Closer Readings Commentary

Winston Churchill and the Classroom

Eileen Bach taught English at Ithaca High School from 1979–2008. She retired and moved to Shanghai, where she currently teaches English at Concordia International School. Eileen developed AP English Literature and Composition resources relating to Winston Churchill under the auspices of an NEH Summer Institute and The Churchill Centre.

“Words are the only thing that last forever” – Winston Churchill, 1938

There is no one better suited than British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) to engage students in the study of informational texts through well-crafted language and argument that bears close scrutiny.

Students may be surprised to learn that the man who led Great Britain to victory against Hitler in World War II received the 1953 Nobel Prize for his achievements in literature. In the words of the Nobel Committee, he was honored “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values."

Students may also be pleased to learn that for much of his career, Churchill made his living through the pen. Although an aristocrat, he was always cash poor; and since he delighted in a grand lifestyle, he needed to tap more mundane sources of income. As a consequence, Churchill wrote 40 books of biography and history, as well as innumerable articles and speeches. Some of these books such as The History of the English Speaking Peoples are still read in high schools worldwide.

The hours Churchill devoted to composing speeches, essays, and books have resulted in a treasure trove of material that dovetails with Common Core standards and provides outstanding models for students to emulate.

I'll suggest a number Churchill’s works that form the basis for lessons aligned with Common Core standards. These resources, outlined below, cover Craft and Structure Standards for grades 11–12 as follows:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RSI.11-12.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy. RSI.11-12.5: Analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of the structure an author uses in his or her exposition or argument, including whether the structure makes points clear, convincing, and engaging.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy. RSI.11-12.6: Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness, or beauty of the text.

Diction, rhythm, analogy, and argument

Memorial Day and D-Day commemorations provide touchstones that make an examination of Churchill’s works especially noteworthy, for Churchill’s WWII speeches with their striking phrases “end of the beginning” and “finest hour” still resonate in the public ear.

An excellent place to begin is Churchill’s unfinished essay, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” written at age 23. After an opening sentence equating the “gift of oratory” with powers more “durable” than those of a king, he proposes to uncover the power of “six principle elements” of rhetoric (although he only details four in this unfinished work: diction, rhythm, analogy, and argument).

To mine the gold in this essay, see my four lessons that walk students through Churchill’s clear definitions of these four elements and lead them to fine examples penned by Churchill with relevant exercises.

Churchill as prophet: the truth about Hitler

To view Churchill’s principles in action, as well as his prescient political judgment, we can turn to his magazine article, “The Truth about Hitler.” Published in November 1935, it warned of the serious threat Hitler posed to European peace at a time when Churchill was viewed with disdain by members of his own party. (The article is available through a link on the Churchill Archive (images 27–32.)

Antoine Capet’s essay “The Creeds of the Devil: Churchill Between the Two Totalitarianisms, 1917–1945,” provides historical context and some analysis of Churchill's article.

Churchill’s article is also a fine introduction to Rogerian or “common ground” argument structure. This type of argument begins with a concession to the opposing viewpoint before thoroughly refuting it. It is one of the most basic and effective techniques of argument and thus one that students need to learn early on. This article features other noteworthy rhetorical flourishes, including allusions that transcend the time period.

Disarming Churchill

To humanize the “great man,” I also showcase his disarming presentation of himself as an inept pupil, one who excelled in history but failed at math. This image delights students as they recognize the dry humor in a selection from Churchill’s memoir My Early Life, which I’ve named “Phantasmagoria of a Fevered Dream: Churchill's Adventures with Mathematics” after a line from the excerpt. The excerpt is also accompanied by text dependent questions to encourage close reading.

Finally, I conclude with one of Churchill’s most delightful activities, his hobby as a “Sunday Painter,” which began during WWI and continued until his death.

In his charming essay “Painting as a Pastime,” Churchill makes one of his most stunning comparisons: between the painter and the military commander in battle. In my lesson on this passage, I show how the unusual analogy provides solid practice in close reading as students seek elements common to both professions. To facilitate this study I provide a set of multiple choice questions with an accompanying answer key to test their understanding of this passage.

Churchill Lessons for English Teachers