This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.
January is traditionally a time for new beginnings, and this January is not only no exception, but a new beginning in a most historic sense. This most recent election campaign has been an exciting one to follow, even for those of us outside the United States, and here in Canada we shared in the excitement last week when Barack Obama took his place as the 44th President.
Now, to compare my own new beginning to this momentous occasion borders on the absurd, but it did seem fitting to me that my inaugural posting on the Bedford High School Bits blog deals with the Inauguration of President Obama. Although the initial excitement has passed, the occasion provides so many opportunities for teachable moments that are just too good to pass up when one teaches AP® Language. Where to start?
Let's start here, with this amazing interactive featurette about inaugural speeches from The New York Times. Many of you may already be familiar with word clouds, or tag clouds, a visual way of representing the frequency of words within a particular context. The more frequent the word, the larger it is. One of my favorite sites for generating word clouds is Wordle, which allows you to plug in cut-and-pasted text and then manipulate the words' colors, font styles, and directions. More on that later.
The New York Times' word clouds of inaugural speeches go a few steps further: float your cursor over them and each word in each speech comes alive with a link to its appearance in context, not just in the speech at hand but in every inaugural speech throughout U.S. history! Especially unusual word choices are highlighted in yellow (I found it particularly interesting that in Obama's speech, the word "women," more prominent than in most other speeches, still falls under this category). And finally, you can of course find the full text of each of the Presidents' speeches. (Note that you can also find inaugural speeches at another of my favorite sites, American Rhetoric.)
The most obvious application for word clouds is a discussion of what is implied by the frequency of words within a text. Compare Obama's word cloud to that of George W. Bush at his first inauguration, or to that of George H. W. Bush: each cloud begins with the word "nation"—the most frequent word in all three speeches. That in itself is an interesting occasion for discussion.
Most students will have watched or listened to Obama's speech, but few will remember the earlier ones, so it's a worthwhile exercise to have them look at the word clouds and predict the importance of different concepts before examining the speeches themselves for the ways in which those concepts are presented rhetorically in order to underline their actual importance to the speakers and the audience. To carry the exercise further, you could have students research the historical contexts of the speeches, particularly those that took place during momentous periods in U.S. or world history, making connections between the speeches' central concerns and appeals and the expectations of their audiences.
And finally, a fun experiment: if you have access to the internet in class, ask students to take a section of a speech and generate a Wordle with it, manipulating colors, font styles, and layout to reflect emotions or ideas underlying the words and then asking them to justify their choices with close reference to the speech itself.
For more ideas about using Wordle with the inaugural speech and related texts like Elizabeth Alexander's poem, see NCTE's blog post about it.
I'm excited to be blogging here at High School Bits, and I'm looking forward to following up this new beginning with more ideas, links and discussions.
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