Public Speaking: A Necessary Evil

Picture it.  It’s 1992, and I’m standing in front of my 7th grade class about to recite from memory the opening passage of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  You know the one.  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”  We had to memorize either a poem or book passage of our choosing for the annual school speech contest.  Why did I choose that particular passage?  Who knows?  I don’t think I’d even read the book by that point in my school career. For whatever reason, that’s the passage I chose, and that’s the passage I was about to recite.  And then…my mind went blank.  My brain and body froze.  I couldn’t remember the first word of the passage let alone the last. I stood there with 50 eyeballs trained on me, and I began to quietly cry.  At that point, there was no way any words were coming out of my mouth that day.  Lucky for me, I had a kind, understanding English teacher who gave me time to compose myself and regain my confidence.  The next day, I recited the passage, getting each word correct and even making it into the next round of the school’s speech contest.

This past week as my students debated one another in front of the class, the memory of my 7th-grade self came back to me.  Some of my students were practically hyperventilating before the debates.  Their hands and voices were shaking while their faces ranged from shades of green to red and back again. Having once reacted similarly to speaking publicly, I felt compassion for my students even as I made them perform.  I too used to absolutely abhor talking in front of people, and while it still is not necessarily my favorite thing to do even as a teacher, I’ve become quite comfortable with it.  Yet I only became comfortable with it over time as I continually got up in front of groups to give a presentation, a lecture, or a formal speech.

Given that my students are seniors speaking in front of students they’ve known since kindergarten, I was surprised by how uncomfortable so many of them were to speak formally in front of their peers.  In discussing this with a colleague who acted as a guest judge of one of the debates, we determined that we – as a faculty – probably don’t require enough formal public speaking on the part of our students.  How often do we ask them to give a formal presentation and assess it as such?  Once a semester, once a year, not at all?  Oral communication is such an important skill, and it is a skill that needs to be taught not just in our English classes.  No matter the subject area, we can have students do formal presentations.  They can present a project, give a speech, participate in a formal discussion with another classmate or two.  Nearly all, if not all, our students will be asked to speak publicly in college and beyond.  It only makes sense that we make it a point to get them up in front of their peers from time to time, give them the chance to freeze and experience that feeling of helplessness along with the knowledge that, if they do indeed crash and burn, it will not be the end of the world.

So along with all the other goals I have for my students this year, and believe me when I say the list is ever-growing, I am adding one more goal.  I am making it a point to require at least 2 formal presentations of some sort throughout the year in each of my classes.  I’ve already got my first formal presentation in AP European history planned, and I’m working on the others.  Anyone else want to join me?

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