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Public Speaking Used to Be Scarier

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Second grade girls perform at the Edgewood Talent Show.

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.

top 10 fears

The Chapman University Survey of American Fears 2018 has “public speaking” at 59th on the list.

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.

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Less Me, More We

I Am HumanThird grade teacher, Sara Nedwick, shared this story with me. It’s the type of story that reminds us why the small moments matter. Her class was walking down the hallway when one of her students stepped onto her untied shoelace and tumbled. She was a bit hurt and embarrassed, at first. But was quickly distracted by the sight of two boys pulling away from the group and rushing back to see if she was okay. One of the boys sat on the floor and tied her shoe. 

In the Susan Verde book, I Am Human, she writes, “A bad day can become a great day with kindness.” These boys demonstrated in one sweet and instinctual act of empathy that people of all ages have the power to heal and rejuvenate.

I’ve been an elementary teacher for more than 20 years. In some school districts, they’d declare me a Master teacher, based on time served alone. But I am far from a Master. Each day as I join my students in exploring what they want to know, I’m humbled by the enormity of what I do not know. But here’s what I have learned as an experienced practitioner in the teaching and learning trade.

When we learn through the service of others, we build nurturing and trusting relationships that can help us get through the occasional bad moment or bad day. Some days we’re tripped up by our own shoelaces or maybe it’s something else we left untied and untended. But when we stand by a friend, a colleague, or provide support for someone seeking comfort in a new neighborhood, through our relationships, the world becomes a place that’s intentionally constructed and serendipitously designed to pick us up when we fall. 

Ralph Branca, the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers general manager known for breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier with the signing of Jackie Robinson, once said, “Luck is the residue of design.” Each of us has the power to create the conditions that enable good things to happen when they’re needed most.

This is no surprise to experienced teachers. We know that when students feel their contributions are valued, they become more trusting of their environment and learning partners. In turn, they are more likely to exercise their creative engines and push beyond learning obstacles. For teachers, there’s gratification in creating the conditions that permit a child to share knowledge with everyone, including the teacher, and watching them walk out the door a little taller. Joyful teaching is symbiotic. Teachers need their students as much as students need their teachers. 

Educators are in a tough line of work. We are not firefighters, but we put out fires. We are not in law enforcement, but we strive to be just. We cannot do all that we hope to achieve without the strength of others. And it all begins with a sense of humility, gratitude, and working in the service of others.

Take for instance, Ella and Yuzuki. They are second grade classmates. At a recent lunchtime Classical Cafe performance, Ella prepared to sing a Christmas song. She stood behind the microphone, wearing a festive outfit and radiant smile. But once the first notes of her song played on the sound system, her smile drained away. Her eyes stayed bright, but showed doubt. She quick-stepped off the stage and another performer took her place. Then another. And another.

Ella remained off stage, being consoled by her mother, in person, and her father via FaceTime. Then along came her friend Yuzuki. She rubbed Ella’s back and leaned into her friend’s ear. Ella smiled and moments later she was back on stage. Yuzuki stood by her side. Far enough to give Ella the spotlight, close enough so Ella could feel her presence. When the performance ended, Ella bounded off the stage to raucous applause that for many of us felt as much for Yuzuki as it was for Ella. But that’s not why Yuzuki took the stage. She did it because that’s what friends do. They stand by each other’s side, when needed most. And for those of us who had the good fortune to experience this moment, we all walked out of the room a little taller.