"My Graduation Speech": Metaphorically Speaking, Are You an Athenian or a Visigoth

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SWBAT evaluate their life choices to align themselves with the Athenians or the Visigoths

Big Idea

"The Athenians and the Visigoths still survive, and they do so through us and the ways in which we conduct our lives." --Neil Postman

Teacher to Teacher: Lesson Context and Time Frame

We're at the end of the school year. Teachers and students are tired and ready for summer, but before we part ways, I like to spend a few days offering some inspiration to students. 

One of my favorite texts is "My Graduation Speech" by Neil Postman. I have used the speech in several ways over the years. But before proceeding, it's important to comment about the age of this text. Postman wrote it in the 1980s, and since its publication, historians, sociologists, anthropologist, and material culturalists have learned much about the "Dark Ages": They weren't as devoid of artistic production as we've learned. Chaucer, for example, wrote during this time. We need to share this w/ our students before proceeding with the lesson. 

In this lesson:

  • Define epideictic rhetoric,
  • Read "My Graduation Speech"
  • Have students compose responses to Postman's essay.

For more inspiring ways to incorporate graduation speeches into the curriculum, check out the Top 10 Commencement Speeches.mp4

Metaphors in Epideictic Speech: Reading and Hearing Postman's Graduation Speech

30 minutes

First, I tell students: Not everyone gets to deliver a graduation speech. Neil Postman, author of "My Graduation Speech". Postman began thinking about what he would say to graduates if he were to deliver a graduation speech. The essay we're reading today is the speech Postman says he would have delivered if he were presenting a graduation speech. 

Next, I put the definition of epideictic rhetoric (from Wikipedia) on the screen.

The epideictic oratory, also called ceremonial oratory, or praise-and-blame rhetoric, is one of the three branches, or "species" (eidē), of rhetoric as outlined in Aristotle's Rhetoric, to beused to praise or blame during ceremonies.

Since the definition is a tad confusing, I give students this information:

An epideictic speech is a special occasion speech. We give special or ceremonial speeches at weddings (toasts), at graduation, at funerals in the form of eulogies, for example.

I then explain to students that Postman uses two metaphors, that of the Athenian and that of the Visigoth, to describe the types of people we choose to be in our lives.

I pass out the text of the speech and give students time to read it and take notes on the characteristics of Athenians and Visigoths. 

Am I an Athenian or a Visigoth? Composing an Honest Reflection

15 minutes

After students have time to read Postman's speech, I ask them a rhetorical question:

Do you consider yourself more of an Athenian or a Visigoth?

I tell students that they will be answering this question based on their reflection of their own lives and based on the ideas Postman presents in "My Graduation Speech." I tell students to remember we're considering Visigoths and Athenians as metaphors rather than as literal judgments of entire societies. 

The student responses offer insight into how the students see themselves and into their future plans. Athenian vs. Visigoth Student Work page 1 and Athenian vs. Visigoth Student Work page 2 is a thoughtful and detailed response by a student. Student 2 Response and Student 3 Response and Student 4 Response provide additional examples of how students see themselves. 

One student took a different approach in her response: Student Response in One Word for Visigoth

After completing their reflections, students handed in their papers. I chose not to put them on the spot and ask for volunteers to share. I do, however, allow sharing when students ask if they can read their responses.