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The spoken word’s the thing at countywide oratory contest
Twenty-five students gathered onstage at Cocalico Middle School Wednesday and prepared for stints as public speakers by posing as birthday cakes and elephants.
The game — in which Adamstown Elementary School principal Denise Logue randomly called on groups to quickly strike a collaborative pose — was created to help these communicators concentrate when caught off-guard.
“A word is going to go out of your head, someone’s going to sneeze,” Logue told them. “You’re going to be distracted. This will help you deal with that.”
Ice-breaking exercises aside, public speaking is facing a crisis of sorts. It’s not routinely taught in schools, and it’s lost its sway over the public in a political era marked by titillating Tweets rather than elocution.
The goal of the second annual countywide oratory invitational was to make students comfortable with speech making, as well as help them become more effective leaders now and in the future.
Logue and social studies teacher Georgette Hackman came up with the concept of an oratory event last year. They opened the inaugural event to fifth- through eighth-grade students who made speeches during an evening event.
This year, students from the Cocalico, Conestoga Valley, Ephrata Area, Solanco, Pequea Valley, and Warwick school districts also sharpened content and built their rhetorical skills during a five-hour daytime session.
They returned several hours later to deliver original speeches of those made by famous by the likes of Maya Angelou, former Johns Hopkins President William R. Brody and the late President John F. Kennedy. Students delivering their own work selected topics ranging from religious tolerance to endangered animals to honoring veterans.
Anne Shannon of WGAL-TV spoke to the audience about the power of speeches to inspire.
During the morning session, students watched a video on the principles of quality oration. It reminded them that a good speech could be used “to win political debates or sell just about anything on late-night television.”
Denver Elementary fifth grader Alyssa Daly said she wanted to learn more about oratory because it can evoke strong feelings in others.
“It’s important because you want to get your message across and make sure you voice is heard,” echoed Hannah Bruce, a fifth grader at Reamstown Elementary School.
At the most basic level, young students need to rise above their nerves to make sure they are heard in the literal sense. And they’re not alone, Hackman said. Pace, diction, and tone can make the difference between earning followers or making listeners tune out.
“I heard a senator being interviewed on the radio, and he had huge case of mush mouth,” Hackman told the students. “I thought, ‘Wow, he is really not a credible speaker.’ He could use a lesson in our podium points.”
Better delivery, she said, might have made his points on health care more salient.
In another exercise, students watched clips from “The West Wing” that showcased speeches from two fictional presidents following national crises. They then had to decide which speech was more effective, explain why, and get teachers to take their side in a so-called magnet debate.
After a few tentative starts, students got bolder in their assertions. Divided into two groups on opposite side of the stage, they hit the speeches for pandering or praised them for empathy. Their teachers stood in the middle and shuffled back-and-forth between the speakers they believed were most effective.
“You can communicate your thoughts, beliefs, and even disagreements in respectful ways while still bringing our beliefs, ideas, and passion to the surface through the use of credible sources,” Logue said after the event.
“I know that I wish that some of our country’s leaders and public figures could have been present to listen to our students as they were models of what credible, logical and respectful speakers look like when speaking in a public forum.”