The Journey of a Thousand Helping Hands

How teachers and coaches help students find their own success

How teachers and coaches help students find their own success

By Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

“You have a great ability to quickly develop an analysis of the topic. If we can teach you how to speak, we might have something here.”

These were my first comments to Jackson, a new student, almost three years ago after he gave a practice Impromptu speech. “Impromptu” speaking gives the student a random topic on which to speak for four minutes after ninety seconds of preparation. Thus began a journey which would culminate in a way often found in my daydreams, but never allowed to creep into conscious thoughts for fear of jinxing the whole thing.

As a Speech and Debate coach who focuses on speech events, I find myself impressed by my students on a weekly basis. Every student I coached this year showed glimpses of greatness, and most showed much more. Heading into the 2018 National Catholic Forensic League Grand National Tournament, I was certain that all four speech contestants from my school had a chance to “break” to the final rounds, meaning that they would be among the 48 in each event from an initial 235 who would survive four preliminary rounds.

Three of the four did move on. Annie, competing in the category of Declamation, had worked hard all year at her speech. Her work paid off locally when she was awarded a state championship. She had fine-tuned her memorized speech, originally delivered by Shonda Rhimes, and we worked together on pacing, pauses and vocal inflections to present the message in full form. After the first elimination round she barely missed advancing, tying for 25th place in the country. I was proud of how she took the news, as I had been convinced she had the talent to advance further.

That left two: Jackson, competing in Extemporaneous Speaking (Extemp), and Shayan, in Original Oratory (OO). Both are hard categories (not that any are easy): Extemp requires the student to randomly draw a current event topic, then prepare a seven-minute speech in 30 minutes. OO requires writing and memorizing a speech prior to the tournament, using evidence and logic to prove a thesis of the student’s choosing. In some ways OO is easier to coach; once the speech is written, we only have to work on delivery. Shayan and the coaching staff had decided to do some major rewriting before the national tournament. I told him the speech needed to be locked down two weeks prior to give us time to work on delivery and allow him time to memorize the new parts.

How teachers and coaches help students find their own success

Such was the theory. Four days before leaving, he was still tweaking word choices and phrasing. It was driving me a bit crazy, since I didn’t have a chance to hear the entire speech until three days before leaving for the tournament. But when I finally heard it, and heard how well he delivered the ending, I knew we had something special.

The speech was about xenophobia, and being Muslim in today’s society. His ending gave me chills:

      “My religion has a verse in the Quran that reads, in part, ‘Wa baadur Rahmaanil lazeena yamshoona ‘alal ardi hawnanw qaaloo salaamaa.‘ ‘Gracious are those who walk on the Earth in humility, and when we address them, we say, Peace.’ The Jewish Old Testament says ‘Lo yissa goy el goy cherev ve low yilmedoo od milchama.’ ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.’ Christians repeat the prayer of St. Francis: ‘Lord, make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love.’ “We all pray for the same things; the sooner we realize that our perceived differences are not all that different, we can change people’s minds and change the world one person at a time.”

Earlier that day I had listened to another student, Jackson, practice a speech about the midterm elections. He was polished and while it wasn’t his favorite topic, the speech was exactly what it needed to be. My hope for him at the tournament had crystallized two weeks prior during an Extemp drill when I gave him thirty different topics, one at a time, and 60 seconds to compose an introduction for each. He produced a unique introduction for each topic in no more than 45 seconds each. We had never tried this before. It proved to him that he could spend more time researching and composing his speeches, and less time coming up with the “hook” to reel in the judges.

The NCFL Tournament runs four elimination rounds: Octos, Quarters, Semis and Finals. To advance from each, a student must be in the top half of the round. 48 students begin in Octos, 24 advance to Quarters, 12 to Semis and 6 to Final. As Jackson and Shayan both advanced into Quarters, Semis and eventually Finals, I was scrambling to remind them of areas where they would need to focus before every round. With Jackson it came down to what I had been telling him all year: “You don’t have to act smart, because you are smart. Just show the judges that you know what you’re talking about.” This line summed up everything we had discussed all year: how to present analysis first, and then sources, to ensure that judges could clearly see that he knew what he was talking about, and could also understand what he was talking about, and to explain clearly his rationales for his positions.

With Shayan it was a little easier. I knew what parts of his speech needed emphasis. I reminded him to hit the ethos, pathos and logos using the vocal variation that helped make those points clear. I implored him to “PREACH!” his ending, and when he made it to the final round I remembered a line from his Declamation speech the previous year: “When you want success as badly as you want to breathe, you will then find success!”

If they were nervous at the awards ceremony waiting for their categories to be called, they didn’t show it. When the results were announced– Shayan as second in the country and Jackson as the National Champion– the rest of the team and the whole Massachusetts contingent screamed with delight. Bearing their enormous trophies from the stage, they both beamed with pride.

That awards ceremony was the culmination of a long journey; and while I absolutely cried tears of joy for the ultimate success of both students, the tears also represented the joy experienced during the entire journey. From weekly evening practices during which we joked, laughed, bickered and vented frustration, to full days of pep talks and celebration after each round, the entire journey that led to the final destination was an experience I will always treasure.

No matter what the educational institution, we often only look at the final results. We worry about standardized test scores, but not the skills they measure; we focus on the student in the moment he is standing in front of us, but not the educational journey he is traveling. As with my speech students, there are many hands helping all students along their journeys. My students had three coaches, numerous judges, and the support of an entire league just for this one activity. They have had teachers and coaches all along the way contribute to who they are and help them develop the skills necessary for their personal success.

Every student makes such a journey. Not all will find themselves ranked as a top student in the country, but what each one accomplishes may be just as, if not more, impressive. The student who could not read until the third grade graduates from high school; the student whose parents never learned to read or write English goes to college; the student who never thought success was possible finds it through the encouragement of a teacher.

It is the journey that matters, and while a student spends only a small fraction of time in any one educational environment, it’s important to remember not only from where the student has come, but in what direction he or she will head next. Each journey is unique and personal and, as each stage is completed, worthy of an enormous trophy.

Greg Cunningham is an assistant speech and debate coach at Needham High School.
Picture and associated story found here.

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