Public Speaking and Life After Death


I have one class of mostly seniors this semester.  Of the eighteen students in Public Speaking, all but three will be graduating in the spring.  I taught about one-third two years ago in tenth grade English, but most are new to me.  It is fascinating to witness how the prior students have matured, though some of the old quirks remain.  As for the seniors new to me, some claim they choose the class to spend some time with me before the transition, but I know they really came because they see distinction in their futures and want to be prepared.

Speaking in front of a group remains one of the most prevalent fears of human beings.  Yet most recognize the power such an ability imparts.  I tell my students that obtaining a position in life where you have to both write and speak is a lucrative goal.  “It means you have been chosen for your mind,” I say.  “And what beautiful minds you possess.”

I began the class with a mini-speech assignment of one to two hand-written paragraphs.  After showing three videos about the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, we made a listing of known facts under three headings:  Michael Brown, the police, and the community.  The task required the students to answer one question:  who is most to blame for this tragedy?

We watched news footage of the killing, a feature piece about a young black man who confronted a group of looters, and a video recording of Captain Ronald Johnson’s powerful, first public address to a gathering of aggrieved community members.  We annotated two articles about the aftermath of Mr. Brown’s death, and then, after two days, the students began delivering their speeches behind a solid wood podium I commandeered from a departing teacher two years ago.

Most students blamed the police and weaved the facts we had uncovered into their presentations.  No one blamed Mr. Brown, but a few did find fault with the political apathy of the majority black electorate prior to the uprising.  One wondered when the outcry against black-on-black violence would come.  After each turn at the podium, I guided student feedback on the presentation.  My only rule was that each responder needed to acknowledge at least two strengths before honing in on weaknesses.

I had already stressed the “three p’s” in public speaking:  posture, passion, and power.  “Think of it like playing an accordion,” I said.  “You need to modulate your tone and volume to draw the audience in.  You must use your voice like an instrument.  No one wants to hear the same note over and over again.”  It went well for a first assignment.

The next task, I warned, would be the most difficult for some of them.  After two lessons and a quiz on rhetoric and the role of ethos, pathos, and logos in effective speaking, I asked them to construct a typed, 300-word introductory speech on themselves.  My only requirement was that the speech focus on a difficult obstacle they had to overcome and the lessons they learned from the challenge.  I also reminded them about the importance of eye contact with the audience.  “Remember, it is public speaking, not public reading,” I said.

I chose to begin with a prior student who always commanded the room.  She delivered a powerful talk about the impact of her beloved grandmother’s violent murder one year before.  She paused for a moment or two to gather her strength during a few taxing passages, but succeeded in completing her story without tears.  However, two young ladies left the room after she was done in order to compose themselves.

For the next three days, student after student rose to speak about the aftermath of loss–grandparents, parents, uncles, cousins, or friends.  A few, male and female, could not make it through before emotion overtook them.  The class leaned into every student and respected the nerve exposed.  As for me, I remembered all over again why I love my school so much.

We are a family united by tradition, values, transition, and prayer.  But violence is part of our landscape, and no one seems immune from its effect.  Children too young for such heartache experienced it anyway.  “Remember to remember the gifts your loved ones left you,” I added half way through.  And then I admitted that while my own mother had passed four years ago, I still was not ready to share.

Tomorrow, I have the impossible task of grading their speeches before me.  I will focus most of my remarks on delivery, rather than the words themselves.  As I grade, I know I will address the particular circumstances anchoring each speech.  “Know that death ends a life, but not a relationship,” I will write on each paper as I seek to reassure.

Next week, students will tackle a demonstration speech on something they do well, replete with props.  The talk must be primarily extemporaneous, and I expect the tone to be light.  We need a break before we undertake our first persuasive speech.  The topic will be poverty, crime, race, and blame.  Bill Cosby’s “Poundcake speech” will be our aim.

For tonight, I have only to cherish the momentum we are building, along with the trust.  I just find myself wishing my mother were here to share all of this with me.  She was so proud when I became a teacher.  Some days, I miss her so much.  Sometimes the best parts of teaching are the things you learn about yourself from your students.

Some nights I wonder, who is teaching whom?

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)








About Mark E.P. Roberts

teachermandc is Mark E.P. Roberts, a middle-aged, high school English teacher entering his ninth year of instructing young minds. This blog is an attempt to capture the challenge of teaching and the essence of learning. At a time when DC has become the epicenter of educational theory, this blog will keep its preferred focus on students in an somewhat typical DC high school. I have taught in both public and private schools. To date, 95% of my students are of color. All names have been changed, and complaints about in-house politics will be avoided. Hope you enjoy.
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