Kicking Off the School Year with Oratory

Editor’s note: Wally Hames, a teacher at Kuna Middle School in Kuna, Idaho, is in his third year as a Ford’s Theatre National Oratory Fellow. Here he reflects on attending a weekend retreat with his fellow Fellows in early September.

Wow! What a start to the school year. I was one of the original handful of teachers who piloted the Ford’s Theatre Oratory Fellows program five years ago, and I have been blessed to see it become a successful, long-term professional development program for so many teachers around the country. I had to step away for a little bit, but when I came back, I was blown away by how much the program had grown in such a short time.

The group of educators that Ford’s has chosen to work on this project is high-functioning, imaginative and intelligent. We have teachers from all over the country with a passion for teaching and a passion for their students. The Oratory Fellows program stokes our enthusiasm and helps us develop all kinds of ways to integrate drama and oratory into our classrooms. Each teacher gets partnered with a professional teaching artist, who works with them for an entire year on arts integration.

During the annual fall retreat, the teachers head to Washington, D.C., for three days to meet with their teaching artist partners and Ford’s Theatre Education staff members and plan out their units for the upcoming school year. Since it happens before the school year begins, we like to call it the “pre-treat.” When you think about a group of teachers getting together for a pre-treat, you probably think about one of two things: 1) Lots of work or 2) Lots of fun. You would be right on both counts. We spent most of our time in the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership, working individually and in groups. We gathered resources, shared strategies and built community among our dedicated group of teacher leaders. We also spent time inside Ford’s Theatre, and even visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Talk about differentiation. If you couldn’t take something away from all of this then you weren’t trying. Several of us took a tour of the landmarks, museums and monuments around the city. My favorite part was seeing the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution at the National Archives.

Fellow Dave McIntire (Wichita, Kansas) took us to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and demonstrated how to make inferences from—in other words, deeply read—a specific painting using the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) he had learned at a workshop there a few years before. An activity like that is an incredible way to get your class involved in reading a primary source, and as soon as I got back to school, I put this strategy into my teaching on Pocahontas. After going over the VTS method with my students, I explained to them that this is what our Oratory Fellows did over the weekend. You should have seen the way it made them feel. They were pretty proud of themselves.

My school, Kuna Middle School, is so lucky to be working with Stephen Schmidt once again as our teaching artist. Our school (actually our entire district) loves him and has adopted him into our Kaveman family (Kuna’s mascot. I know…we’re weird). Since we are two hours behind Washington, D.C., it has been tough, sometimes, to arrange our Skype sessions around both our schedules. But Stephen is always the professional and goes above and beyond what is expected. Since Stephen is a professional actor and works a lot on stage at Ford’s Theatre, our kids get an unprecedented look into the heart and soul of the actual working stage at Ford’s.

It’s very rare to go to a retreat and actually learn something that will be beneficial to both you and your students, but that is exactly what happens every time with the Oratory Fellowship. I encourage each and every teacher to learn more about oratory, no matter what subject matter he or she teaches. The Fellowship is a perfect way to build your skill-set with tons of oratory teaching strategies that you can put into place immediately.

Once again, I want to thank all the staff at Ford’s for doing such an incredible job this year–and I know our year is only just beginning. I can’t wait to see everyone again in May.

Interested in becoming a Ford’s Theatre National Oratory Fellow? The program is open to teachers who have previously participated in the Civil War Washington Teacher Fellows program. To learn more, click here.

Wally Hames has been teaching for 26 years. He is currently teaching eighth grade American History at Kuna Middle School in Kuna, Idaho.