Learning Oratory… and Becoming a Grandfather

Editor’s note: Dave McIntire, a middle school teacher at The Independent School in Wichita, Kansas, is a 2013-2014 Ford’s Theatre National Oratory Fellow. Here, he reflects on his experience with the program and the May 2014 National Oratory Retreat and Performance.

I became a grandfather about the same time my students performed on the Ford’s Theatre stage on May 5, 2014. This isn’t my first grandchild, so no Father’s Little Dividend moments happened at the retreat. However, the convergence of these two events has me thinking about how planning for a baby’s arrival and preparing my students for a weekend in Washington, have surprising similarities.

Both events are a long time in coming

It hasn’t escaped my attention that both processes take about nine months. My class started focusing on oratory in September. We played with Podium Points, wrestled with sonnets, explored historic speeches, closely read speeches by Jefferson, Lincoln, King and Roosevelt, and then put pen to paper to express our own thoughts.

For me, the National Oratory Fellows Retreat is a wonderful time, but the process of teaching oratory all year long is the true payoff. Now back from the Retreat, I have been working with my students on their original speeches. This is as rewarding as watching my two young charges, selected from the full class to attend the Retreat, on the stage at Ford’s. That isn’t to take away from the Retreat; it’s just that my students’ insights and courage awe me. What we ask of students as teachers challenges them, and when students meet and exceed these challenges, they inspire.

It’s difficult, even at its best

Learning (and teaching) oratory is hard work. You are asking young women and men, in some of their most awkward moments, to stand in front of their peers and open themselves up in a manner even most adults avoid. It requires courage on the part of the student and tenacity on the part of the teacher. And this is when things go well.

Oratory students and teachers at the Lincoln Memorial.

Success looks different for each student, and learning differences challenge the process. Teaching oratory to students in different places as readers or writers means creating various roadmaps, and the act of public speaking itself can make teaching oratory difficult. In some cases, teachers have to encourage students with little confidence to use what they’ve learned to “fake it until they make it.” In other situations, you’re encouraging students who mistake confidence for preparation. You’re telling them that “faking it” isn’t a substitute for hard work.

Even the process of selecting two students to represent their class in Washington, D.C., for the retreat made for awkward moments, leaving some kids disappointed. As part of his Ford’s performance, one of my selected kids wisely spoke about how losing hones you for later success; but that knowledge may be little consolation in the moment when you learn your best just missed the mark. Good teaching transforms those difficult moments into teachable ones. That occurred under the watchful eye of a talented team at Ford’s and the other National Oratory Fellows, who encouraged and cajoled the best out of each other and their students.

The people surrounding you are essential to your success

One of my most profound moments at the retreat was watching the dress rehearsal. As they stood on the Ford’s stage, energy and nerves got the best of some of the kids and they struggled with memory or delivery. You could tell some wanted to step away from the podium, but Lead Teaching Artist Thembi Duncan proved a kind but implacable director. She imbued those kids with a will to adapt and move on. Not one student walked away!

Students perform at the annual Ford's Theatre Oratory Festival. Photo by Gary Erskine.

Throughout the year I watched our teaching artist, Victoria Reinsel, work tirelessly with my students and then, as part of the cadre of teaching artists, with (selected students) Reid and Will during the retreat. Victoria is a talented woman who is investing in these students in ways many of them won’t fully comprehend until they’re older.

In addition, most of my students will never comprehend how much Associate Director for Arts Education Cynthia Gertsen, the rest of the Ford’s staff and my fellow Oratory Fellows invested in me with their time, resources and camaraderie. Teaching can be a lonely profession and these educators and staff members partnered with me in ways that made me better as a teacher.

It’s a milestone, but it is far from over

Two days after the retreat, I held my grandchild, Charlie Marie, for the first time and I thought, “This is just the start of the adventure.” As my charges move from the middle to the upper school this coming September, this is just the start for them as well. Thanks to Ford’s, my two student delegates as well as their classmates move to their new adventure with skills and insights to build upon.

That’s all a teacher (and grandfather) can ask for.

Dave McIntire is a social studies teacher in Wichita, Kansas, teaching American, Kansas and European History, as well as Civics, Oratory and Research. Before he became an educator nine years ago, he worked as a reporter, youth pastor and professional trainer. He is a 2013-2014 Ford’s Theatre National Oratory Fellow and Remembering Lincoln Teacher Representative, and also has been a Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Civil War Washington Teacher Fellow.