Sonya Baehr, Acting and Speech Teacher, Poly Prep Country Day School
What does the average American fear more than anything else? According to a national survey reported in 1993 by researchers Bruskin and Goldring, it’s public speaking. For a majority of the respondents, speaking before a large group of people inspired greater terror than the fear of heights, of claustrophobia, or even fear of death. Yet, in order to function as professionals in our society, most of us are called upon to speak in public from time to time. Our success or failure at this endeavor may have tremendous impact on our lives. When Barack Obama got up to deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, he was just a politician from Illinois. By the time he finished speaking, he was a national figure, headed for the presidency. His rhetorical skills created his opportunity. Whether our children want to develop careers in medicine, science, academics, business, the law, or sports and entertainment, they will need to be able to express themselves effectively. What are our schools doing to develop this skill?
The Resurgence of Rhetoric
Since the 4th century BCE, when Aristotle wrote his treatise Rhetoric, public speaking and the art of persuasion have been fundamental to the political process. The memorization and delivery of famous speeches was an important part of 19th-century American education. McGuffy’s 1857 Sixth Eclectic Reader, designed for younger students, included instruction on elocution and articulation as well as a selection of model speeches. Oratory was the means by which the business of public life was accomplished. Those who formed public policy, including lawyers, ministers, educators and politicians, were all expected to speak well. Verbal eloquence was simply the mark of a cultivated person. However, by the late 19th century, academics began to use the term “rhetoric” to refer to written composition rather than to oral presentation. Gradually, classes in the art of speaking disappeared from the core curriculum of public schools, and eventually from most private schools as well. Debate became an after-school activity, still highly valued for the talented few, but not regarded as essential for all students.
Today, however, we see a resurgence of interest in this field. More and more colleges are requiring public speaking as a part of their basic curriculum and communications has been a field of major concentration for many years now. Some businesses are requiring new employees to sign up for courses in public speaking, and executives are taking special classes from highly paid consultants to help them communicate more effectively and advance their careers. A report of the National Association of Colleges and Employers in the December 1996 Wall Street Journal cited the ability to communicate effectively as the single most important personal quality employers looked for in a college graduate. Schools are recognizing that students who cannot clearly articulate what they know may be judged as uneducated or even unintelligent. Psychologists tell us that students with poor communication skills are often rejected by their peers and may have fewer friends. Being able to make a contribution to a group and to communicate with and influence one’s peers is important for healthy socialization. Finally, in a world in which we are bombarded from all sides with heated rhetoric from a wide variety of media, being a responsible citizen requires the ability to listen carefully to a wide range of speakers and effectively analyze their ideas. The teaching of rhetoric, in its original meaning, has once again become a priority.
One School’s Program
Educational styles often come around full circle, and sometimes schools that have maintained traditions over long periods of time are surprised to find that they are suddenly at the forefront of a new trend. Founded in 1854, the Poly Prep School in Brooklyn has required all of its students to participate in school-wide speaking contests for over a century. While the choice of material has changed considerably over the years, the mental discipline required by the rote memorization of speeches, poetry, prose and dramatic monologues has not. Students from fifth graders to seniors in high school continue to benefit from getting up and speaking in front of their peers every year in a culture where students’ rhetorical abilities are celebrated and valued.
In addition to participating in the speaking contests, for many decades students have been required to take a semester-long course in Speech in their sophomore year. What began as a part of the English curriculum in the tradition of New England oratory developed into a means of empowerment for many immigrant families who knew that their children’s ability to express themselves well would enable them to participate in the American dream. Today, over 15 different languages are spoken in the homes of our school’s students. One of the classes that brings them all together and gives all of them the tools to develop a successful professional persona is Speech.
Each semester, the class begins with the idea that the impression we make on others is something we can consciously control if we become aware of how we use gestures, facial expression, body language, eye contact, and the pitch and volume of our voice. The curriculum of the course is project-based, and students are encouraged to design presentations that play to their individual strengths, whether the subject be science, music, fashion, sports, or the cultural traditions of Haiti. Every week students are required to make short presentations, often trying out sections of longer speeches, and soon the process of getting up on stage becomes so familiar that they find they are able to relax physically in front of the group and even enjoy themselves. Students are videotaped on a regular basis and are asked to use a carefully designed rubric to evaluate both themselves and their peers in order to develop their ability to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. Each project provides students the opportunity to improve on a previous performance and earn a new grade based on that improvement. Students are never penalized for failure unless they stop trying.
