|Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell|
Part VII in a Series on Empowerment and Potential
Humans find great joy in getting better at something. It is probably not an exaggeration to state that the evolution of our species depends on this characteristic being passed along from generation to generation. For example, our entire educational system, when working properly, should ultimately empower students and move them towards their potential. Drawing on a wide variety of resources and discussions with staff at Currey Ingram Academy, I am writing a series of Extra Credit articles for the 2015-2016 school year on the topics of empowerment and potential as they relate to education. The articles focus on how individuals and groups can take purposeful steps towards empowerment on the road to achieving their potential.
In the August Extra Credit article I asked, “What if we focus on what is right?” In September, I asked, “What if we maximized our talent?” For October, I investigated the idea of mastery. In November, I speculated that creativity ought to be emphasized even more in all educational organizations. I explored the important role that schools can play in dealing with life’s most difficult situations in December. For January’s piece, the topic was citizenship — what it means and the fundamental role the education system plays in developing citizens. For February, I will make the case that public speaking ought to be emphasized more in K-12 education.
There I was on stage in the Spring Valley Junior High theater. It was the annual public speaking competition, and I had been selected by my teacher to represent our class for the school finals. The winner would represent the school at the district competition.
I wrote a four-minute speech about the Communist Revolution of 1917-18. When I first got the assignment I remember thinking, how is it even possible to give a speech for four minutes? For some reason, I took a particular interest in this assignment. Conversely, my interests at that time placed academics about 10th on my list of priorities … below all nine other things I had going in my life. So it was a surprise, even to me, that I put some effort into this.
Students were given the option of using cue cards or reciting the speech off by heart. Unlike every other student, I decided to memorize my speech. During the class recitation, I nailed it! The speech went off without a hitch, and the teacher was proud … and surprised.
So there I was a few days later on stage, with the entire school watching. I decided I would not change my approach. I’ll impress folks with the fact that I memorized the entire speech!
It was a disaster. Halfway through the speech, I drew a blank and could not get it back again. Even worse, as I stood there for the two longest minutes of my life, until a teacher saved me, I totally forgot that I put a copy of the speech in my back pocket … just in case.
I would like to say there was a happy ending — that I got a redo and won and then went on to glory and fame, but no, it just ended with an awkward thud.
Okay … how does this promote public speaking?
This is not exactly the story one might expect to be the lead for an article promoting public speaking. But maybe it is?
As I indicated, I was not on the fast track to the Ivy League in eighth grade. In fact, college itself was a question mark. But something about that assignment resonated with me. After all, 36 years later I not only remember the incident, but I remember most of what I wrote in my speech (e.g., “…200,000 Bolsheviks took to the streets!”).
With the hindsight of 30 years in schools as a student, teacher and administrator in education, I understand how the work and accountability that assignment entailed has led to its ongoing salience.
The State of Public Speaking
The history of humanity has primarily been an oral history. For untold generations across all cultures, we know that history was not written down but rather passed along through stories. Perhaps that explains the inherent pleasure we take in the telling and listening to a good story.
Yet, most everyone has heard about those “fear” studies. Near or at the top of most every list, above such notables as snakes, spiders and death (but not taxes), is fear of public speaking. (Interestingly, when I Googled this to confirm this was still the case, the top results to “studies about fear…” were public-speaking related.)
Research has also pointed out that the fear is a very real manifestation of evolution. Specifically, standing up in front of the group brings to the surface the fear of being rejected from that group. Not so long ago, getting kicked out of the group really was a death sentence. Thinking back to eighth grade, this makes sense.
Thus, perhaps it is not surprising that public speaking is an underdeveloped skill in the population, despite that few would argue with its broad-based utility and benefits across personal and professional life experiences.
What Schools Can Do
Many schools offer co-curricular and extracurricular programs such as theatre, Model United Nations and forensics programs, all of which, when done well, are outstanding ways to promote speaking in public.
At Currey Ingram, we offer mock trial, improv and theatre programs, spoken word slams, student council speeches, talent shows and other programs that encourage students of all ages to get up in front of their teachers and peers. All of our teachers also incorporate a public speaking component into their curriculum, no matter the subject.
With the technology revolution, many schools also have gone digital with opportunities. For example, Currey Ingram Academy offers a popular CIA News broadcast in which ninth-graders use green-screen technology to put together and perform an entire newscast on a biweekly basis. Like some schools, our students also regularly use tools such as Apple’s Keynote and iMovie to present their ideas to the group.
I have been encouraged to hear about the public and private schools that are now incorporating much more frequent public speaking opportunities into the curriculum.
I know of one first-grader in a local public school who is required to give a presentation every month to the class. I recently heard about the Nashville magnet school that is a fully functioning museum, where students act as docents and regularly present on a variety of topics for guests.
Providing these systematic and developmentally appropriate opportunities for grades kindergarten through 12 makes sense. Like other complex tasks, students need repetition to hone skills.
I benefited from getting better at public speaking in eighth grade, despite my minor calamity.
The theme of this article, and the series I’m writing for Home Page this year, is about empowering students and moving them towards potential.
Was I empowered by my failure? Maybe not right away. However, today I am in a leadership role that requires frequent public speaking, and I always have a copy of my speech in the lectern – just in case.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is the head of school for Currey Ingram Academy. “Extra Credit” is provided each month by Currey Ingram Academy to help parents at all schools and at all stages of the parenting journey.
Currey Ingram Academy is a private K-12 day school for bright students with learning differences and unique learning styles. For more information, click here.