School Club Turns Fifth Graders into Orators

Being a part of the National Oratory Fellows program last year was an amazing experience for me, because I was able to watch my students’ confidence grow while they learned podium points, performed historic speeches and wrote their own original speeches about topics they selected. It was an incredible program that I wanted to create for my students again this year, but as often happens, this year brought a new set of challenges that required me to abandon last year’s model, get creative and develop a new plan in order to keep the oratory program alive at Lafayette Elementary School, outside of Boulder, Colorado.

My goal for the year was to expand the program beyond just my classroom. First, I wanted to provide direct instruction in public speaking to all of the fifth-grade students through a 30-minute instructional block my teaching team calls “The Wheel.” During this block of time, five teachers provide instruction in various topics, and all 106 students are divided into five groups that rotate through the teachers for a five-day mini-unit. In the first rotation, I introduced oratory and described podium points, and then the students applied what they learned by reciting a portion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. By mid October, all students in fifth grade had rotated through my mini-unit and knew what oratory was all about.

This allowed me to put my new plan into action by offering an after-school Oratory Club where up to 25 fifth-grade students could spend one hour a week working with me and a teaching artist via Skype. I got administrator approval, marked the club dates on the master calendar and prepared lesson plans for the 20 sessions we would have this school year. Everything was in place, so all I needed was interested 10-year-olds. My mantra became, “If you build it, they will come.”

Interior of Ford's Theatre. Photo © Maxwell MacKenzie.

They came. Some were natural speakers who wanted the chance to learn more about podium points or Abraham Lincoln. Some joined because their friends were interested. One brave boy joined to get additional help to control his stutter. All were welcome, and in the end, the club was made up of students from each fifth-grade classroom with eight boys and 15 girls.

During the first club meeting, we met our Ford’s Theatre teaching artist, Stephen Schmidt, and gathered around my laptop to hear his lesson for us. He described Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle [PDF] and assigned the members their first task: memorize the Gettysburg Address. To my surprise, most had the entire speech memorized by the next meeting.

After that success, they moved on to reciting an historic speech of their choice. To be more efficient, I had students conference with me first so that I could provide advice on their use of podium points. Then, they moved to the other side of the room to conference at the “Stephen Station.” This meant they stood at the podium in front of my desk facing my laptop so that they could recite their speech for him and get immediate feedback. The kids loved this and soon learned how to make eye contact with the little camera at the top of my screen.

The students were thrilled when they learned of the opportunity to compete for a trip to Washington, D.C., to deliver their own speeches on the stage at Ford’s Theatre. Their assignment was to create an original speech about a topic they cared about. They wrote about a wide variety of issues, ranging from family to friendships to volunteering, and one girl even wrote about a recent school shooting in our area. They were brilliant!

Hambleton's oratory club celebrates with cake.

I planned an evening celebration and reception for the students to share their speeches for their families and our wider school community. We invited the local newspaper to visit our club and they wrote an article about our work.

At the celebration, the students performed an ensemble piece made up of quotes from Abraham Lincoln. Then, one by one, they delivered their original speeches to a crowd of about 100 people made up of family and friends. Many of them were moved to tears by the messages they heard from students so articulate, so wise and so young.

My experience in creating this after-school club has been both incredibly rewarding and truly a labor of love. In fact, it brings to mind the words of Lincoln himself, “Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way.” I determined that we needed this club and found a way to make it happen. This has proven to be my best effort to keep the Lincoln Legacy alive in Lafayette, Colorado.

Angela Hambleton is a life-long public speaker who was often in trouble for talking too much in school. Now she is the teacher and loves getting her students excited about learning. She has a B.A. in Communication and an M.A. in Education. Angela lives in Colorado and has really enjoyed being a National Oratory Fellow.