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Teaching Guide

Teaching Speak

Silence isn't always golden.

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Speak is a tough book to teach because of its sensitive subject material, but Shmoop is here to help.

In this guide you will find

  • an activity exploring the reason Speak has been banned.
  • essay questions about symbolism, lies, and art.
  • pop culture and literary connections featuring Maya Angelou and Kristen Stewart (two names you never thought would be in the same sentence).

If you don't know what to say about Speak, check out our teaching guide.

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Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop's teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

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Instructions for You

Objective: Speak doesn't announce its subject matter right off the bat (obviously, since Melinda not speaking is sort of the point). At first, we are just following this girl as she begins her freshman year of high school, but something is definitely wrong. Slowly, we figure out that the something wrong is that Melinda was raped at a party over the summer, and no one knows about it.

This is tricky territory for sure. Sex and sexual assault are never the most comfortable classroom topics, and there are some who believe that we just shouldn't talk about this particular S-word in school. But your students have likely been to parties just like this one, and some of them may have even experienced unexpected or unwelcome sexual advances when the drinking and partying went too far. So, awkward? Yes, but necessary too. Shmoop believes that teens need a safe place to talk about tough issues like sex and drinking and sexual assault, and books like Speak open doors for conversations that both adults and teens would otherwise probably avoid. So suit up; we're taking this one head on.

In this lesson we are going to let the students decide if this book is valuable enough to be taught in schools and then we are going to allow them to do what they do best—plead their case by drafting a letter explaining their position. This lesson should help students analyze the themes of the book, evaluate the value of those themes for teen readers, and then practice their persuasive writing skills as they compose an argument for or against the book's use in the classroom. Did you notice all those Bloom's Taxonomy key words in that sentence? We're asking for a lot of higher order thinking here, so you may want to plan two or three class periods for this activity.

Materials Needed:

  • Teens eager to share their opinions
  • Copies of Speak
  • Optional rubric
  • Computers with Internet access if you would like them to strengthen their arguments with research.

Step 1: Ah, the banned book… favorite cause of English teachers everywhere. Your students, on the other hand, may not share your passion. In fact, they may be secretly rooting for the book banners, hoping for a drastically reduced work load in your courses. So, let's start with a little chat and see if we can get them to dig deeper into the issue of banning books.

  • Why do you think people ban books? What is the purpose?
  • Do you think that banning books ever accomplishes its purpose? Why or why not?
  • Are there any books that you've read or heard about that you think should be banned from schools or libraries? Why or why not?
  • Who should decide which books to teach in schools and which not to? How should we decide? What are the criteria?
  • Should there be different levels of availability? For example, are there some books that should be available in the school library but should not be required reading for class?
  • In what ways might banning books be needed or a good idea? What about concerns like age appropriateness or thematic value? What about books that may make some students feel uncomfortable? 
  • In what ways might banning books be harmful or limiting? Why might it be a good idea to teach a novel, even if it does contain uncomfortable material? Can you think of any examples?
  • Think about this issue in the context of American values like freedom and equality. Do you think our nation's values support the idea of banning books? Why or why not?

Step 2: Did you notice how those questions asked students to think about both sides of this issue? We might be against banning this book (you know, since we're helping you teach it), but we aren't here to brainwash your students (tempting as it may be—think of the possibilities!). So keep the dialectic thinking going by having students make two lists: one that gives reasons the book should be banned and one that gives reasons why it belongs in a high school curriculum. Then have students pair up and share their lists, adding any additional reasons that come up in discussion. Finally, have each group share with the class and compile a master list of reasons both for and against banning the book. Help students get specific about their reasons with a few more questions:

  • What are the major themes presented in the book? (Check out Shmoop's page on themes for help.)
  • How are these themes valuable for teen readers?
  • How might these themes be inappropriate for teen readers in schools?
  • In what ways can this book be a valuable teaching tool? What do you believe students can gain from it?
  • In what ways can this book be problematic to teach? How might the subject matter be harmful or troublesome? In what ways might it undermine the role of the parent?
  • What makes Melinda a valuable character for students? How can students relate to her?
  • What are different possibilities for teaching this book and/or making it available to students? What are the pros and cons of each of these options?

