This lesson plan is to accompany the Teaching Tolerance magazine article "Our Challenges as a People"
Politicians often tailor their messages to a specific audience – but when a president or presidential candidate speaks, the audience is the entire country. In addressing the entire nation, a leader must acknowledge individuals and groups, while appealing to our sense of a single American identity. As a result, successful speeches often serve as rhetorical Rorschach tests – verbal inkblots in which different people find different meanings.
In this lesson, students will dig into two presidential-level addresses on race to find some of the core concepts in each address. Then they will share their findings with other students – and explore the varying ways in which different audiences hear the same speech.
- analyze prominent speeches on race by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton to find key phrases in those speeches
- create a blended poem combining the two speeches into a single work
- write a response to the Obama speech in a "presidential" voice – i.e., a voice that addresses the concerns of everyone in the class
- Copies of "Our Challenges as a People"
- Copies of President Bill Clinton's 1995 speech on race relations
- Highlighters in two colors (optional)
- Glue or glue sticks
Divide students into pairs. Tell them they are going to create a "blended poem" that combines two presidential speeches into a single work of art.
Each pair will receive one copy of the Clinton speech and one copy of the Obama speech, as well as highlighters in two different colors. In each pair, one student should be assigned to read the Clinton speech and one should be assigned to read the Obama speech.
Tell your students to highlight key words, phrases or sentences as they read. When students have finished highlighting, ask them to discuss with each other the words/phrases they highlighted and the reasons they chose those words/phrases. (If you don't have highlighters, you can ask students to mark passages using pen and pencil, or to underline passages with straight or wavy lines.)
Ask students to cut out at least 10 of their favorite highlighted sections. Then have them create a poem from their highlighted selections, by pasting the words onto a separate sheet of paper.
Each group will them read their poem to the class. The words of Clinton and Obama will be highlighted in different colors, so students can read their poem together, with each student taking on the voice of one of the speakers. Students should also explain why they made the artistic choices they made.
As a group, students should discuss the differences and similarities between the different blended poems created by different pairs of students. Did any phrases appear in all, or nearly all of the blended poems? Why? Did one pair of students find deep meaning in a phrase that another student rejected as insignificant? Why?
As homework, each student should write down their thoughts and ideas about the issues raised in both speeches. This doesn't have to be a formal essay – just a set of notes on the student's ideas on race in America. During the next class period, students can discuss their observations. During the discussion, have students make notes to record the areas on which the entire class seems to be in agreement.
Ask each student to write a short speech, titled "Our Challenges as a Class." The speech should outline the things the class can do to address the social justice issues raised in Obama's speech, and in their class discussions. As in Obama's speech, students should acknowledge areas of disagreement – and assert the importance of the items on which the class does agree.