Baldwin’s ‘A Talk to Teachers’ inspires students

A new year, a new teacher, a revised course, and a new opportunity to speak out. After receiving the assignment to teach Advanced Placement Language and Composition, Mrs. Jenna Hixson hit the ground running, writing a total of 189 lesson plans for her future AP students. However, one particular day, she stumbled along an intriguing speech that she knew she would be using for the first AP Unit of the 2019-2020 school year.
“One particular day, it was flipping through the 1180 pages of The Language of Composition,” she said. “What spoke to me was a speech entitled “A Talk to Teachers” by James Baldwin delivered in 1963. Not only did the speech inspire me as a teacher, but it also provided the perfect context to both teach my students to find rhetoric and to use rhetoric and even become champions of change.”
Mrs. Hixson had each of her students pick a topic that they would like to have a “talk” with teachers about, utilizing rhetorical devices. She made it a point to discuss the three pillars of Aristotle’s rhetorical strategy: ethos (ethics), pathos (emotion), and logos (logic), for those speeches that have the “perfect balance personal experience and research” are “truly impossible to ignore.” One particular speech that stood out to Mrs. Hixson was one written by junior Logan Depta.
Depta wrote a speech on the relationship between students and the amount of stress they endure throughout the school year. His main vantage point was highly influential to his audience, for he expressed his wishes to become a teacher himself.
“Logan’s humor and shared love for education and future ambitions of being a teacher made him hard to ignore,” Mrs. Hixson said.
Despite its large impact, Depta’s idea didn’t come easy to him.
“I was excited to write something but stumped because I had no clue what to do. Or a better worry, when to do it. I had golf and work almost every day. Also, I like to have time to relax and not worry about school,” he said, “It took me forever to decide what to do. That was my biggest worry because I feel writing comes naturally to me, but not the ideas behind the words. Those take time for me. Once I get my main idea, I words just appear on paper like magic.”
However, once thinking about his predicament in regards to the assignment, he found his topic within his predicament.
“I was staring at a blank screen and stressing hardcore about this speech. I had no idea what to do. So thinking about the stress I had going through my head, gave me the idea for my speech,” he said.
Depta’s honesty and openness with his audience was another strong point of his speech, for he went into depth about his ambition to become a teacher himself. He has had this dream for the longest time, and his experiences both inside and outside Southmoreland are causing this dream to become stronger and stronger.
“Something inside me always wanted to be a teacher since around second grade. But when I started working at Camp Conestoga in 2017, it really came to fruition. I felt like I was doing what I was meant to, teaching kids that is,” he said, “I was still on the fence until 10th grade when, for the STEM department, we went to the elementary school to teach fourth graders electricity basics. I had a great time doing it.”
And now, it is not only his experiences, but people he admires, fueling his dream as well.
“I really set my mind toward being a teacher when Mr. (Jason) Sharek said I should think about being a teacher.” he said. “I guess he thought I had a natural talent for it and I couldn’t argue with that. I love doing it, and teaching jobs are never going to go away.”
However, the “A Talk to Teachers” assignment did more than allow his audience to know his future dream. It actually changed his perspective on one main aspect of the teaching career. When he originally decided to become a teacher, Depta “couldn’t wait to grade tests.” However, his opinion began to change as he wrote and finalized his speech.
“Maybe teachers can still get their message without tests. Maybe we need to focus more on teaching and not leaving students beginning or punishing them for not understanding something,” he said. “That was my biggest takeaway from this whole thing.”
Depta wasn’t the only one of the junior students to write about stress in the student population, so Mrs. Hixson couldn’t help but notice this major shift in stress in regards to the student population throughout the generations. She is now exploring and questioning this topic more.
“As an educator, I can’t help but notice how many students speak of feeling overwhelmed and anxious by finding the time to work outside of school, participate in sports and clubs, spend time with family, and do homework,” she said. “I remember being a student doing all of those things, but I don’t remember the anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. So, what has changed? How can I revisit my past to help my students today? I don’t have the answers yet, but it was my students’ speeches that got me asking the right questions.”
However, for now, Mrs. Hixson has big plans for these student-written speeches.
“I would love to have students present these at an in-service day. Why would I use anything just for a grade when it could be so much more? I am spending so much time teaching them about the speaker, audience, and occasion,” she said. “Why not make this an authentic learning experience. Then after that, who knows, maybe send them on the road to other local schools, maybe explore the idea of a TED talk.”
Overall, Mrs. Hixson said she hopes that she not only assisted her students in achieving more knowledge of rhetoric and speech writing, but also a new perspective on the impact of their words in the world.
“I hope that my students see that they are never too young or too limited in resources to have a big impact on this world,” she said. “All they need are their words and their voices.”

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