Heart/Mind Questions Are A Personalized Learning Option

Shawna Parkinson

Shawna is a Learning Experience Designer at Mason City Schools in Mason, Ohio. You may follow Shawna through Twitter: @ParkinsonLearns.


Heart/Mind questions are a personalized learning option that honors the student’s process of learning at the moment teaching is occurring. To rob our students of this chance of self-discovery or reflection is to take away the power of the moment. For learning to be significant, it must be processed, reflected upon, and made authentic by our students’ own choices, by their own recognition of what is most important to them as they learn.

In my latest unit for “Speeches in History and Current Texts of our Time,” students were introduced to speeches by powerful orators, and at different times in the unit, were given the chance for reflection as learning occurred.


Beginning The Unit

On the first day of the unit, I asked students to find speeches from across time periods and occasions and together we built a virtual “booklet” of famous speeches from history and present day. We found speeches from:

  • Wars and Inaugurations
  • Marches and Movements
  • Sports and Espy Awards
  • Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globe Awards
  • World/ International and Other Notable Events

A typical classroom’s virtual “booklet” of speeches might contain:

  • Jim Valvano’s “Don’t Give Up” speech
  • Tyler Perry’s Governor’s Award speech at the Emmys
  • Rosa Parks’ Speech at the Million Man March
  • Naval Adm. William H. McRaven’s Commencement Address at the University of Texas, Austin
  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech
  • Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Never Surrender” speech
  • Oprah Winfrey’s Cecil B. DeMille Award speech
  • John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address

And this is just to name a few.


Activities and Reflection During the Unit

After listening to a speech, I asked students to discuss either the context or exigence of the speech. Here are two sample questions the students were asked:


Speakers remembered in history are often viewed as leaders in their time. What obstacles do you think the speaker was facing during this time period, and what moments in the speech make you proud of the way the speaker confronted these obstacles?


When considering the occasion of the speech, a speaker must ensure that the message and tone is appropriate for the event. How does the message and tone of the speech support the expectations of the audience for this particular occasion?

Soon, we will study the speeches of Susan B. Anthony and John Lewis.

In studying Susan B. Anthony, we will begin the study of visual rhetoric. Here, students will select images from the women’s suffrage movement. Students will discuss whether the image is meant to inform or persuade, the essential aspects of the visual that support the message, the appeals and the context and exigence.

In studying John Lewis, our students will examine visual rhetoric as well through their own choice of image, but here we will also reflect using one of the following Heart/Mind Questions, prior to studying the rhetorical appeals and devices. This is a questioning strategy that I have read about in the past, and decided to employ in this unit.

Here are the questions students will have to choose from as they reflect on the essay they read in class:

Heart Questions

Persuasion that is truly powerful will move audiences to action. Oftentimes, we say moments of pathos are the most powerful appeals in persuasion. These moments can inspire moments of reflection and empathy and even promote change and activism. Share areas of the speech that you believe would cause audiences to reflect or to promote change.

Speeches in which we have an opportunity to see an individual’s bravery or courage can often leave us feeling a mixture of emotions. For instance, some individuals may feel sad and grateful and inspired all at once. Share moments in this speech that impacted you and explain why.

Share areas of the speech in which the crafting of the language within those areas is so thoughtful that an audience can’t help but feel impacted and inspired. These are areas in which the beauty of the language adds to the speaker’s goal of persuasion.

Mind Questions

Share areas in the speech that furthered or extended your knowledge regarding events in history or current day. (If brief research is needed, you are welcome to do so.) How were these areas important to Lewis’ message?

Reflect on an area in the speech in which you can extend the conversation by making connections to national or world events, either in history or present day. What commonalities or contrasts do you find as you reflect on these connections?

Consider areas of the speech in which purposeful allusions are found. When these allusions are investigated, how do those stories support the powerful message in John Lewis’ speech?

Build Your Own

Heart moments enable you to react emotionally or with passion to the words on the page. Mind moments encourage you to reflect as knowledge and connections are made. Perhaps create your own question for a heart or mind moment, so that you may voice a response that is most important to you and your learning.


Final Reflection

As I build this unit for “Speeches in History and Current Texts of Our Time,” here are my current realizations:

    1. The changes in our lives through the pandemic has in some ways moved us all to new paths. At this time last year, I was teaching a play. Now, I am offering students the chance to listen to speeches by Denzel Washington, Rosa Parks, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Tyler Perry. Which is the better experience? Which will the students carry with them in times when comfort or reassurance is needed? When life gets difficult or disappointment occurs?
    2. As teachers, we can sometimes share our personal life experiences and these moments can model flexibility and positivity for our students. But, as teachers we cannot speak for all of life’s experiences and account for everyone’s perspectives. We need the voices of the leaders around us, because leadership is learning too.
    3. It is our responsibility to constantly evaluate the inspirational and motivational factors behind our curriculums. In doing so, we must ask:
      • Will it inspire?
      • Will it be internalized or processed authentically?
      • Will it be helpful now or in the future?
      • Will it be complex?
    4. The last question above may be surprising as a motivating factor, but complexity in this unit could be the consequence of learning how to read both visual images and print text, the analysis of historical events and the speaker’s impact, or the evaluation of a speaker’s choice of delivery, including the study of the rhetorical appeals and devices. While all beginning activities for learning should be initially and purposefully inviting, complexity contributes to the enduring drive to continue to learn as new challenges are created.
    5. The elevation of voices beyond our own, as teachers in the classroom, is the responsibility we carry as we guide students towards relevant and meaningful learning experiences. Without doing this work, we fail to elevate not only the most talented voices of our time, but we fail to elevate ourselves as learners as well.


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