Before the beginning of the spring semester, as I planned our assignments for the course, I tried to imagine where we might be by the end of the semester. I thought of skills to be practiced and outcomes to be measured, and I also considered multiple means of fostering persistence and resilience through the processes and products of writing. Through these means, I returned to a genre I had used in the past, the graduation speech.
The end of the semester and the end of the school year can be a difficult time for many students in ways that they understandably may not be willing to share with us. They may struggle with intersecting issues of community and family, with food insecurity and racism, with the need to hold several jobs and to take a course overload to try to accelerate their education. In other words, the end of the year is a time when students need to keep most focused even as low energy levels may impede concentration.
What to do?
At the end of the semester, through the #redfored movement, public school teachers demonstrated against prolonged state defunding of K-12 education. The demonstrations began at the end of the last week of classes, impacting our community economically, politically, and emotionally. School defunding began during the recession of 2008, and accelerated over the ensuing nine years, or for half of the time that my traditional-aged first-year students had been alive.
In the early part of the recession, in the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama had been invited to give a graduation speech at our institution. The speech became controversial, as described in the links connected to the assignment, when some people suggested that the President had not yet accomplished enough to earn an honorary degree. President Obama decided to speak at graduation anyway and wove the controversy into his remarks that demonstrated an exemplary understanding of kairos, or the rhetorical circumstances of the situation.
Because this story held local interest for my students, I offered the speech as a reading to help understand the genre of the graduation speech. Also included was a website that listed fifteen themes and other suggestions for composing graduation speeches (see the link below).
But the main point of assigning the graduation speech as a final assignment was to give us an opportunity to imagine the future in a positive light. Students not only needed to write a speech, but also to envision themselves as graduating and being chosen to address their classmates. They had to consider the kairos that had produced such circumstances, and to focus on what it would mean to arrive at that historical marker in their own lives.
In the conclusion for their speech, one student wrote:
Take this speech as a lesson, pass it down to others, give them courage, and give them confidence. Tell them they can do it, those 4 little words mean a lot to people. Makes them push that much harder. Be the one to make the difference in someone’s college experience, and college career. That’s what I am here to do today, you guys don’t need this, you already made it. Give this to others and help them be better, you could be the difference maker.
Under the intense pressures that students endure in the culmination of their first year experiences, offering courage and confidence to others can be a significant gift not only to students’ sense of community, but also to students’ developing sense of themselves as writers. As this student suggests, that gift can make all the difference.
PROMPT FOR GRADUATION SPEECH
Take what you have learned and experiment with a different genre: a speech that you have been invited to deliver to your college graduating class
- Revise the letter that you wrote to a younger audience as a speech for your class and audience members at your graduation
- Include your reading from earlier writing projects as references
- See this link for a list of 15 themes and suggestions for writing graduation speeches. Choose one of these themes for your graduation speech.
- Look at former President Obama’s 2009 graduation speech at ASU-Tempe for another example. See these links for the transcript, the video, and the historical background of this speech.
Music educators performing in the #redfored band at the Arizona state capitol in Phoenix on April 30, 2018. The writing on the drum says: “The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and his life for the welfare of others.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Photo by Susan Naomi Bernstein