Public speaking. Hanging out at the top of lists as most feared things by Americans, above heights, bugs, drowning, and needles.
As someone who has worked with many students over the last few years in a variety of capacities, this was not a surprising statistic for public speaking teacher and Director of Theater Kyle Reynolds. So, he decided to do something about it. Six weeks, lots of late nights, a myriad of conversations with other faculty and administration, and a few FedEx Kinkos runs later, the Kingswood Oxford Public Speaking Center opened for business. Since then, this space has been one of the busiest on campus.
“What's funny about public speaking is that it is not a required course, but public speaking is required in almost every science, history, math, English, and language class. However, these skills aren’t ones that we require or teach,” said Reynolds. “We expect students to have good eye contact, and grade them on how poised they are. We hold them to the expectation of delivering a message with confidence, yet we have not created a resource for them to practice these skills before they earn the grade.”
The purpose of the public speaking center is to provide a transformative resource, expanding far beyond the classroom, aiming to provide students with innovative learning opportunities by supplying both positive and constructive feedback. This is done by partnering students with experienced mentors, in this case, fellow students, who have taken advanced public speaking. The end result? Enabling students through a mentorship program to discover their public speaking potential, ultimately creating the next generation of real-world ethical problem solvers and active citizens.
The four main goals of the center are to encourage compassionate collaboration, to be helpful in supplying positive and constructive feedback, to enhance transformative risk-taking, and to get true, honest, constructive, criticism and support so that students are better at public speaking than one was the day before.
“We feel the benefits of this program are first and foremost a shift in our culture to an appreciation of peer feedback, from students with expertise. Our novice speakers are gaining structured and constructive ideas from trained students who have gone through an advanced public speaking curriculum,” said Reynolds. “Students will be more confident in speaking to others in addition to opportunities for heightened grades, projects, assignments that include public speaking.”
While the emphasis is on seeking out the public speaking center before an assignment is due, Reynolds is finding that teachers are allowing students to revise assignments after working with public speaking mentors. In fact, several teachers have sought out the center out to be a requirement for certain projects within their curriculum.
Reynolds also shared that aside from the advances from the new public speaking students, he has seen incredible growth in the mentors themselves. “Many students had an idea that their toolbox was full. But, by gaining the opportunity to mentor others, they have grown significantly because they have been held to higher expectations, which they have met, and exceeded.”
According to Reynolds, a sheer 20-30 minutes in the public speaking center can change an entire perspective about delivering an address as well as develop a toolbox of skills. The center is open almost every period of the day, and students sign up to work with mentors who staff it. Centers like this are very popular among collegiate programs but aren’t as frequently found in middle or high schools. “I feel passionately as a college preparatory school that we need to match that skill set. Public speaking is not a back pocket skill. We can’t expect our students to speak before the class in an effective manner through their discipline without an opportunity to get the training necessary.”
Next on Reynold’s agenda is to finish creating a public speaking best practice rubric that can be shared throughout the curriculum with all teachers: eye contact, vocal inflection, poise, confidence, verbal fillers, and hand gestures.
One surprise (or perhaps not based on looking at what Americans fear!) throughout the creation of this program is how many adults have sought out the center to hone their own public speaking skills or learn new ones. “These are skills that will help everyone in job interviews, in their college interviews, and beyond,” remarked Reynolds. He shared that one recent article he read indicated that when entering the workforce in some industries, people with public speaking skills can often demand higher salaries than those with minimal or none.
“Before a student graduates from KO, it is my hope that we have offered them the resources, strategies, techniques, and overall ability to be a better public speaker than when they entered our doors.”