Category Archives: Lesson plan ideas

Using the President’s State of the Union as a Teachable Text


[Note: This year's State of the Union will be delivered on Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 9 p.m.]

Often, secondary English and Social Studies teachers use older texts to teach the standards of our subject areas. This is a good thing; however, in doing so, we are constantly asking our students to look back to the past, when we should also be asking them to think, discuss, and analyze their present and future.

One way to bring our classrooms into the present and to bolster the relevancy of our curriculum is to create lesson plans around texts being created now. One such opportunity arrives every year in the form of the President’s State of the Union Address. No matter whether our current president is a Democrat, Republican, or Independent, he or she must give this address, which makes it a great teaching text – we can count on it every year, yet every year it’s something new.

Below are four steps for using the President’s SOTU as a text for rhetorical analysis in your classes.

STEP ONE: Rationale and Objectives

Before students watch the speech, they need to understand why you are asking them to do so. The objectives must be clear so that students understand this is not a political or partisan exercise, but one in which they are analyzing language and its effects. Here are some sample objectives:

  • Students will understand the rhetorical situation of the President’s State of the Union Address.
  • Students will analyze how the President’s use of figurative language relates to the rhetorical situation.
  • Students will analyze how the President’s use of persuasive appeals works to achieve his purposes.
  • Students will analyze how the specific word choice (diction) relates to the rhetorical situation.

STEP TWO: Understanding the Rhetorical Situation

The rhetorical situation is the phrase used to describe the set of circumstance in which a text is created; in this case, the circumstances in which the State of the Union is being given. In order to write an effective speech, a speaker must have a clear understanding of the following elements:

Method of delivery: How will the speech be transmitted to other people?

Audience: Who is the speaker addressing?

Purpose: What are goals/objectives of the speech?

Speaker: Who is giving the speech?

Context: Under what specific historical circumstances the speech being given?

Prompt: What is the immediate prompt for this speech?

Subject: What is this speech about?

That’s a lot of moving parts, especially considering the fact that there are multiple answers for nearly all of those questions. You can discuss each one with your students or choose the one in which you would like them to focus their analysis. I use the acronym MAPS CPS to help students remember they are “locating” the elements of the rhetorical situation.

STEP THREE: Live Engagement

Ideally, we want students to be active viewers of the speech, just as we want them to be active readers. How to achieve this objective? Well, you’ve got two options: low-tech and high-tech.

Low-tech: As they watch the speech, students should take notes on specific phrases, words, or moments that strike them as important. Since the text of the speech is not released in advance, students can’t annotate while they watch, so this is the next best thing. Additionally, students can write down questions they have regarding the rhetoric of the speech. (You may also encourage them to write down questions regarding the formalities of the event, especially if it’s their first time watching a SOTU.)

High-tech: If your students are able to tweet, create a class hashtag that you will all use while tweeting during the Address. Instruct your students to tweet specific phrases, words, or moments that strike them as important. Since we want them to stay focused on the speech, you can instruct students not to worry about engaging in an actual discussion. After the conclusion of the speech, students should scroll back in the feed and indicate their favorite tweets by clicking the (ridiculous) heart icon. Tell them ahead of time that the most “loved” (seriously, when will Twitter bring back the star?) tweets will be the ones you all discuss in class, so it’s important that they follow through on that last step. You can also encourage students to tweet questions during or after the speech, re-emphasizing the focus on rhetoric and format, not politics and policy.

STEP FOUR: Follow-up Discussion

Using the students’ notes and/or tweets as a jumping point, you are now ready to engage in a student-driven class discussion.

One way to do this is by providing students with photocopies of the actual speech text, which should be released following the conclusion of the speech. Having a hard copy of the speech will allow students to make notes during your discussion and remind them of the context for specific words and phrases. (If you can’t get hard copies that quickly, you may want to delay an in-depth discussion by a day so that students can annotate on the hard copies during the discussion.)

Another way of building upon the students’ observations is to create a Google document of the speech’s text that all your students can access. Again, the objectives should be clear. You may want students want to discuss diction, and so you ask them to highlight specific words and write a brief analysis of the connotation and effect of that word choice. Or you may want them to highlight examples of when the word choice reflects the audience to whom the President is addressing. Or maybe you want students to comment on the organization of the speech as it relates to the achieving the President’s purpose(s).

