Public speaking


A problem:

Being able to speak to groups of people is a superpower.

People, however, are terrified of public speaking. This phobia needn't be — schools can cure it.

Our basic plan:

  1. Public speaking will be built into our curriculum. Our students will have opportunties to regularly plan out talks and share them with groups.
  2. At first, the focus will be on getting comfortable, and having fun. We can do that with speaking games.
  3. Over time, only after public speaking ceases to terrify, the focus will move to improving the quality of speaking.
  4. With a teacher, each student will draw up a personalized list of sub-skills they'd like to play with. (For example, "What should I be doing with my hands?")
  5. Before they speak, students will write out what particular sub-skill they'll be experimenting with for that speech.
  6. After they speak, students will get (and give) limited, specific feedback to help them evaluate how their experiment worked.
  7. Video can also be involved. (Watching yourself perform on video is powerful, but few do it because it's so scary. At some point, we can help normalize that.)

Our goals:

We hope to...

  • Help students stop being scared of public speaking.
  • Help students get really, really good at public speaking.
  • Help students actually enjoy public speaking.
  • Give students opportunities in the community to use public speaking.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

If you walked in on a random day, you might see a student giving an animated, short talk to other students about a question they've been commissioned to answer, or a book they'd like to recommend to the group, or a history story they'd like to imaginatively tell, or something odd that happened in their lives.

You might also see public speaking games being played, acclimating kids to speaking publicly, and getting them to experiment with specific sub-skills.

If you came to our end-of-year Learning in Depth or Independent Project presentations, you might see students, dressed up and on a darkened stage, giving short, practiced talks to a room full of adults from the community.

Some specific questions:

  • Is this too deliberate practice-y? Too hard-core-skills-development? (I'm a deliberate-practice-in-public-speaking nut, so I'm sensitive that what I consider sensible can be far out of the mainstream!) The secret is to make it fun (and not scary) before going so strong on skills — the kids have to crave useful feedback before we give it to them. And that may take a couple years. (It took me about a year and a half of being in Toastmasters to seek that out.)
  • Do we want a list of possible sub-skills in public speaking that students can choose to work on? (Things like vocal variety, coherence of ideas, storytelling, stage movement, hand placement, eye contact, and so on.) Because I know a number of people who could help me plan that out!
  • How can we use video to help kids improve? Video can be wonderful here — especially if we give kids the opportunity to speak for a minute, then instantly review what they looked/sounded like from the audience's perspective. (This is key: I once heard a stand-up comic giving advice to public speakers. He said, "If you're not willing to watch yourself speak, why are you asking us to?") It makes me wonder if we should try to have a sound-proof-ish side-room set up for speaking & music practice, during the independent work time.
  • How can we use video as a reason to do public speaking? I'm thinking that we could make, say, a YouTube channel where kids present some of the cooler parts of our curriculum — a "cooking with kids!" series, a "Big Spiral History" series, a "horrifying math problems that I love" series, and so on.
  • How do we bring in personal storytelling? I've focused here on academic speaking, but I'm thrilled by The Moth, where people tell personal stories. It seems like if we can help kids become good at mining their own lives for meaning, and shaping that meaning to spread to other people… well, we'll go to Heaven when we die!
  • At some point, we'll want to hook individual kids up with professional speakers, to get feedback. Some of that (all of it?) can be done over video. That's a while in the future, but we'll want to be looking for peeps now.
  • How do we create a culture of valuing great public speaking? How can we bring in examples of great speeches? Do we want to have kids reflect on what makes those speeches good? For example, if we bring in TED talks to our curriculum, we can have kids fill out an evaluation form. (I, um, actually do this when I watch TED talks, public speaking geek that I am!)
  • How can we help all our teachers become excellent public speakers? This whole curriculum rests on the ability of teachers to be great public speakers. Happily, public speaking really is a skill that anyone can develop — but our teachers will have to want to. Do we foresee challenges in this?