Category Archives: Language of Leaders

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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