I love to learn and I love kids which is probably why I went into education. As a school administrator, the thing I miss most is being in a classroom. Every so often a teacher or a group of students will send me a gift: an invitation to guest teach or observe a class.
Before the winter break, I was given both. First, I was invited to make a presentation to Ms. Black and Ms. Lewis’s Grade 12 Writer’s Craft class at TCW. The students had been studying a variety of speeches–MLK’s “I have a Dream” speech, a few commencement addresses, and speeches of other historical, religious, political, or entertainment figures whose messages have stood the test of time. As the students thought about speeches they personally had heard, they recalled a speech I had delivered at “Life After CHAT” about giving oneself permission to change one’s mind in life and in a career. They asked if I would come to class to speak about speaking.
The truth is I’ve never spoken on this topic. I’ve spoken at graduation ceremonies, awards celebrations, and staff meetings. I’ve spoken about married people (weddings) and dead people (eulogies) in front of large audiences (I was a Congregational Rabbi for a decade) and small ones (I used to be a math teacher and a Jewish Studies teacher). But I’ve never spoken about speech writing and speech presentation; and, honestly, I may be a good speaker, but it doesn’t come naturally. It’s hard work for me.
I guess I did well enough because I was invited back (or maybe I invited myself back) to Ms. Lewis’s class to listen to the students deliver their own speeches. I loved what I heard and observed. It was an hour of stimulating entertainment.
One witty student delivered her speech in costume. Another utilized such vivid metaphors and similes that I could visualize the “plot” along the way. Another reminded me of his role in the Underground Play “Twelve Angry Jurors” and made me wonder if the scripts that actors memorize provide a useful bank of electric phrases from which these actor-speakers can draw.
I learned several things from attending class with this delightful group of students. First, I learned that teachers don’t have to be the sole expositors of feedback. Ms. Lewis had taught the students how to formulate and communicate constructive feedback, and these upperclassmen had much to say about the range and quality of rhetorical and poetic techniques that their orator friends employed.
Second, peer review compels listeners to think about how the speaker succeeded in persuading them, filling them with suspense, or making them laugh. It converts a passive listener into an active learner.
Third, and most important, I learned that if a teacher creates a safe classroom environment, students will leave their zone of comfort, take risks, and try something new or even bizarre. The level of respect and support among the students was second to none, and it enabled real learning to take place.
This group of conscientious and creative students is a teacher’s dream, and the generous gift they gave me to visit class twice and learn with them was a very proud Head of School’s dream.