STEP FIVE: High-five yourself on an engaging, thought-provoking, analytical lesson that also makes your students active participants in the democratic rituals of our great country.




George the First: Thanks for lookin’ out, Mr. President


GW Portrait

Most students don’t know this, but until the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1947, there were no term limits for Presidents of the United States. Yep, we could have had 16 years of President Chester A. Arthur, folks. (The 21st president and the first to legally drink on the job. Joke.) When the U.S. began, certain rules were outlined in the Constitution, but many others we now take for granted were not. So let us all take a moment to thank George Washington for being humble, intelligent, and so frickin’ tired of working that “the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome.”

Washington loved “the people,” and we are the decedents of those people; if not by blood, than by the “love of liberty” beating with every “ligament of your hearts.” Like any good father, he worried about the future of the nation he helped birth. His Farewell Address is only briefly about his own retirement and his own service; mainly, it is a warning. It’s the dad in the driveway shouting “Watch out for black ice!” as his daughter drives away to college.

Teachers and parents share the goal of trying to prepare students for their adulthood. Though the conversation is dominated by talk of academic success, there are other elements to preparing someone for adulthood. Teaching students to be active, engaged, and knowledgeable citizens strikes me as incredibly important.To that end, we can use Washington’s Farewell Address to achieve a number of goals:

  1. Develop students’ reading skills of complex, pre-20th century texts
  2. Develop students’ abilities to analyze rhetorical argument
  3. Develop students’ abilities to understand the relationships between subject, author, occasion, purpose, speaker, and tone
  4. Deepen knowledge of American history and significant American texts

[highlight]This lesson[/highlight] was created with the high school English classroom in mind. However, collaboration between an English and Social Studies teacher would no doubt allow for more depth of thought and discussion. If time is an issue (If! HA!), there is an excellent pared-down version of the speech in Caroline Kennedy’s great collection, A Patriot’s HandbookI also highly recommend reading the Prologue of Francois Furstenberg’s book In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation, which focuses entirely on the creation of the Farewell Address. (Fun fact: the Senate has been reading his address aloud on his birthday every year since 1896.)

You can download the lesson as a PDF, which also includes a copy of the address with room for students’ annotations. Finally, if you would like to see my annotated copy of the speech with notes and anticipated student stumbling blocks, send me a tweet.

On his birthday, as his present, and as a gesture to all the presidents we honor on President’s Day, let us honor his memory and service by sharing his words with our students. Happy Birthday, Mr. President. Thanks for lookin’ out.

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Tone-up using the State of the Union

The President’s State of the Union address is tonight, which presents a great opportunity to engage students in the on-goings and up-comings of national policy with a text that lends itself perfectly to the analysis of tone, diction, persuasive appeals, and other rhetorical devices.

If you can, engage students in the live event. Use Twitter, Blackboard, or other ways of connecting to your students to create a group record of the rhetorical devices students notice in the speech. The White House has created a specific page of their website for the State of the Union, on which people can watch a special enhanced version “featuring live data, graphics, and charts that explain the issues and policies he’ll be discussing in the speech.” Partisanship be damned – that’s just cool.

Another resource is The Atlantic, which has an article about the importance of Pres. Obama’s tone tonight. They also have a phenomenal feature on the Language of the State of the Union with lots of graphs (visual analysis opportunity!) to enrich the written information.

If you don’t have a means of connecting tonight or want to do more, you can analyze the speech tomorrow or later in the week by printing out the text and giving each student a copy to read, annotate, and then use for your lesson.

I posted my chart for activities to use with speeches in an earlier entry, but here it is again: TeacherSoup Activities for Using Speeches

Here’s a specific, simple lesson: give students copies of the speech to read and annotate (either in class or at home); in the meantime, you divide the speech into even sections. Then, get students into groups of 3-4 and let them choose the section they would like to analyze specifically for tone. I’ve created a graphic organizer that you can give to each group on which they can record their observations: TeacherSoup Analyzing Tone in Speeches. After the groups are finished, they can present their findings by explaining their organizer on the document camera or overhead projector. Hold the rest of the class accountable by asking them to add the annotations to their own copies of the speech and collecting the speeches for a quick classwork credit check.

Let’s get students thinking, reading, and engaging in the issues that will affect their adult lives. Enjoy!

