Learning What Works: National Oratory Fellows Program

It’s funny how life and work sometimes mirror each other.

In early 2011, I was seven months pregnant with my second child. In February of that year, our team found out Ford’s had received funding from the Walmart Foundation to launch a pilot program focused on building teacher skills to use oratory as a vehicle for student learning. My colleagues and I had a little over 10 weeks to launch and run the program before the grant period ended and my due date arrived! 

It was a whirlwind experience. We worked with four teachers in four states, and paired each of them with a Ford’s teaching artist to plan and implement oratory-integrated lessons via video conference. My colleagues saw my pregnancy advance as we met virtually every month between March and May for professional development sessions. 

Our 2013 Oratory Fellows at their D.C. retreat.

By the end of the 10 weeks, we realized we were onto something special. The four teachers were excited to continue, eager to engage colleagues to use oratory in classrooms, and abuzz with the effect that oratory and performance had on their students. Everyone agreed: speech matters. 

My daughter is now nearly seven. She’s growing like a weed. She’s strong, confident and active. The National Oratory Fellows program is also nearly seven. The small program that started with four teachers in 10 weeks has grown to 30 teacher leaders working together over many years. And, it continues to grow.

Our participating Fellows are deeply committed to the work and are advocates for it at local, state and national levels. Our partner schools recognize oratory-integration as an integral part of student literacy development, and actively encourage their non-Fellow teachers to work with and learn from the Fellows in their schools.

A National Oratory student delivers her speech at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Gary Erskine.

Just as I check in with my daughter’s teachers and coaches about her progress, it’s time to check evaluate our oratory programs. We are beginning a three-year research process, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to take a deeper look into the inner-workings of the program with our researcher Catherine Awsumb Nelson.

Anecdotally we know the oratory program is working (just ask our Fellows!), but we do want to track down measurable data. Catherine will spend the next three years asking the Fellows and program staff a lot of “how, why and when,” collecting, documenting and analyzing the responses. We will share the results of the research at the end of each year with all of you, and have a final video report at the end of year three.

By the end of this process, we’ll have the data to clearly communicate the power of oratory-integrated teaching. And, we’ll have developed resources that allow teachers to take what we’ve learned and apply it in their own classrooms. Our goal is to reach as many teachers as possible for the next seven years and beyond. Stay tuned to our progress!

Cynthia Gertsen is Associate Director of Arts Education for Ford’s Theatre. She is also the proud mother of two daughters, who work on their persuasive oratory skills daily when trying to convince her that ice cream is, in fact, a proper food to eat for breakfast. Cynthia is still awaiting data to back up that claim.