Step 3: Time to pick teams. Students will decide which side of this issue they agree with: To ban or not to ban Speak? Remind students that they don't necessarily have to like a book to believe it shouldn't be banned, and choosing to ban the book doesn't get them out of reading for homework. In fact, you may want to mention your plans to replace Speak in the curriculum with a long, old, boring, classic novel… something Russian or Middle English. Just kidding—we're not brainwashing, remember?

Step 4: Now for a primer on persuasive writing. If you've already taught persuasive writing, you can cover this step with a quick review. If you haven't, check out Shmoop's Essay Lab for help getting started. Don't forget to stress the importance of evidence to support their reasons, which might be specific quotes from the text and/or facts and expert opinions found in their research.

Somewhere in your discussion, we're sure you'll touch on the idea of audience awareness in persuasive writing. Students need to know who they are trying to convince in order to craft the most compelling argument possible. For example, what's likely to convince parents might be different from what would be most convincing to teachers or principals. Ask students to brainstorm a list of people they could address their letters to: the school board, the principal, their parents, the librarian, etc. Then each student should choose a specific audience for their letter.

And that brings us to letter writing. In the age of e-mail and text message, we won't be surprised if your students need a refresher on formal letter writing. For help in this department, send them to Purdue's Online Writing Lab.

Step 5: Enough stalling; let's get to work! Only, you know how you say that to students, and they act as if they know exactly what you mean, and then they come back the next day with nothing done because they "didn't understand the assignment?" Yeah. As a preventative measure, have students complete an exit slip where they identify their position, the recipient of their letter, and the reasons they will use to justify their argument. Hopefully this will pinpoint any misunderstandings sooner rather than later. Their completed letters could be due the next class, or if you would like to work a bit more on argumentation, the next class could be spent workshopping drafts to be revised.

Step 6: Now, if you really want to get into argumentation, see how your students do against counterarguments from the opposing side. Pair students with someone who took the opposite position (or someone willing to play Devil's advocate) and have them go head to head, using their persuasive letter as their talking points. To make it interesting, you can have the rest of the class determine the winner in each argument based on the quality of their reasoning and evidence.

Instructions for Your Students

Speak doesn't announce its subject matter right off the bat (obviously, since Melinda not speaking is sort of the point). At first, we are just following this girl as she begins her freshman year of high school, but something is definitely wrong. Slowly, we figure out that the something wrong is that Melinda was raped at a party over the summer, and no one knows about it.

Anyone else feeling awkward? This is tricky territory for sure. Sex and sexual assault are never the most comfortable classroom topics, and because of this, some people don't believe Speak is an appropriate book to read in school. And, let's face it, a lot of times these "people" try to make decisions that affect you without giving you the opportunity to weigh in on the issue. But today is your lucky day—you get to decide what you think about Speak, and then you'll try to persuade those in power to agree with you.

Step 1: Ah, the banned book… favorite cause of English teachers everywhere. But perhaps you don't share your teacher's passion. Are you secretly rooting for the book banners, hoping for a drastically reduced work load in your English courses? We thought that might be the case, so let's start with a little chat and see if we can dig deeper into the issue of banning books.

  • Why do you think people ban books? What is the purpose?
  • Do you think that banning books ever accomplishes its purpose? Why or why not?
  • Are there any books that you've read or heard about that you think should be banned from schools or libraries? Why or why not?
  • Who should decide which books to teach in schools and which not to? How should we decide? What are the criteria?
  • Should there be different levels of availability? For example, are there some books that should be available in the school library but should not be required reading for class?
  • In what ways might banning books be needed or a good idea? What about concerns like age appropriateness or thematic value? What about books that may make some students feel uncomfortable? 
  • In what ways might banning books be harmful or limiting? Why might it be a good idea to teach a novel, even if it does contain uncomfortable material? Can you think of any examples?
  • Think about this issue in the context of American values like freedom and equality. Do you think our nation's values support the idea of banning books? Why or why not?