Change Quiz-No’s to Quiz-Yes’s

For the first several months of my teaching career, I struggled with finding a method of assessing students’ at-home reading assignments. I couldn’t seem to create multiple choice questions hard enough for the kids just reading Cliff’s Notes and not so hard as to resort to asking about minutia. I discovered the foundation of my answer in Carol Jago’s fantastic book, With Rigor For All (now updated as a second edition).

Before I explain, here’s a downloadable sample for To Kill a Mockingbird: TeacherSoup TKM RQ Ch. 18-19 . It ain’t flashy, but it does its job well. (A motto I use for many things in life: cars, kids’ diapers, my hair.)

For the first reading quiz, I take extra time to explain to students the format, rules, and my expectations for their answers. The rules are simple:

1) Students create a four-square box on their paper. Some kids fold their papers and use the creases as their lines, some kids draw boxes. Either way is fine with me. There’s something about having each answer in its own quadrant that makes reading the answers fast and easy. (Another motto I use for many thing in life: cars, dinner, my hair. Your mama.)  Students should also write the title of the quiz at the top of their paper.

2) I always give students six questions and they can choose four questions to answer. Don’t you hate it when you read something and someone else asks you a question about the one part you can’t remember? So do kids! I wanted to hold kids accountable, but not punish them for lacking a photographic memory. I was also selfishly motivated. Four short-answer questions takes time, but not an unreasonable amount of time.

3) All answers must be written in complete sentences.

With short-answer questions, I could get at the how, why, and what (which normally indicate a deeper understanding of content), as opposed to the when or where (which typically reply on details or basic facts). These questions made students think about their reading and could preclude further whole-class discussion. I could also ask students to identify the speaker and context of a quotation and explain its significance. Every so often, I would ask students to draw a picture and label the details (one of Jago’s ideas).

The four-question format simplified the scoring for each answer: 25 points means you thoroughly answered the question; 20 means you proved you understood the reading but left out an important point; 15 means you read but perhaps forgot some aspects or didn’t fully understand; 10 means your answer shows a partial understanding (scoring lots of “10″s was usually indicated a student was simply skimming, reading Cliff’s Notes, or only completing part of the reading); 5 points means you didn’t read but maybe lucked into getting credit for some small detail; zero means totally wrong or left blank.

When students finish, they turn in their work and start a new assignment or get a head start on that night’s reading. If a kid isn’t writing anything down, that’s a good opportunity for me to have a one-on-one conference about why he hadn’t read or why she didn’t understand the reading and discuss how we can solve the problem next time.

I gave my students a reading quiz nearly every day following a reading assignment. The quizzes were meant to reward students for doing the reading by giving them the opportunity to prove their work and also to underscore the importance of the reading. How could I teach the book if the kids weren’t reading the book? In that vein, I also used the quizzes to guide my instruction. (“Why did half of the class miss the question about the fire at Miss Maudie’s house?”) If I decided not to give a quiz, I didn’t tell the kids beforehand; for the next quiz, I would just combine two night’s worth of reading.

These quizzes really reveal who knows the text, who’s struggling, and who’s trying to yank a teacher’s chain. I’ve been known to write “Don’t waste my time” on a few quizzes that were full of Grade A Horse Manure. Alternately, I’ve congratulated kids on answers that taught me something.

Whether you teach English/Language Arts or not, I hope these ideas assist you in your teaching and your students’ learning.



Welcome, new Congresspeople. Speech! Speech!

House chamberToday was a day of firsts for me. It was the first time I drove my daughter to preschool. It was the first time my husband realized halfway there that preschool was cancelled. It was the first snow day for my daughter. It was the first time my daughter went sledding. And it was the first time I went sledding. (I consider it a personal accomplishment that I didn’t eat it in front of all the other kids. Like I did my first time skiing. I’m from Florida, you know.)

Today was a first for a lot of politicians too. Freshmen congresswomen and congressmen were sworn in today and took their place in American political history. I admit, I’m jealous. When I was in 5th grade, two high school guys visited my class and gave a presentation about careers. As an adult, I realize this activity had “extra credit” written all over it, but at the time, I was impressed. When they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I excitedly and sincerely answered, “President of the United States.” They smiled. Again, as an adult, I realize now their smiles were based on their knowledge of the far-fetched nature of my aspiration. As a 10 year old, I felt belittled. And pissed. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time – those lessons would be learned the following year on the bus  - but I’m pretty sure my expression read, “Watch me, a-holes.”

