ICYMI: When 18 Ford’s National Oratory Fellows and 34 student delegates come to Washington

The first weekend in May is an exciting time of year for Ford’s Theatre Education because it is our National Oratory Fellows Retreat. The weekend is the culminating celebration of the year-long oratory integration work that partners each of our 18 National Oratory Fellows with a Ford’s Teaching Artist. 2015 is the fourth year of the Retreat. In addition to the Fellows, 34 student delegates from eight states and the District of Columbia spend four days at Ford’s, full of professional development, master classes, incredible conversations, sharing, learning and friendship. The weekend builds on the participants’ year-long study of historic speeches, writing of original speeches and learning how the power of words can effect changes, large and small. This year was unanimously considered our most powerful Retreat yet by the Fellows and Ford’s Education team. In case you missed it, here are some highlights!

The Retreat kicks off with a pizza party for the Student Delegates. The delegates play theatre games, hang out, and get to know each other.

On the second day, student delegates perform historic or original speeches on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, while their teachers, Teaching Artists, family members and Ford’s staff look on, beaming with pride. Most of the student delegates have only just met and many have never been to Washington, D.C. It is wonderful to see them support and encourage one another to speak bravely and confidently. Sharing their speeches on the steps of this well-known gathering place for issues of social justice and change is a moving experience for everyone. It’s also a wonderful opportunity for all to practice public speaking and performance skills, as planes fly overhead drowning out voices, and tourists come and go snapping pictures.

Our Oratory Fellows are also tasked with writing original speeches. This year, we asked them to write speeches addressing the question, “Lincoln’s Legacy: What is your Unfinished Work?” Four Fellows typically get the chance to perform their speeches at the culminating event through a random drawing. This year, every Fellow’s speech was so compelling that the Fellows decided to vote for their top choices, rather than leave it to chance.

Our four winning teachers were Darrin Comstock (Omaha, NE), James Rossi (Baltimore, MD), Giani Clarkson (Washington, D.C.) and Joyce Erb-Appleman (Greenbelt, MD). Darrin, standing nearly as tall as Abraham Lincoln himself, reminded students that we are all living Lincoln’s Legacy, and to cherish and build upon their experiences from the Retreat. James, an educator in a Baltimore school, shared his students’ perspectives on the recent uprising there, and talked about the solutions they came up with to rebuild and renew their city. Joyce, a recipient of our BP America Lincoln Teacher Leader scholarship, confidently asserted that as an experienced educator she is the resource she used to seek (and we all agree with her). Giani, a first-year National Oratory Fellow, moved the audience to tears and received a standing ovation for his speech to his young son about growing up as a black male in America.

Photo by Gary Erskine. Photo by Gary Erskine. Photo by Gary Erskine. Photo by Gary Erskine. Photo by Gary Erskine. Photo by Gary Erskine. Photo by Gary Erskine. Photo by Gary Erskine. Photo by Gary Erskine.

The most remarkable things to watch at each year’s retreat are the friendships made amongst the student delegates. Students from as far away from D.C. as rural Nebraska and Idaho share this incredible experience with students from the D.C. area, and together they learn first-hand how art and life are intertwined. They visit monuments and museums, explore how history is interpreted through sculpture and painting and see how visual art can come to life through their own movements. They share their speeches, offer feedback and encourage each other to shine during their moment on Ford’s stage. It’s really a beautiful and extraordinary thing to witness, and proves that getting to know each other and seeing the world through another’s eyes makes us stronger as a nation. Watching an eighth-grade boy from rural Nebraska approach an eighth-grade boy from D.C., see them exchange phone numbers and hear the Nebraska student say, “I’m really glad we met. Stay true to who you are, man,” is something to treasure and not to ever be forgotten.

The National Oratory Fellows May Retreat is an amazing weekend. It’s fast, furious and exhausting; but it’s also beautiful, hopeful, heart-warming and magical. It is a powerful reminder that Lincoln’s legacy lives on in classrooms across the country. If you would like to be involved in next year’s events, check our website in late July 2015 to apply for the 2015-16 school year.

Cynthia Gertsen is the Associate Director for Arts Education in the Ford’s Theatre Education Department.