This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.
The horrific murder of six people outside of a Safeway supermarket in Arizona on January 8 has galvanized our nation these past few weeks. It would seem that everyone has something to say about the event. Emotions are high. Did violent political rhetoric drive Jared Loughner, apparently a mentally deranged individual, to plan the assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who had gathered with her constituents at their local Safeway supermarket that morning? Because of the tenor of the national and international conversation that has followed the shooting, this question needed to be at least tangentially addressed in the speech by President Obama at the memorial service he attended in Arizona on January 12.
More than 31 million people watched President Obama’s eulogy. Across the country, many watched Sarah Palin’s video in response to the shootings, a video she released on the same day as the president’s speech, thus inviting a comparison of the two speeches.
Rhetorical context—the occasion, the situation, the time and place—these influences press powerfully upon a writer, and never more powerfully than in a situation like this recent one. Examining the two texts in our AP® English Language classroom can be a good exercise in awareness of context, audience, presentation, and the appeals. The power of rhetoric lies in so many varied features of speech making, and these two public figures—one, the sitting president and the other a political hopeful, a former governor of Alaska, and a losing vice-presidential candidate—have very different contexts from which they speak.
Exploring Context, Listening to the Speeches, Studying the Texts
Before listening to and reading the speeches, students should explore the historical context surrounding each speaker, the details surrounding the event itself, and the response in the media. I’ve learned never to assume factual knowledge or a clear understanding of even the most recent historical events among my teenage students. The night before the classroom discussion, assigning students to research the background is essential.
As a class, we would discuss the events that occurred and the public response in the days and weeks following the event. Some questions helpful in driving this discussion might include:
- What do you know about Palin (history, life, political views, and so on)? What specifically has occasioned Palin’s speech? In light of these facts we’ve discussed (details surrounding the shooting and the media response), what do you think Palin will hope to achieve by making a statement to the public? What kind of things might she hope her rhetoric will accomplish? Why is it significant that she released her video on the same day the president would speak at a memorial service?
- What is the role of a president in a national tragedy? What other national tragedies can you recall at which a president would have made a speech? What is President Obama looking to achieve—for the nation, for himself—through a speech at a memorial service for the victims of a national tragedy? Does his status as a first-term president influence how he would approach this task?
We can take our students through our usual methods to examine the texts comparing diction, syntax, tone, and delivery. Teachers might be interested in a small group worksheet for discussion.
In my classroom this week I used the videos and printed copies of the speeches and instructed students to annotate them, marking rhetorical choices and writing marginal notes on the effects of these choices as I paused the video every couple of paragraphs where appropriate. The entire lesson, including small group work, took three forty-minute class periods.
For a very cool ending to the lesson, I used a free online tool called Wordle that I discovered through The Guardian’s Datablog. Students created their own “word clouds” for each speech to further analyze and compare the texts. After pasting in the text of each speech, the Web site creates the word cloud, giving greater prominence to words used most frequently. The visual impact of the word clouds aptly underscored the understandings the students had come to through our study of the texts and our viewing of the videos.
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