of the speaker himself.  While there are hundreds of amazing speeches (some of which were detailed in our posts a few weeks ago), I think the “Gettysburg Address” works best to introduce this project.  It is short enough to keep students’ attention but powerful enough in argument and style to help students see how a truly great speech is written:  with concision and purpose. Read more

Monument Project: Overview

People are freaking out about the Common Core initiative.  Really freaking out.  I feel like that it is the main topic in tweets, in-services, and lunchroom conversations. And the same comments keep popping up in each venue:

“How will we prepare our kids?” 

“There are so many standards!  How can we be expected to successfully cover all of them in a year?”

“Where is the fiction?  These ‘reading’ standards are primarily about non-fiction and informational texts!”

“I don’t have time to grade all the essays necessitated by the Common Core.”  Read more

Presidents’ Day: Dancing Presidents

They do the cabbage patch, the hustle, the shuffle and the running man.  They shake their “booties,” point their fingers and click their heels.  No, these are not your students at homecoming.   Instead, they are great bastions of American history.  Monuments across the country exalt their greatness.  The History Channel profiles their lives, and when we celebrate Presidents’ Day we hold them up as the greatest examples of what has been good, just and fair in American politics and government.

And yet, each year, both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln seem to dance their way across our TV screens in Presidents’ Day Commercials.  Why dancing?  Why horrible, horrible dancing?

It would be a grievous mistake not to profile, in brief, Presidents’ Day via popular culture this weekend.  In light of this past week’s focus on presidential speeches, it only seems fair to discuss how presidential images and patriotism are employed in advertising.

Watch if you dare, the first of our dancing presidents below.  More importantly, employ, if you dare, in your classroom these lesson plans for the coming week.

Value City Presidents’ Day Sale-“Dancing Presidents”

At 15 seconds this commercial is incredibly short. Consider having students watch and answer the questions below.

  1. What effect does a “dancing” president have on the impact of the advertisement?
  2. Discuss the commercials’ length. Why so short?  When most commercial are 30 seconds to a minute what might be the strategy in airing a commercial that is significantly shorter.
  3. Culturally, why might we see this type of commercial?  What draws us to this type of advertising?
  4. Is “appropriating” the image of a president, or any famous historical figure, appropriate for a business or company?

Presidential Speeches: Week in Review

           Friday Dialogue from                

                                      Your Two Favorite Educators 

As Emily and Aubrey look back over the week they use their razor sharp wit to break down presidential speeches and pick their favorite “Bush-ism.”

1.)  This week we celebrated presidents in honor of the upcoming President’s Day.  If you could throw a party this Monday for any president who would it be?  Who deserves the most recognition on this day?

Aubrey: Teddy Roosevelt.  Anyone that speaks softly and carries a big stick gets my attention.  Also, as a Washington Nationals fan and an avid watcher of the “President’s Race” during the fourth inning I can only say, “Let Teddy Win!

Emily:  Really?  Teddy?  I mean, I think he is great but am surprised he is your #1.  I love Thomas Jefferson and would love to throw a book party in his honor on Monday.  I’d also like to celebrate my love for Ronald Reagan by watching a lot of movies on my couch.

2.)  The post on Wednesday highlighted the beauty of a well-crafted catch phrase in a presidential speech.  What is your favorite line or phrase in a presidential speech?  

Aubrey: Alright, so I really liked some of the phrasing in the 2012 State of the Union.  Nothing please me more than the parallelism of “I will not back down, I will not back down” with a final transition to “I will not go back.”  So clever.

Emily:  Completely agree.  I can appreciate well-turned phrases and nice style.  However, nothing makes me smile more than purposeful structure and a framing device.

3.)  This week I highlighted my love and devotion to the “Gettysburg Address” as one of the greatest presidential speeches .  Do you agree?  If not, what speech would you suggest as the best American speech?

Aubrey: Honestly, if I had to pick a non-president it would be anything by Clarence Darrow but especially his speech in defense of Leopold and Loeb.  I love that jowly orator.  As far as president’s go I’d take Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s First Inaugural every single day of the week.  Any speech that begins with,  “This is a day of national consecration” beats everything else.  Period.
:  I can only do excerpts of Leopold and Loeb.  There is no need for a 12-hour closing argument.  Obscene.  It’s well-written, sure, but how did the poor jury survive it?  Great speech though…just too lengthy for me put it as one of the best.

4.)  Being a powerful orator is a priceless presidential skill…something George W. Bush was sadly missing.  What was your favorite “Bush-ism” or moment when he bungled a speech/words?

Aubrey: Personally, I think it’s hard to speak on command all of the time.  That does not excuse using the word “misunderestimate.”

Emily:  I laugh until I cry when watching youtube videos of his bloopers.  Man, was he funny.  I know he will not go down as the best president in our nation’s history, but he certainly made us laugh.  “Nuclear.”  “Nuclear.”  “Nuclear.”

5.)  Which job do you find more desirable:  write the president’s speeches or be a journalist who critiques them?  Why?  

Aubrey: While clever and witty, I’m too mean to be a speech writer.  I would just start making a list of people/events/foreign affairs that are bothering me/the president.  I’m fairly certain that my sharp eye for identifying irritation would be better focused as a journalist.  Maybe someone like Maureen Dowd.

Emily:  I think you’re right.  I, too, might be too mean (I like to think of it as cynical); however, I think I’d enjoy the task of being a speech writer.  Devising ways to balance the argument with voice while still being cognizant of a variety of audiences seems like a challenge I would like to accept!

Presidential Speeches: Teaching Skills

“All right, all right,” you say.  “I know about the inaugurals.  I know about the ‘Gettysburg Address.’  What are extraordinary speeches that aren’t copiously anthologized?”  I hear you and respond that there are plenty of speeches that are notable in their own way.  Below are a series of speeches (all from American presidents—however not always delivered while in term) that can be used to address a variety of reading skills and standards.  Read more

Presidential Speeches: Inaugural Addresses

While I have no problem admitting my love for the “Gettysburg Address,” nobody wants to read an entire week dedicated to celebrating good ol’ Honest Abe.  However, I’m not at a loss when it comes to great speeches.  In fact, some of the most well-known political speeches in our country fall under one category:  inaugurals.  The inaugural address becomes a symbol of a presidency and captures the pulse of the nation.  Therefore, in preparation of President’s Day, today I will be offering suggestions for some of the best inaugural addresses and providing ideas on how to use them in the classroom.

While all inaugural addresses encourage deep discussion because of the nature of the speech, Read more