President Donald Trump will deliver his State of the Union speech on Feb. 4, 2020. The purpose of this NewsHour lesson is to teach students how to evaluate the speech, its history and its purpose. For a recap of Trump’s 2019 State of the Union, click here.
Social studies, history, civics, current events, government, speech and debate
One 50-minute class period
Middle School and High School
Students will discuss the elements of a successful political speech and learn how to evaluate the State of the Union speech.
- Ask students: Have you heard of the State of the Union or watched it on television/internet? Why does the president make this speech every year? Does the president choose whether or not to give this speech?
- Explain the purposes of the State of the Union. According to the Constitution, one of the duties of the president is to report to Congress. Students can look at the actual text of the Constitution and find the relevant clause (Article II, Section III) at: U.S. Senate Learning Resources. Check out key highlights from previous State of the Union speeches using this timeline.
- As chief executive, the president helps guide policy by proposing the creation of laws. The president can use this speech to explain ideas to Congress and encourage Congress to pass certain pieces of legislation. The president can propose new initiatives and use the State of the Union to speak directly to the American people.
- The State of the Union speech has received more attention in recent decades due to mass media, including television, the internet and social media. Students should examine the history of the State of the Union speeches and read the NewsHour article, Do State of the Union speeches really matter? Be sure students answer the question posed in the article’s title.
- Ask students: Who writes the speech? Explain that the president has a staff of advisers, researchers and speechwriters who help write the speech.
- Ask students what elements make a speech successful, i.e., content, rhetoric, style of delivery, tone of voice, coherence, etc. What do they think makes a speech easy to understand, interesting and memorable?
- Explain the main homework worksheet on the State of the Union address. If time allows, students can begin to fill out the top part of the worksheet. With the class, brainstorm possible topics and issues that the president might discuss, such as foreign policy, immigration, jobs, taxes, social security, education, health care, the war on terrorism, energy, etc. (Note: Students can save the worksheet and fill it out again for future speeches.)
Students should fill out the worksheet on the State of the Union address. The first part of the worksheet should be completed before viewing the speech, while the rest of the worksheet will be filled out after the speech.
If students have trouble predicting topics President Trump may speak about, suggest issues such as health care, jobs, the economy, taxes, education, abortion, U.S.-Mexico border wall, immigration, the environment, terrorism, social security, energy, climate change, etc.
Student understanding can be assessed through:
- Class discussion
- Accurate completion of worksheet and analysis of the State of the Union address
- You can start this lesson by having your students watch a few minutes from President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address; President Barack Obama’s second State of the Union address in 2011; and President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2003.
- Students should watch the PBS NewsHour’s post-speech analysis or read about the speech to see how journalists and political analysts evaluate the speech. PBS NewsHour is live streaming the event, so students can stay on this page.
- Media literacy extension: Have students check out coverage from at least three other news outlets, so they can see how the NewsHour’s analysis is similar or different. Students can see if their assessments of the speech are similar or different from those in the media.
About the Author
Stephanie Schragger has been teaching American and European history for 25 years. She is in her 18th year teaching at Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn and previously taught at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. Stephanie has a B.A. in history from Princeton University and an M.A. in history from Yale University.
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