When I was teaching English in a big urban high school, I prepared a unit on public speaking. I showed students a scene from one of my favorite movies, Election, in which three students give a speech to the student body.
The first student speed-reads his speech from a piece of paper, not even looking at the audience. The second presents a carefully crafted “three reasons why” speech that is so stiff and rehearsed that it leaves the audience nonplussed. The third speech is authentic, passionate, unrehearsed yet focused. It’s electric. The crowd loves it.
I would review the three speeches with students, engaging them in a conversation about the pros and cons. Then, I would give them an assignment in which they were to research a topic and present it to the class, demonstrating mastery of the basic rules of public speaking.
The results were fairly typical. The students with a knack for public speaking did well. The students who were uncomfortable speaking in front of groups did so-so. A few of them even tried to integrate the pointers that I gave during my lesson. In the end, the value-add of my lesson plan was marginal, at best.
This is true of the vast majority of teaching that I witnessed in my big urban high school. There were some kids who were going to do well anywhere; they did well. There were other kids who struggled; they have always struggled in school, and all signs pointed to them continuing to struggle. It was never clear to me where the major value-add was in the curriculum we were providing.
At PSCS, I’ve never heard of a public speaking course offered. But at the graduation ceremony, every single one of the seniors speaks to a crowd of about 150 in a way that is invariably poised, polished, graceful, and powerful.
Here’s how they do it: each day starts with a process called “check-in,” and ends with “check-out.” A student will announce, “Check-in is starting. Announcements?” And then any student with something to say will say it. “Appreciations?” Any student who wishes to express gratitude will do so. This happens every day. Day after day, students get the opportunity— when they feel comfortable, when they feel so moved—to speak to a large group. Over time, they get practice at it. The more they practice—at their own pace and only when they’re ready—the better they get.
By the time they’re seniors, they’re experts.
The curriculum is not something external that’s imposed on kids. It’s interwoven into the fabric of school life.
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