Turns out, they were probably right. I say probably, because you never know! If people live to be 100 now-a-days, I may still have a shot. While awaiting my own Town Hall meetings, I’ve turned my own political interests outward and tried to emphasize the importance of intellectual citizenship in my teaching. I want my students to think, research, analyze, listen, and engage in their government. I want them to be aware of the manipulations, pratfalls, fallacies, and steaming piles of horse-manure that dot the great American political arena, so they can find people and ideas to genuinely support.

One of my favorite genres of texts to use with students is speeches. They’re often examples of powerful, poetic prose, and they serve to inform students of either the past or present. The chart I’ve created and included for you is just a place to start when considering how to use speeches in your classrooms. The activities are suitable for middle and high school students of any level and align with multiple Common Core State Standards. Some of my best teaching moments happened during these activities, so I hope they are equally meaningful to you and your students.


TeacherSoup Activities for Using Speeches

Score big with verbs in sports

Ice_Hockey_sharks_ducksBefore I met my husband, Oliver, my knowledge of hockey was limited to what I learned from Disney’s Mighty Ducks movies. (You mean real hockey players don’t actually quack?) A confession: While dating, I actually brought a book to the first hockey game I attended with Oliver. And read it. It’s a testament to his love for me that he didn’t dump me right then and there. (He says it was close.)

This morning I stumbled across a story entitled “Hockey’s Doc Emrick and His 153 Verbs.” A story that combines my home-grown appreciation for hockey and my innate love of language? Quack!

As sports writer Frank Deford explains, Doc Emrick is a long-time announcer for hockey who is respected for his work by fans around the world. Deford writes, “he is that rare play-by-play man who is both an authority on the game and a connoisseur of the language. The eloquence he brings to such a bombastic activity is the sort of giant contradiction that even overwhelms irony.” (So many great words in Deford’s own writing.)

In 2013, someone wrote down 53 different words Emerick used to say “pass.” A different fan wrote down all the verbs Emerick used to announce the USA-Canada game in the 2014 winter Olympics – 153, to be exact.

The story got me thinking. Kids love sports. Teachers love great writing. Great writing loves a variety of verbs. Quack, quack, quack!


Most Likely Chefs: English teachers, Physical Education teachers, or Journalism teachers

Variety #1

  1. Play the NPR story for students and show them the lists of words.
  2. Watch 2-5 minutes of a sports video – could be the high school team, a college team, or a movie scene (G, PG, or Kosher, of course).
  3. Before hitting play, ask students to write down all of the verbs they think of while watching the action of the clip.
  4. At the conclusion of the clip, compile a class list on the document camera or whiteboard of all the verbs they wrote down.
  5. Watch the clip again, allowing students to raise their hand to pause the video and add their commentary.
  6. Possible assignment: Ask students to select their own 2-5 minute clip for narration. If the technology is available, students can create their own play-by-play audio with the selected video. The clip does not necessarily have to be sports-related, as long as it has action (i.e. a fashion runway show. NOT Victoria Secret’s.)
  7. Long-term goal: Students keep a running list of the action verbs to use in their own writing. The teacher actively reminds students to refer to their list and add to it.

Variety #2

  1. Play the NPR story for students and show them the lists of words.
  2. Bring in copies of articles from ESPN magazine or other sports-related texts. Let students choose which article they’d like to read.
  3. Before they begin reading, ask students to highlight any action verbs they find. Also, ask them to star or underline any parts they believe to be an example of good writing.
  4. After students are done (or the next day, if you give that step as homework), compile a class list of the verbs they found.
  5. Ask students to create a simple t-chart on their paper. One side should say “Verb” and the other should say “Effect.” Ask students to pick five of the verbs and, in the “Effect” column, explain how the verb choice affected the text. (Push them beyond anything banal like “the words creates an image.” Right. But why that image? How does it connect to or affect the meaning, tone, or purpose of the text?)
  6. Next, ask students to replace their five chosen verbs and replace them with others they select from the class list that would also make sense in their article. Add the new five words to their t-chart and explain how those new choices affect and/or change the meaning from the original words.
  7. Finally, if there’s time or as a follow-up activity, engage students in discussion by asking them to share a part they identified as great writing, and (this is the important part) ask them to explain why the writing should be considered great. Did others identify the same moment? Why? How can we use these techniques in our writing?
  8. Long-term goal: Students keep a running list of the class’s action verbs to use in their own writing. The teacher actively reminds students to refer to their list and add to it.

