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08.28.13On Teaching (and Close Reading) the “I Have a Dream” Speech

martin-luther-king-jrDr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is among my favorite pieces of writing- not just for personal inspiration but also as a text for teaching in the classroom—as a reading text.  It’s an ideal text for close reading—beautifully crafted; artfully constructed; perfectly argued; full of the deft rhetorical detail that characterizes so much of King’s writing.

So I just want to make the point, today, that one of the best ways we can honor Dr. King’s legacy is to teach his speech and to read it carefully, line-by-line, and to submit it (and ourselves) to the close reading it warrants.

As an example of its power as a text for analysis I thought I’d share my reading of a single line in the speech—my favorite line–and some of the things I’d want students to see in it:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I want students to notice that in imagining a better society Dr. King imagines the nation his children might live in.  In invoking his children he underscores the absolute deep personal sincerity of the dream he espouses—there is nothing more true than what we want for our children–while acknowledging—in underscoring their youth with the word “little”–that the dream is probably a long way off. 

But the power for me is in what he wishes for his children.  Yes, he shares the hope that they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but importantly he doesn’t stop there, as one might expect, with a simple hope for the destruction of racism.  Nor does he wish that they might live in a nation where they won’t be judged at all.  The sentence continues on past the idea of not being judged by the color of one’s skin and in fact Dr. King asks explicitly that his own children be judged.  Remove the words describing what he hopes will come to fall and you are left with this description of what he hopes will come to pass:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged … by the content of their character.

The end of the sentence reveals that as a father, he does not wish for a free pass for his children, for a world that tolerates anything and leaves them unfettered by expectations.  He knows that by necessity the world sorts, maybe even that it is to our children’s benefit to be judged—judgment after all is part of religious faith and a minister is writing to us.  Dr. King’s most powerful and sincere wish for his children is that they to rise to meet the judgments of a world that is right, fair, just and true in making those judgments, a world that bases its judgment on what’s most singularly important- character.    

I often think about the importance of the end of this great sentence- that we prepare our children to be the best people that they can be when we hope not that the world will reserve judgment entirely but that it will assess, evaluate and reward character.  It’s breath-taking to me that, in the midst of the turmoil, the pain, the struggle of the Civil Rights movement, in the midst of fears for his own daily survival, King had the presence to couch his dreams in context of his fatherhood as well as his civic leadership and that the dream for his children was one that outlined the criteria for judgment. I think about this line all the time in raising my own children, in trying to always keep character as the criterion foremost in my mind in the face of both my own ambition for their achievement on one hand and the general erosion of expectations for behavior and character in our society.  I’m trying—sometimes for good sometimes through failure—to remember to also keep the second half of the sentence at the foremost in my mind, as an educator of other people’s children as well as my own.

As for Dr. King, I suspect he was a demanding father to his four children, but also a very good one.

Of course you may see the speech differently- there are a lot of brilliant lines for the parsing. So be it.  That said I hope you’ll honor these seminal words in our history and society by reading them closely with students.

4 Responses to “On Teaching (and Close Reading) the “I Have a Dream” Speech”

  1. matthew
    August 28, 2013 at 8:20 pm

    There’s the alliterative /k/ sound in “color of their skin…content of their character” that draws us in. Knowing his bible as well as he did, he appreciated and deployed poetic language artfully.

    There’s the repeated use of phrases like “I have a dream” and “one hundred years later” that re-enforces his powerful language.

    There is the concise, compact nature of his writing, leading to a speech delivered it in 16 mins. (compares favorably to the President’s effort today)

    One pundit opined today that this was the best speech by a man whose career was defined by great speeches. And by its location and references — “five score years ago” — alluding directly to the best speech (Gettysburg Address) by another man whose career featured many great speeches.

    And to top it off, the whole speech is an enormous PSA for the centrality of background knowledge to comprehension.

    thanks for setting this up

    • Doug_Lemov
      August 28, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      Thanks, Matthew. Happy to say that your close reading is richer and deeper than mine! 🙂 To me that only underscores its power as a teaching method… and of course the richness of the speech itself.

      • matthew
        August 28, 2013 at 11:05 pm

        hardly richer or deeper.

        But the references to Shakespeare – Sweltering summer of our discontent, Amos – justice roll down like mighty waters and Isaiah – crooked places made straight – would sadly sail past far too many Americans these days. Including many of our best (and brightest) teachers.

        Boy do we need PD. Content-based PD.

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