This weekend was District Speech Contest. Though I teach middle-grade kids, I coach the high school team, and we had a very exciting day traveling to Tipton to compete. I have 12 kids on the team, and 8 of them qualified for State Contest on March 12. We had a few heartbreaks, too, but I think overall it was a good contest. Most importantly, my team got a chance to perform their pieces in front of an authentic audience.

Though you’d never guess it from the bustling District Contest this weekend, I fear that public speaking is something k-12 students aren’t getting enough exposure to. Sure, there are the obligatory powerpoint presentations for classes, but speaking is so much more than that. A skilled public speaker needs to be able to work a room, to think on their feet, and to interpret the writings or ideas of others through the lens of themselves in an authentic way. They also need to learn to transform their own writing into something that can be felt and seen and heard instead of just black words on a white page.

A lot of the time, the speaking/listening standards of the Iowa Core are tacked on to units and lessons as extras, not as a focus. I was very lucky to work with my friend Mark Sulzer (@Education_Stuff)  to gather data for his dissertation on dialogic discussion. We read this book and it fundamentally changed how I do classroom discussions and talking activities. Writing AND talking are extensions and expressions of our thoughts, and talking through and about a text with peers is one of the best ways for students to think critically about their learning. Nothing sets fire to a brain like the lightning bolt of a brainstorm. Students need to talk to each other, not just the teacher, to challenge one another’s opinions and assumptions, to model analytic thinking skills for others, and to truly engage in learning. I see text, writing, and speaking as a triangle to support true learning (a triangle is the strongest shape, after all!)

Of course, I have digressed from performance-based speech into talking about class discussions, but the same fears can plague students and adults regarding either situation. Very shy or anxious people can feel a lot of pressure just talking in a small group, much less speaking alone in front of others. According to this article from Forbes, 10% of people love public speaking and get a real charge out of it, 10% are paralyzed with fear, and the other 80% find it uncomfortable, but know they’ll get through it. Really, 80% of people out there are made so nervous by speaking that they may lose sleep the night before? Not to mention the 10% who will do anything to avoid it.

I worry about that. If we get our fear of public speaking from adrenaline, the same juice that gave us extra strength to hunt Mammoths during the dawn of time, or to escape a bear attack, I’m a little incredulous that we have the same reaction to the fear of public speaking. I’ll take the room full of potentially judgmental strangers over the prehistoric beasts any day, but that’s probably because I’m in that magic 10% that is energized by performance. I am not trying to demean anyone who fears public speaking, but what does it say about our bravery if this scares us as much as a giant woolly elephant trying to gore us with its tusks?

We need to start empowering out citizens right out of the gate. Let’s puff up that top 10% to 20% in the next decade — 20% of people that love public speaking. And let’s cut the bottom 10% of paralyzed folks down to 5%. We can do this by supporting our students emotionally while still requiring them to take chances and perform in public. Baby steps. My students in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade to at least 3 speeches or performances a year as well as participating in graded class discussions. Some of them are scared, but if we give them the tools and the loving support, they can leave my class just a little more confident. My students know that talking to learn and learning to talk is part of the expectations for my classroom, and once it has become normal, and a supportive environment has been established, all students can improve on their speaking from wherever their starting point was at the beginning of the year.

And, participating in Speech in high school, even if you are scared, is the best way to conquer your fear. I have had students come to me and say they want to do Speech, not because they are in that magic top 10%, but because they want to be brave.

So, I guess what I’m saying is, no matter what you teach, start using dialogic discussion as a learning tool in your classroom, and require speaking assignments. Also, encourage all of your students to join speech, even if they’re scared. We’ll slay that Mammoth yet.

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