For nearly three years we’ve offered students a staircase to access topics of national and world significance that are otherwise out of reach. It thrills us when we hear from you telling us how your class discussed the refugee crisis in Europe or debated the use of encryption. Knowing that we’re feeding young brains with meaty issues to ponder is what gets us revved for Mondays. But we’re hungry to do more. So we asked ourselves, what other complex nonfiction is out of students’ reach?
We recently leveled biographies of the presidents. In doing so, we came across many famous quotes: “Ask not what your country can do for you…,” “The only thing we have to fear…,” “Four score and seven years ago….” We all know these words, but realized, to our surprise, we couldn’t really recall the full context in which they were uttered. So we went back and read the complete speeches. Goosebumps and watery eyes soon followed. That’s because great speeches don’t just inform and persuade. They evoke a physical reaction from their audience. But struggling or young readers may not be able to experience that sensation, because the writing, often intricate and archaic, is beyond their reading ability.
That students might miss the opportunity to experience the power of these words pained us. One hundred history textbooks combined cannot convey the inhumanity of slavery better than the 1,800 words of fury Frederick Douglass unleashed on an audience in Rochester, New York.
Listen to the address following the Challenger disaster, and you’ll never forget or wonder why Ronald Reagan was dubbed “the Great Communicator.”
That is why we dared to adapt these words, which many would deem sacred. We expect some will charge that we’ve given students an easy out to avoid the hard work of grappling with a complex text. We don’t see it that way. For us, the greater risk is that students never feel the full drama of these important moments in history. We want them to hear the original speeches and to absorb their meaning and appreciate the craft. Our intent is to help them “level up” to the point where they don’t just understand the words, but feel the goosebumps, too.
Some of the speeches in the collection (and those that follow) may seem very complex, and perhaps seem too hard for students to comprehend. Indeed, we had some doubts, but we drew encouragement from the words of President John F. Kennedy:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
So choose to go to the moon. Assign your students something challenging and great. The past is rich in truly stirring words. Let’s make sure all our students know what it sounds like when they hear history in the making.
Jennifer Coogan is Chief Content Officer at Newsela.