"I, too, sing America": 5 Significant Michelle Obama Speeches

When the Obama era came to a close in the United States, much was made - and rightly so - about his abilities as an orator.  Websites and newspapers were ranking his top speeches, comparing them to J.F.K., Lincoln, and F.D.R. in American history. 

Much less was said about Michelle Obama's powerful voice in those eight years.  With that in mind, the following resources are meant to provide a beginning to catalog some of her more prominent speeches as the former First Lady of the United States.  

Political speeches are great because there is a clear body of work associated with Michelle Obama.  She's well-known and respected.  These non-literary texts work well for the Individual Oral and the connect really well to several different parts of the course.  

For the purpose of having to assign these speeches to an area of exploration, "readers, writers and texts" was chosen because detailed close analysis of the language and rhetorical devices makes sense here.  Although you may very well want to contextualize these speeches in a certain era (the Obama presidency), the guide states that "Study in this area should be structured to allow students to become more confident in their ability to recognize key textual and rhetorical features and how they create or affect meaning. Non-literary texts and literary works can be chosen that lend themselves to close reading and give students a sense of stylistic, rhetorical and literary elements across a variety of text types and literary forms" (22).

A brief explanation of the speeches to set you up: there are three quite political speeches, from the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Democratic National Convention.  She is explicitly campaigning in them.  The commencement speech in 2015 and the 2016 speech in New Hampshire explore race and gender.  But, these speeches don't fall under neat categories; use them how you want and for purposes that suit your needs. 

You'll find the five speeches below with some standard, general questions for each of them.  For the 2016 DNC speech, there are also three accompanying articles that break down how she uses different rhetorical devices and the effects of them on the audience.  Finally, there is a connection to a Langston Hughes poem "I, too, sing America."  Michelle Obama sometimes faces criticism for her point of view, a few critics even questioning her patriotism.  This poem indirectly connects to that criticism and the connection suggests an alternative; speaking up and out is one of the most patriotic things one can do. 

Side Note: If you are looking for Barack Obama speeches, there's a book titled "We Are the Change We Seek." It is a good starting place for reviewing his body of work.

Guiding Conceptual Questions (in connection to the Area of exploration)

Possible guiding conceptual questions you might use in with this set of resources:

1. How are we affected by texts in various ways?

2. In what ways is meaning constructed, negotiated, expressed and interpreted?

3. How does the structure or style of a text affect meaning?

2016 Democratic National Convention Speech

Questions:

1.  Who is her audience and what is her purpose or purposes in this speech?

2.  List all the rhetorical devices and literary features Obama uses in the speech.  What is the effect of each and why?

3.  Using your list from #2, what was the most powerful device used - in your opinion - and why?

4.  How does the written speech (the text itself) differ from the actual delivered speech (as seen on YouTube)?  What other elements are important when speaking to a group of people and why?

5.  How does this speech compare with the other speeches?  In what ways are they similar?  In what ways are they different?  Which one is more effective and why?

    YouTube

Supporting Articles

Use the link to find a Forbes article that discusses 5 aspects of Michelle Obama's speech

Use to link to find a Poynter article that gives 8 writing lessons to students using Obama's speech as the mentor text.  It's very informative and easy to read!

Poynter

Two speech writer's discuss Michelle Obama's speech.  It's perfect to show students what a Written Task 1 might look like in the real world!

The Ringer

2012 Democratic National Convention Speech

Questions:

1.  Who is her audience and what is her purpose or purposes in this speech?

2.  List all the rhetorical devices and literary features Obama uses in the speech.  What is the effect of each and why?

3.  Using your list from #2, what was the most powerful device used - in your opinion - and why?

4.  How does the written speech (the text itself) differ from the actual delivered speech (as seen on YouTube)?  What other elements are important when speaking to a group of people and why?

5.  How does this speech compare with the other speeches?  In what ways are they similar?  In what ways are they different?  Which one is more effective and why?

YouTube (start 4 minutes into it)

2008 Democratic National Convention Speech

Questions:

1.  Who is her audience and what is her purpose or purposes in this speech?

2.  List all the rhetorical devices and literary features Obama uses in the speech.  What is the effect of each and why?

3.  Using your list from #2, what was the most powerful device used - in your opinion - and why?

4.  How does the written speech (the text itself) differ from the actual delivered speech (as seen on YouTube)?  What other elements are important when speaking to a group of people and why?

5.  How does this speech compare with the other speeches?  In what ways are they similar?  In what ways are they different?  Which one is more effective and why?

YouTube

2016 New Hampshire Speech

Questions:

1.  Who is her audience and what is her purpose or purposes in this speech?

2.  List all the rhetorical devices and literary features Obama uses in the speech.  What is the effect of each and why?

3.  Using your list from #2, what was the most powerful device used - in your opinion - and why?

4.  How does the written speech (the text itself) differ from the actual delivered speech (as seen on YouTube)?  What other elements are important when speaking to a group of people and why?

5.  How does this speech compare with the other speeches?  In what ways are they similar?  In what ways are they different?  Which one is more effective and why?

6.  How and in what ways does Obama directly address gender in this speech?  What makes it effective?  Why?

    YouTube

2015 Commencement Address at Tuskegee University

Questions:

1.  Who is her audience and what is her purpose or purposes in this speech?

2.  List all the rhetorical devices and literary features Obama uses in the speech.  What is the effect of each and why?

3.  Using your list from #2, what was the most powerful device used - in your opinion - and why?

4.  How does the written speech (the text itself) differ from the actual delivered speech (as seen on YouTube)?  What other elements are important when speaking to a group of people and why?

5.  How does this speech compare with the other speeches?  In what ways are they similar?  In what ways are they different?  Which one is more effective and why?

6.  How and in what ways does Obama directly address race in this speech?  What makes it effective?  Why?

       YouTube

Ending Activity

Rank the speeches is order from most successful to least successful.  You get to define "success," but be ready to defend your definition and ranking. 

Connection to "I, too, sing America" by Langston Hughes

Questions:

1.  What main ideas or themes arise in the poem? 

2.  How does Hughes use various poetic devices and for what effect?

3.  How does the content of the poem connect to Obama's 2015 commencement address?

4.  In what ways is the poem similar and in what ways is the poem different from Obama's 2015 commencement address?  How so?

5.  How do you define who "belongs" in a place or a country?  Is it patriotic to speak out, even if it sheds light on the faults of your country?  Why or why not?

Toward Assessment and Using the Learner Portfolio

Paper 1 at HL and SL:  Don't study the commencement address in class.  Instead, use a portion of it (the start that begins with the history of the college) for an unseen Paper 1.  After studying her speeches, students will familiar with the text type and with the rhetorical devices used, but will never have seen this exact speech before.  Use it to assess their learning in this unit of study.

Question attached to the Paper 1: What is the purpose and effect of Obama's imagery when describing the history of the    Tuskegee airmen in the beginning of the speech?

Learner Portfolio Entry: Students might choose to use one of these speeches for their Individual oral or Higher level essay.  Ask them to connect one or more of the speeches to one of the seven concepts in the course (to get them thinking about the HLE).  You might also get them to connect a speech to one of the global issues.  This can be done as a mindmap, a free writing exercise, or a more formal write-up.  

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