At the beginning of the year, many Classical Conversations groups assign presentation schedules that look something like this:
*Week 1: It’s all about you! Tell us about yourself.
*Week 2: What’s your favorite subject and why?
*Week 3: Improv week: Draw a topic out of a hat!
This isn’t bad as far as it goes, but did you ever consider that presentation time could do double duty, teaching good presentation skills but also putting great ideas into your child’s mind? Here are some ways to help accomplish this:
- Present a famous speech
- Recite classic poetry
- Read or memorize parts from great plays, such as Shakespeare.
Students in my 3rd-6th grade classes really seemed to enjoy all of these methods. I’ll deal with numbers 2 and 3 another time, but in this post I’d like to focus on helping you teach your kids to tackle great speeches.
This idea was introduced to our community by one of our tutors, Christine Zajonc, who suggested we add reciting or memorizing great speeches to our presentation rotation. Christine is an audiologist by profession, and her own kids–several of whom I’ve had the privilege of tutoring– excel at presentations. Her idea worked so well that I regret that my last child graduated from Foundations before I could use it more. I asked Christine to share her thoughts about the value of speech memorization and her method for teaching it at home.
What do you think speech memorization gives to kids that regular presentations don’t?
I think speech memorization can afford children practice with syntax and vocabulary that is above their academic level. It not only introduces children to great ideas by great men and women, but also to effective sentence structures that communicate those ideas to encourage or persuade others.
What does your time at home look like as you prepare your kids to recite a speech?
When choosing a speech, we spend a good deal of time talking about the significance of the speech. Who gave it, where was it given, who was the audience, and why was it necessary or important. I really try to set the scene up so the children can feel the tension.
Then, if possible, we listen to it. I try to find a recording of the original speech. We listen to it several times, 3-5, before reading it. Then we read through it and break it into small parts to analyze and practice. We talk about why certain words might have been chosen over others words that could have been used. We talk about any literary devices: consonance, assonance, alliteration, similes, and metaphors. We talk about how those devices add to the picture or feeling that is trying to be created.
Then we master one section before moving on to the next. We review the entire speech several times to make sure we have emphasis on the words we think are most important.
What are your favorite speeches for kids to learn?
We love speeches by Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan.
Can you share some tips from your audiology background that would help other parents working with their children at home?
I think encouraging children to slow down is critical to enunciation. We start with speaking very slowly, and only after every word can be pronounced accurately and clearly do I allow them to speed up the tempo. Varying the timing and the rhythm of their speech is also very important for clarity and holding the listener’s attention.
I hope these tips will help begin to reclaim a satisfying and simple way to improve your child’s communication skills, while at the same time placing at their disposal stirring and sometimes spine-stiffening words. After all, when your child happens to face a tough life circumstance, there’s just something extra when, instead of, “This stinks, but I’ll keep trying,” he can set his jaw, remember Winston Churchill addressing the House of Commons after Dunkirk, and recall, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds…we shall NEVER surrender,“ and know that if the British didn’t give up, perhaps he can get through his current difficulty too. This, after all, is one of the goals of a classical education: to let great men and women of the past help teach our children how to live virtuous and courageous lives.