by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist
By now you’ve surely seen them, heard them, admired them. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have been vocal, organized and poised when facing adulation or opposition. Their public speaking has been so good they’ve been accused of being actors. They have not played the typical role of victim. They’re not trolling for sympathy; they’re calling for action.
Their professionalism has surprised many observers– but not me. As a speech and debate coach I work with high school students who are just as poised, just as educated and just as good at public speaking as the Parkland students. I see these qualities in action every week.
More than 25% of Americans are afraid of public speaking, according to Chapman University’s Survey of American Fears. People are more afraid of public speaking than of being robbed, losing their job, or walking alone at night.
No doubt this fear causes many adults to assume that kids cannot accomplish the feared activity. We naturally assume that others fear what we fear, especially younger people like teenagers, so the courage of these youngsters astonishes.
It so happens that Broward County, where Marjory Stoneman Douglas is located, has one of largest speech and debate programs in the country. Courses are offered at every level of elementary, middle and high school and the majority of students enroll in at least one course during high school.
Public speaking teaches how to articulate an idea. It often requires the ability to think on one’s feet. Debate techniques teach how to effectively make and counter an argument and see an issue from both sides. Debaters are actually required to argue both sides of every question, affirmative and negative.
As luck would have it, the national debate topic in November was universal background checks for gun owners. As the Parkland students fanned out on television interviews and Sunday talk shows, they were well prepared. They had already researched and debated both sides of the question. They were primed for the predictable attacks. Their public speaking training enabled them to stay poised even when opponents went off the rails. Their understanding of the legislative process made them fearless before lawmakers.
Public speaking and debate practice instill one quality that a coach cannot teach: confidence. I can explain how to deliver a point, a counterpoint or a dramatic line, but I cannot instill confidence during a practice session. Only a live debate or a performance in front of a judge can develop confidence. All coaches can do is lay the groundwork and provide the tools to enable students to develop confidence in themselves. I am amazed to say this happens every day. I have watched students who could not stand in front of me in an otherwise empty room and speak a line without panicking go on to give inspiring speeches in front of hundreds of strangers. I have watched countless students find their voices, project those voices, and compel audiences to listen to their words.
It is clear that the students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas have long since found their voices, developed self-confidence, and gained strength from each interview, speech and legislative hearing. But these students, though exemplary, are not unique. There are literally thousands of students across the country participating in forensic activities that will make them ready to speak their minds. They may not all appear in front of a camera or on a stage with thousands watching and listening, but they will appear in board rooms, in classrooms, at conferences and town meetings and they will be ready to articulate and defend their positions.
I hope the students I coach will never be called upon to address an issue as tragic as the one that inspired the #NeverAgain movement. I hope my students are never viciously attacked just for being good at what they do, and for being prepared to debate the public issues we all face. But if they ever are, I know they will be ready and they will make me proud, as they always have and continue to do.
Watching the students from Parkland, and my own students in Massachusetts, I have never felt more honored to be a member of the speech and debate coaching community.