Going into late February this semester, my plans for my AP English Language and Composition class included teaching a two-week-long mini-unit on the culture of sports in America. The timing was right: the two weeks of instruction fit snuggly between the Winter Olympic Games and March Madness. Then, suddenly, Parkland happened, and the timing was all wrong for a unit on sports. What did sports matter when 14 high school students and three staff members were dead and 17 others were wounded? What did sports matter when students were leading school walk-outs and protests across the country? What did sports matter when righteously indignant teens were engaging in Twitter activism to rebut their critics and engage with members of Congress?
I had to change my plans.
I’m fortunate to be teaching AP Lang, a class whose emphasis on argument and on short, nonfiction texts lends itself to class discussion and writing that is rooted in current events. My curriculum is by necessity flexible: I can swap out planned texts for more urgent or relevant texts without too much of a problem. But in the wake of Parkland, I decided to swap out my sports mini-unit for another one with more urgency and pertinence to students were seeing, reading, and thinking about.
I wanted my students to see how powerful the acts of speaking and writing can be and how much power even 16-year-old students have in a world that tells them they are powerless in a political game already won by political parties and wealthy special interests.
Inspired by the speeches, op-eds, and interviews written and delivered by the inspiring, young Floridians from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I decided to use these brave and vocal students as mentors for my own students. I wanted my students to see how powerful the acts of speaking and writing can be and how much influence even 16-year-old students have in a world that tells them they are powerless in a political game already won by political parties and wealthy special interests.
The plan I devised had three goals: (1) engage students in analyzing and evaluating political speech, (2) empower students through argument, and (3) develop skills and a mindset conducive to active civic engagement and responsible citizenship.
As a class, we spent a few days analyzing texts produced by Parkland survivors including a rally speech by senior Emma Gonzalez and a NYT op-ed by freshman Christine Yared. I also assigned some background reading on the shooting and the resulting activism for students who hadn’t been as plugged into the news. Then, we had a couple days discussing what made each text effective (check out Gonzalez’s repetition and Yared’s personal narrative), the differences between spoken and written argument, and the ways in which each student tailored her argument for a particular audience. Finally, I assigned the main task to my students.
I decided to ask my students to write and deliver a social justice speech to their classmates. The entire project would fall flat if I were to require a topic; after all, the Parkland teens’ success thus far, the power of their rhetoric, has been grounded not only in their rhetorical and media savvy, but also in their passion. I knew that if my lesson was to have any sort of meaning or authenticity for the students, the speeches had to be on a topic of the students’ choosing. At the same time, I wanted the speeches to focus on a subject requiring awareness and connected to the improvement of people’s lives.
With this in mind, I gave students a list of possible topics ranging from child welfare and education to media representation and violence, and invited them to do some research and sound off. I challenged them, also, to think carefully about their audience when choosing what to say about their topic and how to appeal to the other teenagers in the room. And I didn’t force a definition of “social justice” on them: as long as they could frame their argument as a social justice issue in some way, I allowed it.
The result was three days of speeches that challenged, inspired, provoked, and moved me and my students. Some were better than others, but all of them were designed for the purpose of raising awareness and changing minds, hearts, and behavior.
Two students’ speeches, in particular, were quite powerful. Their personal investment in their subjects and the skill of their rhetoric resulted in rapt audiences and touched hearts. With their permission, I share them here:
Ariana Prowell, a junior, writes cogently about the need for legal reform in response to gun violence in the US.
Lithy Mutz, a junior, exhorts teens and adults alike to stand up for the safety of LGBTQ+ individuals.
Tragedies like Parkland can dampen the spirits of our students and inculcate cynicism. But, as teachers, we can also use these events as opportunities to teach our students how to develop the skills and capacities for responding to an imperfect and unfair world. To do this, we need to remain flexible and responsive, value our students’ voices, and remain cognizant of our responsibility not only to teach our students content knowledge and skills, but also to help them become the leaders and citizens the world needs them to be.
Do you have an opinion to provide about this post? Do you teachers out there have a similar experience you could share? Would you like to give some love to Ariana and Lithy in response to their speeches? Comment below, and let’s keep the conversation going!