The holidays are behind us, the new year has been ushered in, and that means it’s one of my favorite times of year: Declamation time! To those who are new to this Tampa Prep tradition, Declamations offers our middle school students a chance to memorize and perform a favorite children’s book, speech, or text, and it asks our upper school students to write a personal narrative or informative piece that exposes something dear to their hearts. THEN, we ask them to share this piece of writing, out loud, in front of their classmates--with limited notes.
While students may not openly echo my joy, it’s true that this time every year, in all the English classrooms across the school, magic is happening.
Those of us who get to witness the full experience and engagement of Declamations can easily see the benefits to all our students, but some parents may be wondering why, every year, we require our students to step so far out of their comfort zones. For many students, the experience of the memorization and presentation goes beyond nerve-wracking. So what are the benefits of this kind of writing, and this kind of public speaking?
First, I’ll address the public speaking question, because, as the popularly quoted statistic goes, many Americans fear public speaking more than they fear death. But the benefits of teaching public speaking are undeniable. While our students are challenged in many classes to openly speak up in discussion, the Declamation asks them to be the only one on stage, commanding their audience, performing a memorized piece. Yes, the stakes are considerably higher, and for many of our students, that focused attention is very stressful. But here’s what they gain, paraphrased from the MBA social network website:Experience.
Communicating effectively is one of the top skills sought by future professors and employers.Cross-curricular and Cross-Discipline Skills
It is inevitable that students will be required to make presentations in other classes. Any practice public speaking is useful practice.Better Listening Skills
As each student presents, the rest of the class is required to do nothing--but listen. No iPads, no note-taking, no distraction. This reminds the presenter that they matter, and reminds the audience that their attention is a gift.Confidence In Their Own Voice, and A Belief That Their Words Are Worth Sharing
To me, this is the most important gift that Declamation can give any student.Ability To Overcome Fear
Sometimes, we are called on to do things that make us nervous, even afraid. The safe space provided by Tampa Prep is one of the best places for students to take this leap.
And what about the writing? We spend weeks in English class brainstorming, drafting, revising, peer-reviewing, revising again--and then practicing. This entire process is designed to remind students that truly great writing is a process; that every speech they’ve probably ever heard has been carefully constructed; and that the WAY you choose your words and your structure matters greatly to the message. It used to be that English classes taught students literary analysis and left it at that. But more and more, the value of teaching memoir, of reading personal narrative, of telling your own story or writing about something that matters to you, is becoming clear. How else can students fully develop a clear sense of self? And, for that matter, how else can they really write a strong college essay when the time comes?
In her essay published in The Atlantic, creative writing teacher Rebecca Wallace-Segall makes this point in her “Passionate, Unapologetic Plea for Creative Writing in Schools”: “Human beings yearn to share, reflect, and understand one another, and they use these reflections to improve the state of things, both personal and public. If we want our students to have this kind of impact, we have to teach them to express themselves with both precision and passion.”
This is what the Declamation inspires and provides: an opportunity for students to share not only their own stories, but the experience of story. It gives them the chance to hear one another and to connect on a different level than is offered by social media, a level that requires them to make direct eye contact as they speak, and to listen to someone else’s words. And these words from our students can change the world. They certainly elevate our classrooms every February. And, year after year, they never fail to amaze me.