The spoken word…Cocalico Oratory Invitational highlights students’ literary passions

By on March 30, 2016


When J.T. Hoopes began practicing for an oratory invitational this fall, he imagined delivering a speech made famous by John F. Kennedy.

Instead, the Paradise Elementary School fifth grader stood in front of about 200 parents and fellow students and delivered a speech of his own-completely by memory and with a humorous flourish.

J.T. was one of two dozen students from seven school districts to show off their public-speaking chops at the Cocalico Oratory Invitational on March 16.

The event was the brainchild of two Cocalico School district teachers who have seen the effect strong public speaking skills can have on a student’s classroom performance and overall esteem.

Seventh-grade social studies teacher Georgette Hackman has spent the last four years as an oratory fellow for Ford’s Theatre, creating speaking opportunities in her own district and developing lessons educators nationwide can use to build oratory skills.

Getting Reading Director Denise Logue to join her in creating a program that spread that passion to school children throughout Lancaster County wasn’t a hard sell.

“As we think about what kids need in the future, one thing that people will always need to be able to do is communicate their ideas,” Logue said. “Even in technology-driven fields, they’ll need to build confidence so they can explain their projects or products, whether that’s through personal communication or even video.”

The middle school curriculum offers chances to incorporate speech-making into lesson plans, but Logue said there is no requirement that it be taught. Students likely have to opt in to classes like speech and creative writing for routine exposure.

The oratory invitational seemed a natural way to develop interest in what some consider to be a lost art. In late fall, Hackman and Logue sent word to all the districts in Lancaster County and some beyond, inviting students in grades five to eight to enter.

To broaden the appeal, they allowed students to deliver a two-minute speech by a historic figure or create their own.

In Pequea Valley, Reading Specialist Marie Johnston worked with fifth-grade teacher Courtney Heckman and several students to develop presentation during after-school sessions. Several abandoned the idea of delivering an existing speech and asked to write their own, were allowed class time to devote to fleshing out their topics.

“When practicing the words of other speakers, they weren’t as passionate,” Johnston said.

Hoopes, wearing a plaid sweatshirt, spoke about the challenges faced by Martin Luther King Jr. and Susan B. Anthony and implored the audience to get involved in something that matters to them.

“If someone facing such adversity and change the world, don’t you think you can?” he asked.

His classmates &tstr; and one sixth grader from the district &tstr; spoke about individuality, perseverance, and bullying prevention. In a sea of speeches paying homage to politicians, Kaden Riehl quoted NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin’s “Look up, get up, don’t ever give up” speech in telling the story of Michael Jordan’s success. Others delivered scenes penned by playwrights and poets or speeches delivered by young actors.

All of the students said they rounded out their opinion speeches with information gleamed from their school laptops, whether those were details about Columbine shooting victim Rachel Scott or famous lines by author Oscar Wilde or statesman Edmund Burke.

Many of the students chose topics with personal meaning, as was the case for Juliana Martin, a Cocalico seventh grader, who spoke about childhood hunger and her efforts to combat it in her community and around the world.

Martin was one of several entrants to use a platform mirroring NPR’s “This I Believe” project.

Afterward, keynote speaker and Toastmaster Dan Hershey told the students that it’s perfectly normal for words to come out wrong, especially given their age and inexperience.

Hershey, an engineer once frightened to fainting by public speaking, talked about an 18-word note of encouragement he received after giving his first speech with the Toastmasters organization.

“This event could be the 18-words moment for one of these kids, all of these kids,” he said. “The moment of support and encouragement that propels them forward.”

The event, too, will be moving forward.

Sally Flaherty, a curriculum director for the state Department of Education, said afterward she hopes to build a statewide model based on Cocalico’s event.

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