50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and Literacy

1 Sep

August 28th was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his iconic, “I have a dream…” speech.  The weekend before the anniversary, civil rights leaders, politicians, and even a 9 year old named Asean Johnson gave speeches about the March 50 years ago, and where we are today in terms of civil rights and economic equality.

John Lewis gave a particularly powerful speech–full of historical references (history that he was present for), biblical references, references to Lincoln’s speeches, King’s speeches, and more.  It struck me what a powerful persuasive piece he was demonstrating.  His last few lines, “I’m not tired, I’m not weary, I’m not prepared to sit down and give up.  I’m ready to fight, and continue to fight, and you must fight,” showed the power of repetition, of appealing directly to the audience, of short, directive sentences.

Think how much our children could learn from studying these speeches–about writing, about speaking, about politics, and history.

Lewis’s speech had a lot in it that was more appropriate for high schoolers.  His reference to Lincoln’s “house divided” speech, for example, is  a little beyond elementary school students, and not everyone would be comfortable sharing the violence he references with young children.  But there are other speeches that are riveting and appropriate for younger students.

On Tuesday I showed my class an excerpt of King’s speech–just a little over a minute  from the “I have a dream” section.   We talked about how King used repetition to ingrain the phrase, “I had a dream,” into our heads.  If he had used the sentence just once, would we remember it? Would we associate it so firmly with King and civil rights?  Not nearly as strongly.  One student noticed, “His voice sounds different…he’s talking differently,” and we talked about the fact that King was a preacher, and how he used the cadence of his voice to add power to some sentences, and to have people listen more closely to others.

We spent less than 10 minutes watching and discussing this clip, but when students begin to write persuasive essays, study speeches, and research the civil rights era, this is an example I can come back to.  We can discuss how King’s speech fits in history (CCSS RI 4.3), compare and contrast it with current speeches–like 9 year old Asean Johnson’s (CCSS RI. 4.9), and write our own persuasive speeches that we present (CCSS W4.1 and a host of listening and speaking standards).

There are some amazing historical speeches, caught on video, that students can watch, analyze, and mentor off of.  It’s high level informational literacy that blends a host of skills and standards into one project.  Exciting stuff, and I’d love to have more ideas of videos and speeches to use with the class.  What kind of historical events do you show your class?

 

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