What makes a speech great? Is it a compelling topic? An artful delivery? The masterful use of logic and language? Upper School students are finding out that it takes a combination of all three elements as they write, edit, and deliver their speeches in English class this term.
The theme for this year’s Upper School speeches is moral courage. On paper, that could be an intimidating topic for a middle school student. However, Fay’s English teachers use various strategies to guide their students through the topic development and writing process. Some teachers dive right into brainstorming topics and writing to give students as much time as possible to refine, peer-edit, and polish their work. Others spend time laying the groundwork for the speechwriting process by listening to various speeches and analyzing how they were successful.
Richard Roberts, who also teaches Ancient History, takes a classical approach with his eighth grade English students sharing speeches and exploring the concepts of logos, pathos, and ethos. Richard shared Robert F. Kennedy’s speech announcing the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
with his classes. He also shared a Commencement Speech delivered by English professor and author George Saunders
at Syracuse University about the moments in his life that he regretted the most. Both speeches address moral courage in different ways, one by powerfully responding to the shock and emotion of an awful moment in history and the other by exploring the speaker’s lingering regrets over a missed opportunity to be kind to an unpopular girl growing up. After listening to each speech, Richard asked his students to explore the speech’s use of logos, the presentation of a logical argument, ethos, the speaker’s credibility on the topic, and pathos, their success in engaging the audience’s emotions. He also shared a speech by novelist Zadie Smith
where she talks about the power of storytelling. Giving students various examples of well-crafted speeches and some elements to focus on gives them a working foundation to start writing. “It can be daunting for students to feel that they have to write this big speech about something monumental, and I try to assuage that as much as possible,” says Richard. “There are some great speeches about some very mundane things.”
In English teacher Heidi Ostendarp’s classes, she began the speech writing process by sharing stories focused on the theme of moral courage. “The students’ own stories are at the heart of their speeches, and on the first try, they can have a hard time coming up with those stories,” notes Heidi. By discussing different kinds of moral dilemmas, students could make connections to stories from their own lives. “This process tripped off a lot of students’ own ideas and experiences involving classmates, peers, and teachers and resonated with their own experiences.” Heidi also shared the speech from George Saunders and a TED Talk from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to give students a variety of models for a great speech. Additionally, she offered her students the unusual option of sharing their speech in video form before writing. “Some students are more comfortable drafting their stories on paper and reading them,” says Heidi, “while others found it helpful to give a version of their speech on video first and then put it into words.”
While the speech writing and delivery process might seem daunting, students find the opportunity to talk about who they are and what they believe to be empowering. “It’s a way for them to connect their academic learning to their own experiences,” says Heidi. “It’s an opportunity for them to develop their ability to tell their stories and make sense of the world through those stories.”