This in the first in a series of three posts on a teaching experiment this year. The lessons described and the examples used all come from my mixed ability year 8 class.
Risking it with Rhetoric
The last time I taught a year 8 class was in my NQT year, two years ago. The particular topic for the term was on analysing non-fiction, and I spent a great deal of time looking at the conventions of newspaper writing. The final assessment was on comparing the presentation of David Cameron in two different articles, which presented a pretty good level of challenge for the class. Some of the student’s work, I seemed to remember, was really rather good.
But at the start of last term, half-way through my reading of ‘Why don’t students like school’, I felt that the array of newspaper articles I had used two years previously were not really worth rescuing from the depths of my filing cabinet. I wanted something better to teach, something more interesting for my students to learn. Sure, I could have scoured the internet for some more current, topical newspaper articles, but if I had one term to explore a range of non-fiction texts, I wanted to make darn sure that these texts were worthy of my students’ time and attention.
Fortunately, Joe Kirby’s post ‘Reclaiming Rhetoric’ provided the inspiration I was looking for. Although I was, and still am really, a novice at this particular field of study, I felt it was worth a risk, and whatever happened, it would be an interesting learning curve.
As far as medium term planning goes, this was far from a model of good practice. I knew I wanted to look at great speeches through time, but I was limited by my knowledge base. I chose to study 3 speeches in depth before setting the students an essay, where students could choose which of the three speeches they would like to write about. In the end I chose:
- An abridged version of Winston Churchill’s ‘Battle of the Beaches’ speech
- An abridged version of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech
- Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
My reasoning for picking these speeches was probably not carefully thought through enough. Although I was already aware of the close links between Lincoln’s and King’s speeches, I’m sure there are speeches which might go better together for the purpose of study. For both the abridged versions, I had the full text versions available for enthusiastic students and to stretch others.
What I learned
At first I was taken aback by how little my students knew. For instance, it took me some time to persuade them that Churchill was a political figure, not a dog who sells insurance. Hollywood has a lot to answer for as well, with ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ causing further confusion. However, the themes dealt with in these speeches are pretty universal, and I was delighted with how passionate my students could be when discussing ideas of freedom, slavery and national identity.
I was also, sadly, shocked at the huge gaps in my own subject knowledge. Even though I was broadly familiar with these speeches, I was woefully ignorant of the contextual details which helped bring these speeches to life. Although this lack of knowledge was a little embarrassing, addressing it was deeply rewarding and I hope to teach this same topic next year, only more well-informed.
The thing that convinced me that this teaching experiment was worthwhile, was an incredible piece of work that I was handed by one of my students. The credit for his laudable work belongs to him alone. But, what resonated with me most about his essay, was how it was enabled by an off-piste scheme of work, which at times was not particularly well-planned. If I’d have stayed with ‘the plan’, or what I had taught the same year group previously, things might have been very different.
Here’s one of my favourite extracts from the essay:
This final section provides a general discussion of why King’s speech was famous for its use of rhetoric, as seen in the introduction, and his incomparable use of metaphors. The first paragraph of King’s speech tells his audience that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which was a document published in 1863 that freed every African American slave; he is saying that it came as a ‘great beacon light of hope’ to the millions of Negro slaves which were being discriminated by the white people. When King says, ‘a beacon light of hope’ it suggests that because light is stereotypically viewed to be ‘good’ it might substantially give the black people something to be happy about. To some profundity, the word ‘light’ suggests that because light has the ability to travel at a breath taking pace; it could also solve the discrimination towards black people in an instant. In the second sentence, the ‘momentous decree’ he is referring to is the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation, unfortunately, did not change the conditions of the African Americans in the United States. Therefore, he called the unchanged conditions ‘flames of withering injustice…’ and he refers to this injustice in the next section of his speech. By describing the unchanged conditions as ‘flames of withering injustice’, King is personifying the fact that because fire has a lasting affect it will keep in the black people’s minds forever. The word ‘withering’, in this context, suggests that being seared in flames was intended to make the black people feel hurt because of the intense heat of ‘injustice’.
Sure it’s not perfect, and there are definitely a few instances where this student’s writing becomes a little unclear, but when I first received this essay I was running around the building looking for others to read it to check I wasn’t dreaming. The understanding of the context and the depth of discussion around the metaphors used shows great insight for one so young. Earlier on in the essay, this student mentioned how King alludes to the old testament and Shakespeare, demonstrating a fantastic knowledge of how King’s speech fits in as part of our cultural and literary heritage.
Being a compulsive hoarder of all things work-related, it was pretty easy for me to track down some of the essays my year 8 students wrote two years ago. Some of them were pretty well-written, and showed a good-deal of effort, but none of them came close to this student’s efforts. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. How can you compare Martin Luther King’s speech with a Daily Telegraph article about David Cameron blocking an E.U. Treaty?
Finally, I’d like to share a short extract from another of my students, who found Churchill’s We shall fight them on the beaches so personally inspiring, that she interrogated her elderly relatives about their memories of the speech, and used excerpts of their testimonies in her final essay. I’ve been called many things at school, but I can’t remember any of my lessons being described as inspirational before!
“All together this evidence proves that his speech was successful because they won the war after. Also, my Nan found the speech inspiring, that is why it was successful. I mean, just reading the speech has inspired me”
I don’t think anything is objectively ‘inspiring’. But If I really want my students to become passionate and inspired about English, maybe the texts which have been inspiring people for generations are the best place to start.