Chicago Public Schools students explain why Obama's Ferguson speech failed

I heard President Obama’s statement about Ferguson last night and trusted my gut: something wasn’t right, something in the speech didn’t work.  Based on social media reactions, I knew I wasn’t the only one.  Still, I knew there was some teachable moment buried in the nation’s frustration.  After Obama’s immigration executive order, I wrote a post explaining a simple approach to teaching controversial issues in the classroom.  Well, today, this approach wasn’t going to work.

I usually let students respond to highly controversial situations by grounding ourselves in a primary text: a written, visual, or audio piece that captures the moment we’re going to examine.  With the Ferguson controversy, however, the primary text should be an actual video of the altercation between Police Officer Darren Wilson and 18-year-old Michael Brown.  (If that existed, we might be having a different conversation).  Without this, the conversation would likely get ugly and too debatable.  I needed a primary text.

So I decided to have students evaluate the effectiveness of Obama’s statement on Ferguson.  This connects tightly to our current study of rhetoric: how do words evoke certain emotions in the audience?

Furthermore, this connects  to the Common Core standard (CCSS.RI.11-12.5) of analyzing and evaluating the effectiveness of an author’s structure.  Our block schedule this year allowed my 6th period to dedicate 100 minutes to examining this topic.  I wouldn’t have taken this on a rushed, regular 50-minute period.

I also did not tell my students what my frustration with last night’s speech was.  I just said, “This fits with our study of rhetoric.”

Help Students Connect to and Understand Situation

We began with level 1 thinking: understanding.  First, students responded to a reflection question: can words really affect a large group’s behavior?  I used the word “really” because I wanted them to deeply question and contemplate this question with real-life examples.  I didn’t want a theoretical response.

  • 13 students said yes
  • 4 said no
  • 7 said partially yes / partially no

Next, we read two accounts of the Ferguson shooting, one by a conservative-leaning publication and another by a progressive-leaning one.

The Ferguson Situation

One student said, “But he [Michael Brown] robbed the convenience store.”  The energy in the room changed.

“Let’s keep ourselves focused on what these sources in front of us say.”  If I had let the conversation flow that way, we’d be talking about whether or not the shooting was justified.  We don’t know exactly what happened between the officer and Ferguson teen.  I did not want the hypotheticals to swirl out of control.  I’d risk creating a class environment that evoked rage or detachment—not a good way to manage any classroom conversation.

Next, we looked at some descriptions of a grand jury to make sure we understood how this differs from a courtroom situation (I didn’t know the difference before today).

Give Students Something to Compare Situation To

We moved on to deepen our response to the reflection question: Can rhetoric (words’ impact on and audience) stop violence?

We listened to (and followed along a written transcript) of Senator Bobby Kennedy’s speech after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.  Because of Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis that night, many—many—agree, that city saw non-violent protests because of what he said.

To analyze the text, we divided it to conquer it.  The multiple paragraphs became four sections.  For each section, students identified important phrases of 2-5 words such as “very sad news” or “shot and killed tonight.”  Then, using a list of emotions, students determined the dominant emotion in each section based on the phrases they selected.  Although all students did not select the exact same emotion, we did see patterns in the four sections.

Emotions Evoked in Kennedy’s Speech by section

I asked students to plot the emotional trajectory of Kennedy’s speech using three levels: positive, neutral, negative.  The x-axis included the emotional trajectory words.  These were the dominant paths:


Next, we listened to (and followed along with a written transcript) of President Obama’s statement last night.  Following the same process above, students assigned the following emotions to this text:

Emotions Evoked in Obama's Ferguson Statement

Students Make Their Judgment

I kept it simple: which speech was more effective?

Every student raised his or her hand when I said, “Kennedy.”  It was clear—Obama’s speech proved ineffective last night.  But why?  The emotional trajectory of his speech looked similar to Kennedy’s.  So why did students (and I) find it ineffective?

I stared at the board.  “OK, look at the emotions evoked in three specific parts of the speeches: the first two parts and the end.

Contrasting Kennedy's and Obama's speeches

In their evaluations, 58% of the students communicated their decision with commonly used or general and ideas:

“Obama’s had a feeling of disappointment.”

“Obama started with a negative emotion.”

While superficial, this is progress and students begin to deepen their responses to our question: how do words evoke certain emotions in the audience?

But 42% of the students helped me figure out why Obama’s Ferguson speech proved ineffective.

“Kennedy starts off with shocking news and Obama talks about anger, which makes the people feel mad . . . Obama going up and down with the emotions makes the people mad again and does not show peace.” –Idzel

“Kennedy ends with an understanding of how things are and tries to encourage less violence . . . While Obama ends with pride and confidence in the enforcement of the laws, Kennedy ends with peace.”  –Jasmine

“Kennedy introduced bad news then related to it.  He worked his way up to make us feel better about what happened while Obama was not good.  He introduced something bad, tried to make us feel better about it, and then tried to give us pride.  How would something like that lead to confidence?” –Yuri

“Obama showed disappointment in the community for their actions.  It was like he was lecturing us while Kennedy showed us that it’s okay to be sad about the situation.”  –Maria

“Kennedy touched on the major feelings that people had and connected them to his experiences while Obama just talked about coming together as a country and what we shouldn’t do during these hard times.  He said, ‘That won’t be done by throwing bottles.’  He is trying to say there are ways of channeling our concerns constructively and destructively.  When Obama tells people not to do something, they do it which is the exact opposite of what Kennedy did, which was telling people what to do: go home and pray.” –Anthony

My students’ abilities to analyze and evaluate a text increased.

What My Students Helped Me Conclude

My students helped me realize that Obama’s intention was to strengthen our belief in a system that—in the eyes of many—does not work.  Our president lost a large part of the audience in the fourth sentence of his statement: “First and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law.”  In the next sentence, he said, “We need to accept this decision.”

No matter what he said in the rest of his speech, a speech that seemed detached from the passion and sincerity of Obama in other public speaking situations, the multitude of skeptics would not accept any suggestions about how to behave.  It’s quite likely, that Obama’s speech contributed to the anger against the Ferguson decision.  No—Obama’s speech did contribute to our nation’s anger.

This doesn’t mean that protesters have any right to vandalize property or yell profanities into reporters’ microphones.

What I realized today after listening to my students is that our president failed to respond authentically to the racial discord that continues to exist in our nation—a disappointing feat by our nation’s first black president.

I didn’t tell my students what my conclusions were.  They turned in their reflections and we wished each other a good holiday.

As the last bell rings the day after the Ferguson grand jury’s decision, I’m thankful I have the opportunity to continue believing that my students on Chicago’s Southwest side can find the words to express their views about controversial situations that will affect their futures—and ours.

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