Words, words, words… At Ford’s Theatre, two CMS students become orators

By on May 20, 2015

 

When seventh graders Austin Buskirk and Miguel Prysakar make speeches, they can’t help but be passionate.

They’ve spent much of the school year developing the confidence to speak in public and learning about the famed oratory skills of Abraham Lincoln and other historical figures.

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., the Cocalico Middle School students joined others attending a national oratory conference to recite the 16th president’s Gettysburg address. Standing at the base of his statue inside the Lincoln Memorial, they repeated Lincoln’s 1863 words promising that the “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Photos courtesy Georgette Hackman From left to right, teacher Georgette Hackman, and Cocalico student orators Austin Buskirk and Miguel Prysakar stand outside Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Photos courtesy Georgette Hackman
From left to right, teacher Georgette Hackman, and Cocalico student orators Austin Buskirk and Miguel Prysakar stand outside Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Then a security guard promptly, but courteously, asked them to stop, noting the memorial’s policy against public demonstrations of any kind inside the meditative environment of Lincoln’s chamber.

“It’s a funny story,” says Austin, 13.

The students then took to the memorial’s cascading steps where thousands of noisy tourists gather each day to give individual speeches they’d written and practiced for weeks.

It was but one nerve-wracking highlight of the 2015 Ford’s Theatre Oratory Retreat. Buskirk and Prysakar, 12, were two of just 34 students nationwide to perform original or historical speeches in the theater where Lincoln was assassinated.

A five-day trip in early May included visits to several other memorials and museums; a trip to see “Freedom’s Song,” a Lincoln-centric musical; and time spent with experts in oration and the theater arts.

Their teacher, Georgette Hackman, was named one of Ford’s teacher fellows last fall. After winning grant funding, she launched an after-school oratory club that allowed students to listen to and recite some of the most famous historical speeches.

The 15 students also learned what mattered most to them and how to speak up about things they value. They studied practical skills-speaking slowly and making eye contact-as well how to inject emotion into a public presentation.

“All they wanted to do was give more speeches,” Hackman says. “That’s incredible. When you think of most middle school students, they would rather face a firing squad.”

This spring, Hackman held a competition to choose two students to accompany her on the trip to the nation’s capital. She chose Buskirk and Prysakar based on their speeches’ content and their delivery.

Hackman asked her students to craft a speech in the style of NPR’s defunct “This I Believe” series. The radio show asked people famous and ordinary to share their beliefs in subjects serious (the power of forgiveness) and silly (bad dancing).

“At first I was having a hard time choosing something,” says Miguel, who is a first-year Cocalico student and learned English as a third language. “I decided what really matters to me is that we all need to know where we come from.”

His speech focused on the idea of the creator, challenging the theory of evolution with a firm voice, facts and even a sense of humor.

“Order has to come from order,” he says. “There has to be a plan.”

A gathering of young orators and their mentors at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C.

A gathering of young orators and their mentors at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C.

Austin also chose a topic influenced by religion: the value of life.

In a speech decrying violence and defending the sanctity of every person’s life, he referenced Lincoln — his assassination “took away love and sanctuary and replaced it with sorrow” — as well as his 8-year-old sister.

Speaking in public was a major accomplishment for Austin, who struggled with slurred speech in elementary school. A teaching artist from Ford’s Theatre helped him focus on his diction, and Austin says he was confident by the time he stepped in front of the judges for his formal presentation on May 4.

Hackman made an effort to make the experience a fun one for the boys. She shufflled them off to a small museum on Embassy Row where they handled authentic Revolutionary War artifacts, let them eat fried chicken for breakfast, and bought them “May the Fourth Be With You” T-shirts featuring Lincoln brandishing a Star Wars-style life saber.

Hackman says her students’ enthusiasm was contagious, helping to build appreciation for the dying art of public speaking.

“It is probably one of the truest skills for being college- and career-ready,” she says. “To be able to look someone in the eyes, and do so assuredly, is a remarkable thing.”

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