“I have a dream” are words the freshmen students I taught were actually familiar with. They knew that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was perhaps the most influential leader in the fight for racial equality in America, and they knew that the “I Have a Dream” speech he recited on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of thousands of people both black and white to be arguably the most famous speech ever recited.
For a lesson on how students could improve the rhetoric within their own speeches, I had the class read King’s speech as an example. A challenge, I know, for non-native English speakers, but the students appeared to be at an advanced enough level to at least partially grasp the language and understand some of the techniques King used. They had been given a very basic format to follow for giving a presentation as well as some examples of the language they should be using, which resulted in all their speeches sounding the same. I wanted them to move away from sticking strictly to that structure, and also to be passionate about whatever they were speaking about.
We took turns going around the room and reading a part of King’s speech. I’d hoped they would read with some passion or animation in their voice as I did, but mostly they were stumbling over words and waiting for me to help them sound them out. Those who weren’t reading were using their dictionaries on their cell phones, looking up every word they were unfamiliar with. Everyone’s copy of the speech was covered with Chinese characters when we had finished going around the room.
They were still able to identify what made MLK’s speech the triumph that it was and still is, and it was not just because of his more superior command of the language. They could feel the impact of repeating “I have a dream” and “let freedom ring” over and over again. Repetition of a line indicates its importance, they knew. And when comparing the language and structure of King’s speech to their own, they could point out that every sentence did not begin with a transition word like “first,” “next,” or “finally,” and that he didn’t just conclude the speech with an abrupt “that’s all.” King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has a natural, beautiful flow that exudes the determination and strength Civil Rights activists fought for racial equality with.
Mostly, though, I wanted my students to read MLK’s speech so they would choose a topic they really cared about for their final presentations, some idea worth spreading. Their first speeches had been about losing weight and Gossip Girl, but once they saw that a speech could be a call to action, their final presentations were much more thoughtful, much more animated, and much easier to listen to. On this 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I thought a nice way to commemorate it would be to write about the impact it even had on Chinese university students.
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