PBS Lesson Plan Turns Students Into Abraham Lincoln

By Ross Brenneman — April 22, 2014 2 min read
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Over 150 years after Abraham Lincoln declared in the Gettysburg Address that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” the nation’s 16th president continues to be proven wrong.

Documentarian Ken Burns is currently in the midst of publicizing his new film “The Address,” about Lincoln’s famous speech, but even if you missed the initial presentation last week, PBS is offering a way to get students involved.

“The Address,” which initially premiered on PBS April 15, and is already available on DVD, centers on the Greenwood School, in Putney, Vt., where every year students learn and recite the Gettysburg Address. In the film, Burns—who initially made his mark with “The Civil War,” the acclaimed, epic documentary that has also put many a student to sleep in U.S. history class—also dives into Lincoln’s life and the historical context of the speech.

As part of the publicity campaign, PBS enlisted the help of scores* of famous people to recite the Gettysburg Address—actors, politicians, comedians, presidents, historians ... a whole lot of people. One hundred and two of them, actually. The exercise is interesting as a study in speech-giving—almost everyone recites the address in the manner which you’d pretty much expect them to. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, for instance, both deliver the speech as though it’s part of a show segment. Many of the politicians speak as though they’ll follow the video with a solicitation for campaign funds. Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, is one of the few to give the speech outdoors, which actually makes the most sense, considering the ambient noise that Lincoln probably had to deal with. (Though not including the plane landing at Ronald Reagan International Airport.)

For my money, ESPN analyst John Saunders does one of the best renditions of the address, spoken with the same gravitas he’d use for a spectacular NFL sports montage:

But if this were a contest, Stephen Colbert would probably win, helped in part because he might be the only one to actually be delivering his to a real audience, and with a beard. I know I’ve been on a small Colbert kick recently, but the future host of “The Late Show” really does have some masterful diction:

This historical-reenactment activity isn’t only for celebrities, though. PBS is offering the opportunity for students to send in YouTube videos of themselves reciting the address—which might even get them featured on the website. Additionally, PBS offers a related lesson plan on public speaking that includes ways to work on memorization—which could be helpful in many other subject areas—and pronunciation. There’s also a game online where students can practice putting the speech in the correct order.

*See what I did there?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.