Every trimester, Burke’s seventh graders bravely confront the daunting challenge of public speaking with all of their Upper School peers as witnesses. Moreover, as the teachers who observe the ultimate effects of Burke’s required Public Speaking/Writer’s Workshop class will attest, these painstakingly prepared presentations often prove to be as empowering as they are challenging.
The seventh-grade Public Speaking/Writer’s Workshop meets once in each six-day rotation throughout the year, with six weeks of that time devoted to preparing a five-minute speech to be delivered at an upcoming Upper School assembly. Students choose their own topic, conduct their research, write their speech, and then practice to hone their timing and delivery. (When not working on their speeches, they use their class time to work on other writing projects.)
“The speech is a fact of life and rite of passage for seventh graders,” says Rebekah Wolman, Director of Upper School. “It’s a community builder in that the whole fifth to eighth grades hear these speeches every year. Kids who might not otherwise know each other get to hear what’s important to each other, and they learn an enormous amount.”
Launched as a rotational program for seventh graders, the public speaking program was expanded about nine years ago. It has gradually evolved, with the students’ subject matter becoming more serious: Weighty issues such as racism, mistreatment of animals, various medical conditions, and even society’s failures of empathy have been addressed. Some students draw upon their personal lives. “We heard from the daughter of a Vietnamese refugee family who discussed her experiences, and from a student who is a ski racer and shared the history of Squaw Valley up near Lake Tahoe,” Ms. Wolman says. Not that there isn’t the occasional dose of middle-school humor: “There was an absolutely hysterical speech on knuckle cracking a couple of years ago,” she notes.
The Public Speaking/Writer’s Workshop class is taught by Burke’s High School Counselor. The student has regular meetings with the counselor leading up to her speech that focus on exploring topics, creating an outline; and so on. Two days before the speech, the girls practice in front of their peers and receive constructive feedback based on a performance rubric. By meeting regularly, the counselor is able to establish relationships with each seventh grader well in advance of the high-school planning they will work on in the following year. As Ms. Wolman points out, “It’s in conversation about things that matter to students that you get to know them. The counselor is able to see how the student works through the process and receives feedback. That’s a lot of valuable information to have first-hand.”
Is there anxiety? Yes, to varying degrees, say the teachers. Students who like to speak in public get a taste of what it is like to have a bigger audience and what is needed to keep the crowd interested and engaged. Others may have a hard time presenting in front of their peers, but the practice makes it much easier. Students also watch TED Talks and review handouts and videoed examples of successful speeches.
When the struggle to conquer the fear of public speaking overwhelms a student, teachers step in with additional support and encouragement. Most girls feel especially accomplished when it is over. For the audience, watching their peers face their fears can be inspiring and foster a sense of compassion. For the speaker who found her voice and let it be heard, there can be a profound sense of empowerment. Ms. Wolman remembers one student who struggled so much with her fear that she could not even bring herself to do her speech. Burke’s teachers would not give up on her, and she finally delivered the speech the following year. And now? According to Ms. Wolman, “The reports from her freshman year in high school are amazing!”