Encouraging authentic voices

Encouraging authentic voices

Each year, as US universities graduate another class of students, the internet starts to buzz a little with the big-name guests who are invited to share their wisdom at commencement ceremonies. The commencement season has always been a great source for inspiring, sometimes surprising and always illuminating speeches to use as in-class texts.

Notable addresses this year have included:

  • President Barak Obama, who spoke at Rutgers University (42:29 minutes) and at Howard University (45:36 minutes) about the social changes that have brought about greater equality in the last 30 years, including the challenges facing graduates in the 21st century and the need for young people from all backgrounds to be actively involved in politics and community change
  • Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, who spoke at the University of California at Berkeley (25:41 minutes) about how she coped with the sudden death of her husband and the importance of resilience
  • Film maker Spike Lee, who spoke at the Johns Hopkins University (11:25 minutes) about the impact of prejudice on social justice in modern America
  • Film maker Steven Spielberg, who spoke at Harvard University (20:09 minutes) challenging graduates to dedicate their lives to ‘finding a villain to vanquish’.

These big-name speakers are always interesting, and their words are often crafted and delivered so deftly that it’s hard for students not to be inspired. But for me this year, I think my commencement prize goes to Donovan Livingston, a student speaker at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education Convocation Exercises (5:45 minutes). In many ways, he threw out the conventional habits and techniques of the formal speech, choosing to deliver his remarks through spoken word poetry, purposely evoking the rich cultural history of the form to make the point that through education he has been allowed and empowered to find, and use, his own authentic voice.

The transcript of his poem, ‘Lift Off’, is available along with the video footage of his performance, so you could look at this as either a speech or a work of poetry in its own right. I think, above all though, it’s a message for students who feel that their voices are not heard. This is a call to action, a call to study and a call to rise above apathy. It is also a plea for students and teachers to embrace their own difference and reject the destructive impact of stereotypes, standardised assessment and the ‘one size fits all’ approach to learning.

It’s also a refreshing and heartening message for  teachers. It’s that time of the year when exhaustion can fray nerves and the approaching stress of mid-year exams and assessments can start to weigh educators down. Livingston embodies the enormous impact that one teacher, in his case his 7th Grade teacher Ms Parker, can have on the future and direction of their students simply by encouraging them to speak: loudly and authentically. And now, Livingston will be passing that message on to a new generation of students as a teacher.

There are no specific activities this week, the speeches will raise plenty of issues to discuss with students. Just watch, share and enjoy.

Best wishes, and happy teaching,

Sandra Duncanson
Senior Editor

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