Step 2: Did you notice how those questions asked you to think about both sides of this issue? We want you to consider the reasons for and against banning the book before you jump to conclusions. So to keep this dialectic thinking going, you're going to make two lists: one that gives reasons the book should be banned and one that gives reasons why it belongs in a high school curriculum. Then you'll pair up and share your lists, adding any additional reasons that come up in discussion. Finally, each group will share with the class to compile a master list of reasons both for and against banning the book. Be sure to take notes; this discussion will help you complete the next step.

  • What are the major themes presented in the book? (Check out Shmoop's page on themes for help.)
  • How are these themes valuable for teen readers?
  • How might these themes be inappropriate for teen readers in schools?
  • In what ways can this book be a valuable teaching tool? What do you believe students can gain from it?
  • In what ways can this book be problematic to teach? How might the subject matter be harmful or troublesome? In what ways might it undermine the role of the parent?
  • What makes Melinda a valuable character for students? How can students relate to her?
  • What are different possibilities for teaching this book and/or making it available to students? What are the pros and cons of each of these options?

Step 3: Now it's time to pick teams. You will decide which side of this issue you agree with: To ban or not to ban Speak? News flash: You don't necessarily have to like a book to believe it shouldn't be banned, and choosing to ban the book will not get you out of reading for homework. In fact, your teacher might even replace Speak in the curriculum with a long, old, boring, classic novel… just saying.

Step 4: Now for a primer on persuasive writing. We know you all are experts in getting your way, but if you need a refresher on the tricks of the trade, check out Shmoop's Essay Lab for help getting started. Don't forget that you'll need plenty of convincing evidence to support your reasons—you can't just insist that your opinion is right (sheer stubbornness won't be enough this time); you've got to prove it. Evidence might be specific quotes from the text and/or facts and expert opinions found in your research.

One more thing about persuasive writing: Your audience is super important. Think about it—how many of you use a different tactic when asking your mom for something vs. asking your dad? That's audience awareness. You know that what works on your mom is different from what works on your dad, and the same is true for any persuasive writing. You've got to know exactly who your audience or your reader will be so you can decide what approach will be most persuasive. For example, what's likely to convince parents might be different from what would be most convincing to teachers or principals. So before you start writing, let's brainstorm a list of people you could address your letters to: the school board, the principal, their parents, the librarian, etc. Then you'll each choose a specific audience for your letter.

And that brings us to letter writing. In the age of e-mail and text message, we're expecting that everyone could use a little refresher on formal letter writing. For help in this department, check out Purdue's Online Writing Lab.

Step 5: Alright already, enough with the instructions; let's get to work! Still not sure where exactly to start? Try this: Complete an exit slip where you identify your position, the recipient of your letter, and the reasons you will use to justify your argument. Hopefully this will pinpoint any misunderstandings sooner rather than later.

Finally, while drafting your letter make sure you clearly explain why you think Speak should or shouldn't be banned. You are trying to convince your reader that you are thoughtful and more importantly, right—seriously, this is useful stuff. Just think, the next time you need to convince your parents of something, like say, extending your curfew or securing use of their car, you will know exactly how to frame your argument so you stand a better chance of getting what you want!

Step 6: Now, to really get into argumentation, let's have a good, old-fashioned argument and see how you do against the opposing side. Spend about ten minutes jotting down notes about why you are right, and be prepared to spend about two minutes laying it all out for someone who disagrees with you. You'll pair up with a classmate who took the opposite position (or someone willing to play Devil's advocate) and go head to head, using your notes and persuasive letter as your talking points. To make it interesting, we'll have the rest of the class determine the winner in each argument based on the quality of your reasoning and evidence.

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