Monday, September 25, 2017

Reading, writing, listening and speaking are the four elements that make up language arts, a core subject in every school curriculum. But most English classes in middle school, high school and beyond primarily focus on two key elements — reading and writing.

Crane Country Day School in Montecito has a program that develops students' skills in the least taught of the language arts: public speaking. Students begin their stage careers in kindergarten, performing in a play and reciting poems at their graduation. Throughout the elementary grades, students have frequent opportunities to speak in the daily assembly, whether participating in a program or making an informal announcement. In middle school, the program intensifies. For example, seventh-graders present persuasive speeches to their classmates in English. And eighth-graders reach the pinnacle of public speaking. For more than 20 years, each eighth-grader has presented a speech to the whole school in a program called Current Events.

Working with English teacher Elizabeth Teare, eighth-graders research a topic of their choice, write a 1,000-word speech about it, create a slideshow to illustrate the speech, and practice taking audience questions. "Most kids write eight or 10 drafts of the speech," said Teare. "I ask them to think about their audience. How can they engage both the kindergarteners in the front row and the veteran teachers? That's a tougher, more diverse audience than most adults will ever face."

She said she developed much of her public-speaking curriculum from her own experiences, gathering notes from talks, lectures and presentations throughout the years. "I tell students they can't use any standardized slide themes or put text on their slides with bullet points," she said. "Their slides should supplement their story visually, not just repeat it. And we won't let them get on stage without rehearsing with all their technology." The performing arts teachers coach students in a dress rehearsal the day before their final presentation. Classmates help them practice answering questions without any "ums" or "y'knows." After the speech, the youngest students often ask the toughest questions.

Recent current event topics have included space exploration; girls' access to education; cruelty-free cosmetics; social justice issues raised by the musical Hamilton; and the social significance of sports icons.

After the speech, students write a reflection on the experience and produce a formal Works Cited page. Without exception, they step off the stage feeling rightly proud of themselves. "Once I got through the first couple of paragraphs, I was confident up there, though I'm pretty sure I was shaking," wrote Daisy Finefrock ('17), who spoke about her experience growing up Singapore.

In completing the Current Event program, Crane students have succeeded at something many adults fear. Crane alumni report their public-speaking skills and confidence put them ahead of their high-school and college classmates. The Current Events program is an example of students balancing rigor and joy; it weaves together the school's emphasis on building character and confidence, encouraging student choice, and learning from their own experiences.

Mary Lee Wren, Communications Coordinator