Monday, January 28, 2013

The High Untrespassed Sanctity of Space

I taught one of my favorite lessons today, the 27th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy. No, I don't have this lesson on my calendar scheduled for every January 28th; the lovely people at The New York Times Learning Network reminded me.

I only realized the significance of the date at lunchtime, and I had other lessons planned for my afternoon English classes (Robert Frost for seventh grade, A Tale of Two Cities for eighth), but I was happy to change my plans. Teachers learn early on that flexibility is all. 

I begin by telling my students that on this day, 27 years ago, children across America were watching the launch of the Space Shuttle, eager to see the first teacher go up in to space. New Hampshire children thwart the cloak and dagger nature of this lesson, as they are immediately on to me. Christa McAuliffe was a New Hampshire teacher. My students know her name. She, and the planetarium bearing her name, are memorialized in Concord, N.H., and most of my students have been there. When I've taught this lesson in Utah, it's quite a different story. I had the element of surprise in Utah.

Let's assume your students don't know. Queue up the launch video (below) for your students, but make sure it's ready to roll, not on the freeze frame moment of explosion, or on the "Challenger Disaster" title frame. Be very careful to preserve the surprise, much as the student watching this clip in 1986 would have been surprised. Start the clip, then hit pause, so all they see is the space shuttle on the launch pad, ready to launch. Set the scene; schoolchildren all over America were watching, waiting, to see a teacher go into space. They were imagining their teacher up there, strapped in to the space shuttle, scared, but determined, and ready to make that giant leap into space. In fact, Christa McCauliffe's students were there, watching the shuttle that carried their teacher away from earth, and up into the sky. 

Hit play, and say nothing else until the clip runs its course. 

Turn off the projector, and explain that you are going to read from the memoir of Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for the then-President, Ronald Reagan. Her account in What I Saw a the Revolution, Chapter 13, "Challenger," is not all of it is for the kids, so I start at p. 253, from "It was a pretty morning" to p. 254, "I got it Dick, Thanks." This passage describes what she was doing the morning the Challenger exploded, at that moment, while her boss' kid was in the office, and sets the tone for the lesson. 

Ms. Noonan has very little time to write Reagan's remarks to the country - I tell my students one hour, but in reality Reagan does not speak until after the search for survivors is called off, a couple of hours later - and segues into the next part of the lesson. I won't re-type the entire section out of respect for Ms. Noonan's book - a great read, no matter your politics. Pick up a copy. You will enjoy it and use it year in and year out for this lesson. 

After "I got it, Dick. Thanks," make sure everyone has a sheet of paper and a pencil and give your students ten minutes to write down five goals for Reagan's speech. Tell them to imagine that they are Reagan's speechwriter, that they have been given less than an hour to write Reagan's address to the nation. A nation in shock. A nation that can't comprehend what has just happened. 

Okay.....go. You have ten minutes. 

Political speechwriting is about three vital elements - voice, audience, and rhetoric. In this lesson, I focus on audience. I was a political speechwriter about a decade ago, and it was a gift. The best writing education I could have received. I wrote for a politician whose views could not have been more disparate from my own, but as any writer will tell you, having to write - and write persuasively - from another viewpoint is an invaluable education.

But back to the lesson. 

Once the students have laid out their five goals, go around the room and ask for one goal from each student. They may run out by the time you get around the room, but that's fine. Keep it moving. Get all of their ideas up on the board. Teacher tip: I start on the side of the room with the less participatory kids so they can't use the excuse of "all my ideas are on the board already" by the time I get around to them. 

I try to dig into ideas that will come up later in Reagan's speech - service, exploration, knowledge of risk, the future of the space program, the kids watching, the families. I make it clear that Reagan did not go on air until the search had been called off and NASA was sure there were no survivors so we can avoid a discussion of who lived and who died. Once the kids have exhausted their ideas, I queue up the video of Reagan's speech.

Make sure you get past the requisite ad before opening the projector up for viewing. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss. 
Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But, we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together. 
For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, "give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy." They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us. 
We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the member of the Challenger crew, were pioneers. 
And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them. 
I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. 
Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue. I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: "Your dedication and professionalism have moved an impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it." 
There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, "He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it." Well, today we can say of the challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete. 
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

As Reagan speaks, jot down the big points on the board:

National loss
19 years ago (reference to the fire in the Apollo 1 capsule in which three crew members were killed in a launch pad test)
"Challenger Seven"
Aware of the dangers
Names of the fallen
"Hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths."
Service to us all
Schoolchildren of America (note the diction of children's language used)
Don't hide
Don't keep secrets
"We'll continue our quest in space."
Sir Francis Drake
"Their dedication, was, like Drake's, complete."
Never forget
"Slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

We talk about the theme of exploration, pioneers, and bravery, and how it lends itself to the allusion to Drake. We talk about the language of transparency, about only through honesty comes freedom. 

We talk about how Reagan modulates his language in the section for the children of America. "And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen - it's all part of the process of exploration and discovery - it's all a part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons." 

Lovely. See that adjustment in the speech? See the switch from "They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. they wished to serve and they did  - they served us all" to "I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen"? Note the switch in tone and diction [word choice]? It's subtle, but clear. Nicely done, Ms. Noonan. 

I talk with the class about how many of their points overlapped with what Reagan/Noonan actually said. As a side note: I tend to slip in to "what she [Noonan] said" rather than "what he [Reagan] said," which inevitably leads to a discussion about Presidents and why they don't write their own speeches anymore. I talk about the reality of the office and why we don't have many Lincolns anymore. Eventually, I have to tamp down this discussion and segue back to the topic at hand. 

I go back to Ms. Noonan's book and read from the first sentence of p. 258: "The next morning there was a deluge." I read through Ms. Noonan's discussion with Reagan about the speech and the poem, and end with the top of page 259, "And you comforted everybody."

I like to close with a quote from Christa McAuliffe as it relates to the ending of Reagan's speech. Reagan [Noonan] quotes a poem at the end of his speech. The poem, "High Flight," by John Magee, was written in 1941 well known to pilots. Pilots such as Ronald Reagan. 

 Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
 And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
 Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
 of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
 You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
 High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
 I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
 My eager craft through footless halls of air....

 Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
 I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
 Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
 And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
 The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

 - Put out my hand, and touched the face of God. 

Peggy Noonan used lines one and fourteen, "slipped the surly bonds of Earth"..."and touched the face of God." to close Reagan's speech because she knew he would have seen or heard that poem. And she was right. Reagan knew that poem well. Christa McAuliffe may have been thinking of the same poem - or at least the same theme when she said,

"I touch the future. I teach."

I leave it there. I don't care if the class period is over or not. There's not much else to add. 


  1. Very nice piece, and a very nice blog. Reagan wasn't my cup of tea, politically, but even I have to admit the man surely did know how to communicate.

    You sound like an excellent teacher. Would that we had more like you in the public school systems.

  2. Not my cup of tea, either, but I adore the process of speechwriting, and that's not defined by politics.

  3. And thank you. I just feel so lucky that I get to teach every day. That's definitely my cup of tea!

  4. Well done. You are indeed a gifted teacher. You also manage to make history come alive--even as you teach writing.

  5. An outstanding lesson. I remember watching the Challenger explode. It was lunch--I wasn't with my students--but the rest of the afternoon was just silence or what I remember as futile attempts to calm everyone, teachers as well as kids. Reagan's (Noonan's) speech honored the lost and helped the nation. I would have ended your lesson the same way you did: Silence. Silence honors, too.

  6. Sounds like a wonderful way to combine a history lesson and a study of English, and quite experientially so!