As teachers grades 6-12 rush to engage students authentically in informational text exploration, an untapped genre of necessarily brief but extremely well crafted with strong authorial message texts exist. Beyond their brevity which lends itself to student chunking of texts for authorial purpose and message, these texts also are authentic leadership and citizenship statements powerfully rendered by demonstrably successful adult exemplars.
Even better many of these texts are available in accessible multimedia formats which can lend themselves to group discussion and debate. What is this untapped genre? Commencement speeches as recorded, filmed, documented and occasionally printed as well. Of course, having Chromebooks and using them to develop resources all their students can share, teachers can first curate a group of desired ones which even resonate desired course, content and civic values for their students .
Wait a minute, are those 60 to 90 second news bytes of celebrity speeches which are a staple of local on air newscasts and print news coverage in June, a genre? Of course, they are. Their key genre identifier components are: persuasive advisory ideas in a convincing argument that student graduate listeners will not only accept abstractly, but even more important apply to their own lives as they continue forward.
As students listen or view the selected audio or video resources on their Chromebooks, they can note comments or ideas which they share or with which they disagree. They can also have discussion as a group about their reactions positive and negative to these speeches. That discussion can be recorded and become part of other classes’ reaction to the commencement speeches as they also include their reaction to peer comments.
Fair enough the print or video or audio versions of high school or college speeches, particularly those made at students schools or locally might make good chunking worthy informational texts to engage the students in analysis and in arguing for or against author ideas. But we are talking solely one month of two each school year and how many of these texts can an educator easily hunt up? Enough to justify naming and developing a new informational genre with a batch of requisite strategies and routines to infuse that genre? Actually the answer is a resounding “ yes” !
There are already many book versions of highly successful commencement speeches that sparked twitter commentary and were viewed online repeatedly by audiences far beyond the original site graduates. What is interesting in these speeches is that although the majority of them were made at colleges, their ideas and advice are relevant for any secondary level student.
For example, Mary Karr, noted for her memoir and poetry writing gave a commencement speech in 2015 at Syracuse University. Although she is a professor of writing on staff there, her comments and advice were applicable to young persons far beyond college undergraduate seniors majoring in writing. Her talk was quickly the topic of much Twitter discussion and picked up for publication as a short but very accessible title- Now Go Out There (and get curious) by Harper Collins. It was in that format that this writer, an English Language Arts teacher found it in the library in the 815.01 section that is the classification for American Speeches in English. As the writer also a licensed English Language Arts teacher and a Studies Teacher perused it, it was obvious that the short work which had merited being rushed into print for an adult audience had many quotes that could easily be used as the platform for argument writing and for class debate. Among the quotes in the unpaginated work which had been published for adults which students would immediately react to were:
- Getting what you want often scares you more than not getting it.
- That stay in what I call the Mental Marriott was not the end of my life but its beginning.
- The loony bin is where I learned that as deep as a wound is, that’s how deep the healing can be.
So was it a breakdown or a breakthrough?
- Bad things are going to happen to you because they happen to us all.
- Finding people to love and to do for, is healing.
- A great talent for fear can also make a great talent for empathy.
- Don’t make the mistake of comparing your twisted insides to other people’s blow dried outsides. . . Even the most privileged person suffers the torments of the damned just going about the business of being human.
- Being curious and compassionate can take you out of your ego and edge your soul toward wonder. . . . Go out and buy someone other than you lunch.
These quotes could be prompts for students developing argument writing speaking and discussing in class or blogging or hanging out exchanges as well as Google docs of responses to these provocative statements. Teachers can model and record discussions where they encourage different and extended student response to these prompts to show that there is no single correct answer to any of these prompts.
Yes, Karr had touched on aspects of life—fear, breakdowns, isolation, catastrophe, suffering and curiosity, which could be discussed realistically by teens. But was this only a single adult author whose commencement speech was student argument and life lesson ready? Had a teacher reader just stumbled on an example of a limited collection of commencement speeches one could use in a classroom for free or by downloading them or borrowing them from a print library?
Definitely not limited and definitely abundantly accessible. Try goggling Commencement Speeches any day and note the overwhelming number of NPR, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur and other collections such as the aptly named Brainpickings that surface.
Beyond the teacher sharing what he or she identifies, students can go through a past school year and select one by either a familiar speaker or at a prominent audience. They can then create a Power Point with audio file comments by the speaker and their own commentary or mix in video footage of the speaker and the audience reaction. Obviously this can be broadened into a filmed or podcast class response and even audience survey reaction to comments. Students may want to write counter or confirming speeches reacting to ideas or issues presented in some of the more controversial commencement speeches. They may want to ask adult family members how they react to speaker positions. In addition, they can do oral histories of speeches made at commencements which have influenced adults in their lives.
Students in global or American history classes can investigate period commencement speeches by key political or literary or social figures and consider the extent to which their remarks resonate today or are outdated or have been confirmed by today’s realities. Students can also update historical commencement speeches using facts about the speakers and justifying how they would react in light of those facts to today’s conditions.
The reaction to Karr’s 2015 speech led Harper Collins to publish it as a print book in 2016. Students can select speeches from a year past and nominate them for publication detailing why the remarks or style of the speech make it meaningful beyond its immediate academic audience for a broad range of readers who can include young adults as well as the general public.
Often during our personal commencement ceremonies many of us are focused on celebrations beyond the ceremonies and not on the message of the speaker. Commencing with a free intense close text reading of commencement speeches, sets students up for attending to informational texts, content/idea engagement, citizen discussion and continued speech focus. How better to involve future voters and current literate citizens in the conversation of American values than with the commencement address? Let us commence this genre use!
Karr, Mary. (2016). Now Go Out There (and get curious). New York: Harper Collins.
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Dr. Rose Reissman,
Academic and Grant Funding Director for Sector 5
About Sector 5,
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