Our four major projects include a poem, an informative speech, a persuasive speech, and a dramatic or comic monologue. Within certain guidelines, the choice of material is entirely student driven. The poem is read word for word from a manuscript, the speeches are delivered from outlines, and the monologue is memorized. These projects exercise a variety of different learning styles. The informative speech requires students to use a visual aid and combines skills in the creation and use of computer projections with public speaking. Students learn that if they have not rehearsed and tested their presentation in advance and the audience is left waiting for long minutes while they fumble with equipment failure, they make a poor impression. In Speech class it is very hard to fake it. When you get up on the stage it is quite clear whether you are prepared or not. However, proper preparation is unique to each individual; the rare student who is capable of winging it receives a good grade. Plagiarism is rarely a problem in Speech class. Quoting the ideas of others and attributing them to their rightful authors is required in a good persuasive speech. It shows you’ve done your research, and your argument takes on the strength of the authority you quote. Outline delivery requires a speaker to articulate his or her ideas in an impromptu manner, making it virtually impossible to copy someone else’s work.
Skills learned in Speech transfer naturally across the curriculum. As in English and History classes, in Speech class students learn that a good outline can clarify their thoughts and help them communicate their ideas to others. Students work closely with the school’s librarian in exploring contemporary topics of their choice for persuasive speeches. As they learn how to use our library’s data bases and research tools, students navigate the internet and distinguish sources that are reliable and objective from those that are biased. If they want, they can work with a partner, each taking a different side of the argument. Often, the idea that both sides of an argument can be supported with facts and argued with equal effectiveness is a revelation to the students. Forensic education improves critical thinking and supports the ability of a student to understand that a prosecutor and a defendant are both equal before the law. Tools for creating a strong persuasive argument can be found in the Monroe Motivational Sequence, developed by psychologists in the middle of the last century and used by many in sales and advertising. Our students examine how commercials for both products and politicians successfully manipulate people by appealing to their most basic needs and desires. Finally, we learn about stylistic devices used by the great rhetorical speakers of the past and present. Alliteration, assonance, the use of rhythm, repetition and antithesis are only a few of the structures students learn to listen for in speeches that we watch together on film or live television. By being required to use these devices, the students begin to expand their own command of language.
Speech Class: Beyond Words
One of the reasons I enjoy teaching Speech so much is that, like acting, it combines kinesthetic learning with intellectual and emotional learning. I get a chance to work with the whole person. In each class we begin with physical exercises that develop proper breathing, posture and articulation, and as the students focus on technique they forget to be self-conscious. Acting exercises help them to use a wider variety of gesture and facial expression. The monologues allow them to try on characters that interest them. By taking on different characters in class they find ways to share parts of themselves that they may not have been able to express before. They realize that they can choose to present a confident persona to a crowd whether or not they feel confident inside.
I encourage my students to practice their speeches for their families at home, and those who are most successful are invariably the ones who have done just that. It provides a powerful way for parents to participate in their children’s homework. Every semester, I meet parents who are thankful that their children are getting the opportunity to take a class that applies their academic skills to the real world situation of a public presentation. They report that their children have gained confidence in other areas of their lives and are participating more fully in their classes after taking Speech. The students are pleased with themselves as well. I have rarely had a student who failed the class. No one wants to look bad in front of his or her peers, and by the end of the semester everyone has made progress. They can see their own growth on video and they can feel it in their bodies as their voices carry farther, they relax on the stage and they reach out to their peers with newfound self confidence. If they make a mistake, they know how to move on and leave the audience remembering only their successes.
In their senior year, our students are required to do an independent study project called “Senior Plan” that culminates in a twenty-minute oral presentation on a topic of their choice before a faculty panel, who then question students on their topics for another ten minutes. This rite of passage is required for graduation, and all faculty, both middle and upper school, serve on the panels. Once again, students are presented with the necessity of effectively communicating their ideas through the spoken word using visual aids, and the entire school community comes together in supporting their efforts.
When our students leave for colleges and universities, they take with them the skills they learned in Speech class: their ability to communicate effectively with others, and the confidence to be active participants in the public discourse. Isocrates, one of the most influential rhetoricians of ancient Greece, said it best: “To become eloquent is to activate one’s humanity, to apply the imagination, and to solve the practical problems of human living.” What better way to educate the whole person than through a class of this nature?
Sonya Baehr teaches speech and acting and serves as Director of the Performing Arts Summer Program at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, New York.