Great connoisseurs of language are out there in every field, on every field, and apparently on ice too. Happy New Year’s Eve, be safe, and enjoy!

New Year for Teacher Soup

I considered deleting some of my previous posts because they represent my halting attempts at launching this blog. But then I reconsidered. Probably because I’ve spent too many years reading O Magazine and definitely because I’m on a self-confidence kick brought on by reading Amy Poehler’s book, Yes Please. Poehler shares words of wisdom from one of her mentors, Del Close, who wisely advised everyone, “Don’t think.”

“Don’t think” sounds like the opposite of good advice, especially when read by a former high school English teacher who relishes the analysis (re: tearing apart) of a 19th century poem or an episode of Downton Abbey (Just one more week people! One week!). We of the over-analytical mind sometimes stop our own progress with mental moats. We stand on the banks of “How Do I” for far too long, instead of just jumping into the water. Now that I live in Maryland and don’t have to worry about Florida alligators, this advice sounds much more reasonable. (Disclaimer: I do not advise people to jump into Florida moats. Seriously. There is some weird shit growing down there.) So I’m leaving the previous posts as a reminder that I can’t let a few moments of regression stop me from moving forward. Onward, I say. Onward!

My husband gave me a long-desired birthday gift and one I had to move hundreds of miles to receive: a subscription to The Washington Post. (To the people in their 20s, yes, I realize I could have gotten a digital subscription years ago, but I am also a former journalism major who loves the snap of a fresh page of newspaper, so when Kindle/Apple/BillGates can reproduce that effect, then we’ll talk.) The Post is a goldmine of teaching material, so expect to see lots of links and ideas from that source.

I love a good laugh, and we have far too few of those in our classrooms today, so I’m starting the new year with a link to a funny cartoon called Frazz that ran in the Post on Dec. 21. Since I don’t want to violate any copyright laws, I will provide you the link:

Great teachers know how to take ideas from other teachers and adjust the ingredients according to their students’ needs. Here’s a potential recipe (lesson plan) from my kitchen (theoretical classroom, if I still had one). Don’t you just love analogies?


  1. Print out comic and have it displayed on your document camera before students arrive. (Or copy the comic onto an overhead transparency and then ask your students to bring in baked goods so you can host a fundraiser to buy a document camera.)
  2. Once the bell rings and the kids have all read the comic, open up the discussion. “What do you notice?” “What’s funny here?” Honestly, those questions are probably all you’ll need to get the kids to start discussing tone, diction, imagery, and organization.
  3. A few elements to discuss in case they don’t arise organically from discussion:
    1. How do we know immediately who “they” is in the first frame? Why didn’t Jef Mallet (the comic) use “adults” or “parents” instead? What is the effect of the use of “they”?
    2. Discuss choice of phrase “hopped up.”
    3. Discuss organization of frames. How does the bubble in the middle help or hinder the flow of the comic?
    4. Bonus points for kids who get the allusion to 1984!!! Teachable opportunity for all those who don’t!
    5. What is the full reason for why the boy on the bike isn’t worried about discussing “Big Clause”. How do we know and how would the humor be affected if the little boy explained his thinking fully.
    6. Mini-mini discussion on punctuation and purpose:
      1. the colon in the middle bubble
      2. use of telegraphic sentences in last frame
  4. In my kitchen, this activity would be considered an h’ordeuvre. No need to fill up an entire period with it, and don’t worry about every last crumb. My main objective would be to wake those little brains up from their holiday stupor, get them to pay attention, laugh together, and learn a little something.

So there it is. Just add students and you’re ready to get cookin’. Ok, after three cups of coffee, but you know what I mean.

Happy Halfway Point in the School Year!

“Don’t Quit On Brit Lit” article

A few of my (paid) friends asked where they could find a recent article of mine that was published in the Florida English Journal, a peer-edited journal published by the Florida Council of Teachers of English. In the article, I make my case for the continuation (or reassertion) of teaching pre-21st British Literature, and I provide lesson plan ideas for implementation. Here it is: Don’t Quit on Brit Lit Article PDF Enjoy!