Chicago Public Schools students evaluate Biden's and Trump's speeches after Capitol insurrection

When tragedies happen in our world, students need an outlet to talk about them, to process the events.  More importantly, they need learning experiences that move them beyond talking into creating something to help them grow academically and emotionally.

Moments after last’s week’s insurrection, my colleague who also teaches the same junior English class texted me:

“Biden’s speech tomorrow?”

“Of course!” I replied.

We immediately recognized the teachable moment. We interrupted our regularly scheduled lesson so students could analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of Biden’s and Trump’s speeches after the Capitol insurrections.

This quarter, we’re exploring the question, “Whom do we admire?” by examining profiles of Joe Rogan, Ivanka Trump, AOC, Ivy Queen, Bad Bunny, Stacy Abrams.  So our departure wasn’t far off.

Some years ago, I wrote this blog post about teaching controversial moments.  We must always—always—ground our students in a text and the context.

For this learning experience, students would analyze and evaluate the speeches Biden and Trump delivered the day of the Capitol insurrection.

BACKGROUND

We recalled how we reached the insurrection:

  • People vote for president
  • Votes determine which candidate gets the state’s Electoral College votes
  • Trump questioned the legitimacy of the elections when he lost.
  • The nation’s Attorney General William Barr, and Trump's ally, said that U.S. attorneys and FBI agents have been working to follow up specific complaints and information they’ve received, but “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
  • The morning of the insurrection, Trump told his followers at a rally in D.C.: “Now, it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy. And after this, we’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you . . . We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated, lawfully slated.”

We saw USA Today’s headline:

We saw the Fox News headline:

And just so they wouldn’t accuse me of being unfairly biased by leaning to the left, (even though my politics are easy to see), we looked at the Pew Research Center’s continuum of news outlets to see where USA Today and FOX News fall:

THE CONTEXT

As students entered class remotely, I asked them to type and answer to the question—but not to hit enter so as not to influence other students.  This helped them understand the context, the expectations our nation has for a speech during this time.

In the United States of America, when situations turn violent, what is a president’s speech supposed to do?

  • One student: A president’s speech is supposed to calm the violence and reassure citizens the violence will soon come to an end.
  • Another student: A president’s speech is supposed to de-escalate the situation whenever something turns violent. It is also supposed to clear up any misconceptions and answer questions the public may have.
  • And another: The president's speech is supposed to acknowledge not only the issue but also come up with a way to resolve and progress.

THE ASSIGNMENT

Your task: Listen to, read, and evaluate the rhetoric (the language, the impact) of the president-elect’s and president’s speeches after the attack on the capitol building.

This is NOT about the following:

  • Your political beliefs
  • Whether you like Biden or Trump
  • Whether you believe this speech will do anything or not

Guiding Question: When situations turn violent in our country, what is a president’s speech supposed to do?

This IS about the speeches:

  • Consider the guiding question: short intro (Paragraph 1)
  • Discuss two moves in the beg, mid, end of Biden’s speech: does this fit with the rhetorical context? (Paragraphs 2, 3, 4)
  • Discuss  the moves in Trump’s speech. Does this fit with the rhetorical context? (Paragraph 5)

Rhetorical context refers to the situation surrounding an act of speaking or writing.

  1. How effectively do the moves fit with the author’s persona: the identity the author is supposed to present
  2. How well do the moves respond to or address the topic or situation addressed?
  3. Who is the audience and how well will these moves connect with them?
  4. What emotion will these moves likely evoke in the audience?  How effective will that be?  What consequences will this have?

STUDENTS’ RESPONSES

One student response:

In the beginning of Biden’s speech, he talks about the violent and vicious attacks that happened at the Capitol and how these “scenes of chaos” don’t reflect America but simply show the small amount of lawlessness created by “extremists.”  He goes on to urge President Trump to speak out on national television to “fulfill his oath.” This part of Biden’s speech introduces the problem while also stating that the government cares about the violent crimes and should speak out on the issues whenever it’s needed. By bringing up this important matter, Biden is living up to his own future role in becoming the next President. He’s reaching out to his people and trying to connect with them by giving them reassurance.

Another student’s:

The middle of Biden’s speech further addresses the issue as he begins to condemn the actions of the people. He follows it up with giving the people hope and providing peace of mind by letting them know “we will prevail again.”  He then transitions into speaking about our country’s values to reaffirm people that they have stayed the same and just need to be fixed, and he plans to do that himself. Once again, Biden’s speech does what it's supposed to and brings a peace of mind to the people and lets them know that he will not stand for this injustice. He reminds us that in times of hardship, he is there to stand for us. Biden’s moves in his speech fit perfectly with who he is trying to be: a change for the country in a time of despair. As the country is in an ongoing global pandemic, they look at him in hopes of saving them from the situation that they have been in for months.

Another student’s:

Biden calls upon Trump: “step up,” he demanded. This was a wise tactic to add to ensure Trump would take accountability and advise his supporters to stand down. It also makes Biden look like he has the power and right to give an order; it displays more credibility to his soon-to-be presidential image. In addition, it reassures that peace will be achievable as the chaos will be better managed, creating the vision and sense that America is still stable. He also makes a direct reference to former successful, beloved president Abraham Lincoln who held office during the Civil War.  A battle between states, the civil war was a time where America was divided. Biden quotes Lincoln specifically because the tension is nearly the same as it was leading up to the civil war: confederate vs. union. By doing so, he rebuilds confidence and greatly reduces panic within the country as Lincoln once did.

And the closing of another student’s:

To say that Donald Trump’s speech is underwhelming is an understatement. His speech only works to facilitate polarization by ostracizing and villainizing his opposition and more than half the country that doesn’t fall victim to his perception of reality. The president claims that he knows the pain and the hurt of those in the Capitol, while reinforcing that “it was a landslide election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side.” Trump’s attempt at being empathetic falls on deaf ears as he offers no real reassurance to the country nor his base. His speech continues spiraling onward about the injustice committed to him but not any mention or prospect to move forward with peace. Nothing is conceded to bring peace.  Stubbornly, Trump asks for it while only unifying his base with compliments and the vast usage of “we” only in reference to himself and his supporters. The intent is clear and hopeless.

NEXT STEPS

Some students struggled developing their ideas or assessing the rhetorical context accurately.  This student mis-identified Biden’s primary audience.

Joe Biden not being whom the people need to hear from, nor sworn into office yet, will not change a thing [by speaking]. The audience [is] those participating in the violent actions in the country, the ones that need to hear from the president in efforts to slow down any other violence.

All of this should help students understand that the words a leader or an average person uses matter.

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