The Influence of Historical Context on a Speaker's Words

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SWBAT determine how historical context determines a speaker's tone by introducing a topic; organizing complex ideas, concepts, and information so that each new element builds on that which precedes it to create a unified whole.

Big Idea

Words that make history: Historical context as the foundation for rhetorical response.


In this section of the project, I want students to make the connection between the speaker's works and historical events.  I chose the Ronald Reagan "Tear Down this Wall" speech as an example because I think it is quite clear that the Cold War and U.S.-Soviet relations had a direct impact on Reagan's emotions and words.  To set the stage, I show a clip of the 1980 Gold Medal win for the U.S. Hockey team over the Soviets to illustrate the intense rivalry between the two nations both in sports and in politics.

How does historical context influence a speaker's words?

15 minutes

In this section, my goal is to introduce the concept of historical context and its influence on a speech.  In order to demonstrate its importance, I choose to use U.S-Soviet relations in the 1980s as my example.  My first goal is for students to understand the enormity of the tension between the two nations in the 1980s.  This was a period of climax for the Cold War.  Both countries were in talks to control the level of military might posed against each other.  Additionally, to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S boycotted the Summer Olympics in 1980.  In return, the Soviets boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

To facilitate student understanding and to showcase the tension between the two countries, I play the final seconds of the U.S-Soviet hockey game from the 1980 Winter Olympics.  This match-up was said to be a David versus Goliath game: the U.S. being the David.  The excitement and overwhelming enthusiam expressed by the fans and the announcers as the U.S hockey team pulls an upset over the more tenured and talented Soviet team personified the level of antagonism between both countries.  This example helps students see the determination and vigor expressed in Ronald Reagan's speech as he urges Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.

Following both videos, in a whole-class discussion, I ask students to relate how the historical context created a tone in Ronald Reagan's speech and influenced its content.  Students will be asked to first respond to this question in their notebooks before I randomly ask students to offer their answers.

Students recognize the antagonistic nature of U.S.-Soviet relations back in the 1980s.  Their point of reference often comes from movies, TV, etc. from the era.  However, they really do not have a deep historical background on the tension that existed between the two countries.  I will often answer questions with regard to student inquiries.  For example, students often ask how the U.S. and Soviets became archrivals.  I inform them of the political climate following World War II and the splitting up of Germany following the fall of Berlin.  Then of course, the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, which began the space race.  Students need to understand that both countries were vying for "super-power" status following World War II.  They each wanted to show the other that their way of life was superior.

Relating Historical Context to a Speech

55 minutes

In this section, I will take students to either a computer lab or the library so that the may research the historical context to their chosen speech.  In this activity, students will find information that answers the questions:  Find two examples of the historical context of the speech which influenced its tone and content?  Students will also include the works cited information on the Working Bibliography template.

Information will be placed in students' notebooks and used later on when they write their paper.  My expectation is for students to complete the historical context leg of the project in one 84-minute block.  I find that giving them a product to produce and a timeline keeps students focused.  Of course, if the class is working diligently, I use my judgment in allotting more time.  For example, the remainder can be done for homework.



Following this lesson, I assign students the paper in which they will include an analysis of the persuasive techniques in the speech.  This section of the paper goes back to the first lesson where I used the "Gettysburg Address" as a model.  Students will use the model to conduct their own analysis.  They will then include the information on biography and historical context into their paper.  Essentially, students will piece together the three parts of the paper:  biography, historical context, and speech analysis.  They will also draw conclusions in the last part of the paper where they comment on the speech's impact and legacy.  This section is where they consider all of the other sections and come to a conclusion.  Students should follow the attached outline that will assist them in piecing the paper together.

I usually give students about a week to write the paper.  It must be typed; this time allotment gives those students who do not have computers ample time to make arrangements.  Following submission of a rough draft, we do a peer edit and then the final paper is assigned with a working bibliography.  Again, I give a few days for students to make corrections and re-submit.