I am always astonished at the ease with which Edgewood students rise to the challenge of public performances. Whether it’s the Edgewood Talent shows or 5th grade Capstone TED Talks and Ignite/Spark presentations, students today have the capacity to summon the right mix of adrenaline and fortitude to perform for a live audience.
That’s not how I remember 5th grade. I do have this one vivid memory. My 5th grade teacher, Mr. Gordon, had his students read from the play he had written for our annual class production. He asked me to read the lines for one particular role. It featured a baby airplane and he needed me to talk like one. He even demonstrated the part with his own “baby voice.” The class howled with laughter. Everyone in the room could see the show-stealing potential of this one scene. And Mr. Gordon had asked ME to read the lines.
When I stepped in front of my classmates, with script in hand, I wanted to reward my teacher’s faith in me. I wish I could say I had shed my “shy guy” persona and stood with poise and confidence at that moment. I wish I was able to channel my inner baby and upend the room with laughter. But the only inner baby I could summon was the one that cried under pressure.
They weren’t tears of fright or embarrassment. Even as tears rolled down my cheeks, I was laughing right along with my classmates. But I remember feeling the crushing weight of the attention on me. Too much to handle. Eyeballs upon eyeballs, all on me. Needless to say, I didn’t take the baby airplane role. It went to Teddy who begged for the part and would ultimately steal the show with his performance.
Public speaking was a deal breaker for me back then. So it was not surprising to learn, through much of my childhood and adulthood, that it was the number one fear among Americans. But that was so 20th century. In this new era of online information and perhaps misinformation, Americans find that there are now far worse things that frighten us, according to the 2018 Chapman University of American Fears. Public speaking pulls in at #59.
It makes sense. We are of a generation that accessorizes with mobile recording devices and leaves little of our lives undocumented. We have grown accustomed to posing, performing, and sharing our lives with our social media friends. And their friends. And their friends (who collectively remind us of the many things that ought to scare us).
In fact, our social media feeds are tantamount to performance art. Collectively, they represent artistic portrayals of lives that are dramatized and romanticized in hopes they are received favorably. We can only hope that those who post these portrayals are also genuinely finding happiness in their lives, even when there are no likes or retweets at stake.
It stands to reason that the everyday performances we share with an online community makes us a little more comfortable seeing and hearing ourselves in a public setting. And as a teacher, it also makes it a little easier to encourage students to share their voice with a public audience because there’s now this cultural expectation that we should pose with our food, post video of our glorious summer trips, and share and re-share appeals on behalf of important social causes.
It is a cultural norm that even those who shape education policy have noticed. Take for instance the new K-12 Next Generation English Language Arts learning standards and its focus on audience engagement. The following is from the Speaking and Listening section called Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:
- Standard 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence so that listeners can follow the line of reasoning. Ensure that the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
- Standard 5: Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.
- Standard 6: Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of academic English when indicated or appropriate.
This means that our K-12 students are not only learning the content, they are asked to present it to an audience for the sake of teaching them. To teach is the ultimate test of whether we have learned. In teaching audience engagement skills, we help students get past anxiety and self-consciousness to focus on connecting others with useful information. But most important in teaching students these skills we help them find their voice and ideally help them use it in ways to contribute to their community.
And when I think back to that day in Mr. Gordon’s class, I realize now what he was doing. He had looked inside me and saw something I hadn’t. That the best of me was yet to come and that with time and experience, I would one day step forward to center stage, and be heard.