Persuasively Speaking: Teaching Persuasive Writing through Great American Speeches
is born from the idea that knowledge is first to be acquired through the study not only of the mechanics of speech writing and in turn, persuasive writing but also in the study of where the inspiration of those words came from. This sets up a unit that has dual purposes: first exploring the techniques and strategies used in writing speeches or other types of persuasive writing, secondly, using the 1950's and 1960's as a decade to acquire great speeches from. The decade is sandwiched between World War II and the beginnings of the Vietnam War and can be viewed as a catalytic time of change.
The unit will begin with the basics of rhetoric and persuasion. Historically, students will learn about the classic roots of persuasion and how the Greeks utilized it in their early discussions and their early writings. Breaking down the process of creating effective speeches and writing allows students to view this as a process of creating something great as opposed to just another writing assignment. The deliberate act of choosing the right words and the appropriate support for their arguments takes writing to a more personal level.
Analysis of fallacies and illogical thinking seems to be necessary in evaluation of persuasive writing and effective speaking. The need for this analysis is twofold. First, in evaluating what can be deemed effective Can a speech or an argument based on faulty thinking be labeled effective or revolutionary? In knowing the various types of fallacies, students can seek to identify them in the writings of others. Secondly, students can transfer the skills of finding and/or correcting fallacies in their own writing. It is hoped the student will increase his/her amount of research or support for his/her own arguments. Lessons designed to teach this particular area can be as simple as asking a student to create an argument to convince the principal to allow a school dance to a complex argument legalizing drugs for medicinal purposes. Students can peer conference and utilize the information they have to help others create quality arguments and begin writing strong persuasive essays.
The transition from mechanics to content can happen once the students are familiar with the structure and necessary elements of a persuasive piece of writing, whether it is a speech or an essay. Being well versed on what makes persuasion effective will help students read and assess speeches from the 1950's and 1960's. Background information on the time period will set a stage to look at the reasons and the need behind great speeches. Transitioning to the time period will allow us to begin listening to some of the speeches to be featured and talk a little bit about delivery and how that influences the audience. It is also a given that we will discuss audience and how the writer/speaker must keep his/her audience in mind. The speech makers of the 1950's and 1960's knew their audience and how to reach them; this is something that the students will take into account.
When researching speeches by decade, the 1950s and 1960s produce some extremely well known orations by some of the world's greatest leaders. Some of the most well known are Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" and John F. Kennedy's inaugural address. However, there are great speeches that may not have received historical notoriety but still had great impact. For example, in 1950, William Faulkner received the Nobel Prize and delivered a speech saying, "I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work -- a life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before." His words can be used to inspire students to explore their own calling and their own "life's work"
At the end of the unit, students will write their own piece of persuasive writing. Students will explore topics that appeal to them and to their audience (who will be their classmates). Peer conferencing and editing will take place so others will have an opportunity to read what has been written. Delivering speeches is certainly an option and is at the discretion of the teacher.
As a teacher at Hill Regional Career Magnet High School, I designed this unit to utilize as much of the 82 minute block class as possible. Career is a magnet school where students follow either a business/computer track or a health/medical track. The tracks are like a "major" with specific requirements for graduation. The make up of Career High School is that of African American, Latino, Asian, Caucasian and many other ethnicities. Students are from New Haven as well as the suburbs surrounding New Haven.