Required Reading

I have a special place in my heart for Martin Luther King Jr.

He and I share a birthday and, even though he was assassinated before I was born, I’ve always felt close to the man. I’ve written here before that I have a particular interest in human struggles for equality and respect. Brother Martin is an embodiment of that concept for me, and I never tire of learning about the work that he did to bring about essential change in this country.

In my public speaking class last week, I found myself with time I wasn’t expecting. Several of the students weren’t prepared to give their speeches, so the time that I’d blocked off for student work was left empty. This time was not insignificant and I wasn’t about to let the kids leave THAT early, despite their clamoring. I was certain that, as soon as the last kid left, my department head would poke his head in and wonder where the hell my class was. This is attention I don’t want.

Being particularly good on my feet (read: I can wing it with pretty reliable success) and trying to fill that time, I though it might be useful to talk about rhetoric. The students have a working understanding of the term, but I’m not sure they really appreciate the nuances of the idea of the skillful use of language or of the power that a secure command of the language holds. I had thought to use MLK’s Dream speech to draw the students into a discussion about rhythm and cadence, of word choice and order, of metaphor and the power of the well-written word. When I asked them if they could offer up an example of a rhetorical structure that Dr. King used in his most famous speech, I was met with nine pairs of glassy-eyes. Seriously – nine slack-jawed students who couldn’t give me anything more substantial than “Uh, ‘I have a dream’?”

SO! I’m making the (not-so-risky) assumption that the students who are supposed to be prepared to speak today aren’t, and I’ve gone ahead and printed out the text to Dr. King’s speech, along with some questions to get them thinking – and writing (good GOD, but they need writing practice!) about this essential bit of American rhetoric. This, for me, is the proverbial killing of two birds (possibly three) – the students need work in reading and writing, this gives them exposure to something that I think all students should be more than passingly familar with, and, since most of my students need opportunities to bring their grades up, it gives me something else to add to their average.

Hopefully, everybody wins.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Required Reading

  1. As someone who works with media and history every day, I would strongly urge you to include a recording of MLK Jr.’s speech in your class. Words on a page have meaning, but (particularly in this case) it is his voice, his cadence, his rhythm that rockets this speech from powerful to legendary. I still tear up every time I hear him say “I have a dream that one day my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
    (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm)

    Me too.

  2. Suzanne, I LOVE that site! I’d intended to use it a whole lot more than I actually did this semester, and am working on ways to fit it into any subsequent Public Speaking classes I get asked to teach.

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