The Tribute Speech: Real Purpose, Real Audience

Excerpted and edited from a 2004 YWP article By Diane Bahrenburg Colchester High School If I had to boil down everything I've learned about teaching writing to four strategies, here's what they would be:

  • Write about you know;
  • Write about what you care about;
  • Remember your purpose;
  • Remember your audience.

After two decades of teaching English at Colchester High School, I stumbled upon a writing assignment that incorporates all four. Five years ago I developed a new English elective - Public Speaking. I didn't want the final assessment to be just another speech; I wanted my students to write and deliver a speech for a larger audience that challenged them to use their best speaking and writing skills and that took on extra importance. Asking them to write a tribute speech did all of that, and more. Here's what I ask my students to do: Brainstorm names of people who have made a significant impact on their lives. Then, narrow it down to the one person they'd like to thank, to honor, to pay tribute. Create a graphic of that person's characteristics, physical traits, anecdotes that show that person's personality and/or influence, idiosyncrasies that make that person unique. Critique a tribute speech I wrote for my grandfather. (This is important - once I wrote a tribute speech myself, I realized how difficult and rewarding they are!) Write multiple drafts, conferring with classmates, me, perhaps a parent or another family member. In revising, get the students to replace the telling with showing, the cliches with fresh language, the generalizations with anecdotes. Also make sure the tribute is error-free. This takes about a month. Then I send invitations to their parents and the subjects of their tributes. Invited parents, grandparents, siblings and friends file into our school library for "An Evening of Tributes," complete with programs and refreshments, and each of my students deliver their tribute and then walk over and hand a copy to the person they are honoring. This is writing at its best - for a real purpose and a real audience.