Closer Readings Commentary

Meeting ELA/Social Studies Common Core Standards through the Study of Oratory

Michael Steudeman worked as a secondary school English teacher in New Orleans through Teach for America, then as a TFA trainer for the Mississippi Delta Area. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Rhetoric and Political Culture in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland.

Behind many dull textbook paragraphs, there is a great speech. I have long advocated the study of oratory as a powerful way to promote civic and historical literacy and even to inspire engaged citizenship. For teachers confronted by Common Core standards, which emphasize teaching primary texts, the study of oratory, focusing on the artistry of great speeches, provides a way to combine instruction in history/Social Studies with English Language instruction.

In this post, I'll share my reflections on teaching oratory to high school students in Louisiana as a way to combine English language instruction with Social Studies and, in the process, meet Common Core requirements.

I'll also provide guidance for utilizing the wealth of resources available from Voices of Democracy: The U.S. Oratory Project, a National Endowment for the Humanities-supported site dedicated to the study of great speeches and debates in American history. Each of the 50 VOD teaching units provides an authenticated speech text, a critical essay that analyzes the speech and contextualizes it historically, and a page of discussion prompts, research activities, and citizenship resources. As these materials were originally written for college students and instructors, they might seem a bit intimidating at first. However, they are easily adapted to high school instruction.

I'll concentrate on two 9–10 ELA standards, which both emphasize teaching primary texts in their historic context:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Because many teachers are preparing for Black History Month right now, two Voices of Democracy units are especially timely: Garth E. Pauley’s unit on Lyndon B. Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, and Kalen M.A. Churcher’s work on Stokely Carmichael’s “Black Power” speech at the University of California-Berkeley in 1966. These two speeches offer radically different perspectives on the challenges of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and each employs language that situates it within a particular phrase of this long period of political, social, and economic transformation. The speeches also represent very different philosophies and rhetorical styles, making for a clear contrast between mainstream and social protest rhetoric with broad appeal to students of diverse backgrounds.

Speeches shape—and are shaped by—history

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.

For example, students absolutely need a general grounding in the protest movements of the 1960s, including not only the civil rights movement but the protests against the Vietnam War, to understand the context for both texts. Voices of Democracy’s critical essays provide an excellent source for preparing lessons about this. I recommend that teachers read the essays and let them shape their own thinking about the context and the lesson in general. But they should be discerning when designing actual lessons, so students do not get overwhelmed by historical details.

Speeches address audiences

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, 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.

Speeches participate in controversy

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. Again, Voices of Democracy provides excellent teaching resources and examples of themes and issues to explore. And finally,

Speeches open challenging new possibilities for discussions about race

Consider Carmichael’s statement in his Berkeley speech:

We are oppressed as a group because we are black, not because we are lazy, not because we’re apathetic, not because we’re stupid, not because we smell, not because we eat watermelon and have good rhythm.

Students naturally feel inclined to laugh at this. Rightfully so! But that laughter should also make them feel uneasy about their own assumptions. By creating a classroom environment sensitive to racial issues, we can contemplating statements like this with both humor and seriousness. Urge students, through these texts, to consider the underlying stereotypes, prejudices, and assumptions that Carmichael challenges—and draws upon—in his statements about race relations in America.