Weekly Reflection: Giving voice


Just the word is enough to send shivers down the backs of some students and their teachers too.

The primary school speech format has changed so little from the time I went to school. Most schools have each child get up in front of their class for 3-4 minutes. The best speakers then are selected to stand in front of the school.

There are boxes to be checked. Has the student used repetition, rhetorical questions, quotes and statistics? Check, cross, check, check. There are strict rules about time. Don’t look down. Hand gestures and the odd dramatic pause thrown in for good measure. No images because that isn’t a speech, that’s a presentation.

The end results can be sometimes be decidedly underwhelming. Speeches that tick all those nice boxes on the rubric but say nothing at all.

What makes a good speech?

Instead of having of going the usual route of having students sit through Martin Luther King Jr talking about having a dream, Kennedy going to the moon and Churchill fighting on the beaches then analyse each one for rhetorical devices I was determined to do something different.

Don’t get me wrong as a student of political studies I have an appreciation of oratory and these speeches are quite rightly iconic. However these men were leaders of nations and movements over 50 years ago their lives and thier language is far removed from the pubescent students sitting in Wellington today.

So we listened to Richard Turere talk about scaring away lions, Thomas Suarez wax lyrical about app development, Adora Svitak persuade a group of adults that they could learn from kids. If you haven’t heard of these names before there is a reason for this. These speakers are not much older than my students.

Instead of looking at the rubric I simply asked my students a question.

What made these speeches good?

My students decided that speeches were good because the speaker was sharing a passion, an interest or telling a story. As a teacher the most memorable speeches were the ones when students shared something about themselves that we might not hear.

I then challenged the class.  They had 3-4 minutes to share something with the class and they needed to make those moments count. Everyone had a story to share and it was their job to find their one.

Over the next few weeks I spent more time coaching kids then explicit teaching. Alongside offering advice about language features, and giving feed back about structure I often scratched my head wondering why a student had chosen topics they didn’t seem interested in or passionate about.

Despite being officially not the done thing I let students use as many images as they saw fit to help communicate their ideas and some tried out an ignite format.

This year I was amazed to see a number of my kids that don’t necessarily shine when in standardised testing coming out of their shell to boldly declare ‘this is who I am.’ We learned about being the new kid in school, fears, learning disabilities, personal heroes, hobbies, family culture and immigrating to New Zealand.

One child talked about losing a parent.

The speech itself might not have ticked all those nice boxes on the rubric. There weren’t the dramatic pauses or hand gestures. In fact the student could not finish the speech so I read from the cue cards beside them. By the end of the speech, half the class, including myself, were in tears.

This was a speech that everyone in the classroom that afternoon will remember.

My students might not have been good enough to make the finals but there were so many kids who bought their best selves to speeches this year.

And that’s what any teacher should be aiming for.

4 thoughts on “Weekly Reflection: Giving voice

Add yours

  1. Your post has really got me thinking. Some of our more mature teachers want to bring back speeches for next year, I tend to agree but have been thinking slightly more 21st century than what they no doubt are. I love the idea that you co-constructed success criteria and then allowed them to present in a manner they felt was right.

    In our lifetimes there are many opportunities to deliver speeches, but in many of them we are now supported by all sorts of presentation material. Once again, you’re keeping it real! Plenty of inspiration in here for a new teacher who is taking the role of literacy leader.


  2. We did our speeches last term. It’s always a massive task deciding what to write the speech about, what to put in the speech, write the speech, practice the speech and then the dreaded presentation of the speech.

    I was also proud of my kids when we did ours. They demonstrated persistence and tried their personal best.

    Four students were selected to go to the local inter-school competition, the first time our school had attended in years. It was a real eye-opener for the girls who went, but they upped their game again. I was really proud of them.

    One girl also included the recent death of her father in her speech about growing up. So I know where you’re coming from about how powerful that can be.

    Speeches bring their challenges to the students and the teachers, but they also bring a bouquet of memories and personal achievements.


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