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Teaching Public Speaking

November 19, 2012

Each year our school hosts a speech meet. Starting in third grade, students memorize and recite a poem or speech which they perform in front of a panel of judges and an audience filled with friends, family, and community members. It’s a big deal.

As Jerry Seinfeld once pointed out, studies show that people’s number one fear is speaking in public. Number two is death. Therefore, at a funeral most people would rather be the guy in the coffin than the guy giving the eulogy. So, the point of our Speech Meet is to help our third through eighth graders develop the poise and confidence necessary to speak publicly. (Or, as one of my students wrote in her informative essay about the Speech Meet, “The purpose is to impress you and our parents.”)

My eight students were new to the Speech Meet since my fourth graders are all new to the school. So, I committed to preparing them well. The theme this year was patriotism, so all our poems centered around that theme. I started with a batch of fourteen poems and read each aloud to the students. I had the students rate the poems based on how much the poem interested them or not. Then, I had each student write his first, second, and third choice and hand it in to me. The final choice was mine.

These are the eight poems that were selected:

Some of the poems were longer than others, so I did give the students the option of cutting them down after they’d had them a day or so. Battle Hymn of the Republic, America the Beautiful, and Land of Liberty were all cut down to three stanzas. Clipper Ships and Captains is also quite long, but that little girl said her mother wouldn’t let her cut it. I was skeptical, but wasn’t about to contradict Mom. Turns out, that little girl was one of the first to memorize her poem.

Here’s a brief breakdown of my process for helping the students memorize and perform their poems:

  1. Give a deadline for memorizing the first stanza.
  2. Talk to each student about what the poem means.
  3. Have each student perform their introduction and the first stanza in front of the class.
  4. Give a deadline for the next stanza.
  5. Have each student perform what they’ve memorized, then read the rest in front of the class.
  6. Do the same in the large fellowship hall where the Speech Meet will take place.
  7. Have each student write their speech. Then, have them correct their speeches.
  8. Pair off the students and have them practice their speeches with each other.
  9. Practice in the fellowship hall. We all sit in the very back of the empty room so the speaker has to practice projection.
  10. Have the students go through their speeches and underline the most important words in each line.
  11. Give a final deadline for when the speech has to be word perfect. (Five days before the Speech Meet.)
  12. Practice in fellowship hall with no paper, only me to prompt them, if needed. (I taught them to stay focused and simply call “line” if they needed help, just like stage actors do.)
  13. Bring their favorite stuffed animal to school. Spread out in the fellowship hall and tell their speech to their animal as if they are telling a bedtime story.
  14. Perform their speeches in the fellowship hall in front of the first and second graders.
  15. Silly practice. In the fellowship hall with all of us sitting in the back, each student took turns drawing a piece of paper with a type of character on it. They had to perform their speech as that character. The characters included: a Texas cowboy, a very old person, a British queen or king, etc.
  16. Speech Meet day. That morning we practiced our speeches in the fellowship hall exactly as we would perform them that afternoon.

This took place over the course of about two and a half weeks and, yes, it was time consuming. But, it definitely paid off. My students did great! There were no tears on the day of the Speech Meet. My students were nervous, but excited. They took their places in front of the audience like poised little pros. All but one remembered to wait for their cue from the facilitator before beginning. (And the one who forgot was last, so I don’t blame her for her eagerness to get on with things.) Each of my students spoke loudly enough to hear. They each remembered to say their name and grade. They even bowed or curtseyed afterward, which charmed the judges.

They made me proud!

  1. Rick permalink

    Nice! Well played!

  2. Each of your students was very well prepared, and you would never have guessed this was their first time at the speech meet. I’m sure they were all as proud as you, with their success.

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