post by Rebecca Marsick, 2019-2020 The Educator Collaborative Associate
In Praise of the Orator–and of Aural Composition
In 2018, I was fortunate to be at StoryFest in Westport, CT with author and current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds. I have seen Reynolds speak on more than one occasion, and I am always impressed by his oratory skills; but on this occasion, he spoke for an hour, without any notes, telling his personal journey from non-reader to reader, imparting wisdom and soliciting laughs along the way.
He never said “um.”
He never lost his train of thought.
He never said “like.”
He kept an audience of over 300 people, sitting in the freezing cold outside of a library, entranced for over an hour. And when he was finished, we all wanted more.
As I walked inside with him, I asked him how he learned to deliver speeches so well. He explained that, as a kid, his mom used to make him state his point from across the room, and if she couldn’t hear him or understand his ideas, he would have to try again. At the time, I remember thinking that this was such a gift to give your child: the ability to hold an audience in the palm of your hand as you speak. A skill that, as a parent, I was definitely failing to support in my own two children!
Similar to my experience listening to Jason Reynolds, I am always amazed at the power of Elizabeth Acevedo’s spoken word poetry. Listening to her perform her poem “Hair” makes me want to stand and clap and cheer as her words become more frenetic. The way she modulates her voice and uses gestural composition (e.g., moves her hands and arms) support and strengthen the message about her refusing to conform to the beauty standards of white culture. While she has clearly written and practiced her poem, it is still a masterful demonstration of the power of the spoken word and its impact on the audience.
Yes, reading Acevedo’s words still allows the reader to appreciate her deep grasp of language, but hearing it brings the messaging to a whole new level. There is an emotionality that I feel when watching and listening that is different from reading the text alone. I am also convinced that all of her training as a spoken word poet has bled into her ability to “simply” speak. Listening to her at NCTE, especially when asked questions by the audience, was as engaging and poetic as listening to her read her written words.
And finally, in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Carol Anderson speak. She spent an hour, walking across the stage, microphone in hand, educating her audience through story about White Rage and voter suppression. Not once did she look at a note. While the content was fascinating, her delivery of information through her intonation and pacing created such engagement that the audience held on to her every word.
These were the people that first came to mind when reading Shawna Coppola’s book, Writing, Redefined: Broadening Our Ideas of What It Means to Compose, in which she argues about the importance of including the oral tradition (i.e., aural composition) in our classrooms, beyond just the usual speeches and presentations.
Coppola reminds us that the oral tradition has been around much longer than the written one, and that “[i]n composing for the purpose of having an audience listen–really listen–students will feel naturally empowered to use their authentic voices and to share their lived experiences…” (p. 58).
This has made me rethink the way I have (not) helped students learn to be strong orators in my classroom. Too often, I made speaking only part of a presentation, and even when doing so, did not teach them how to present effectively other than to quickly mention “practicing” and listing some things I was looking for on a rubric:
- Eye contact!
- Not moving around too much!
None of these bullet points are particularly essential when actually considering how to effectively communicate orally. And, they are too vague to be helpful in any way for a novice orator. They don’t focus on why a person would choose to speak rather than write as a mode of communication, or who the intended audience is, or the ways in which one can make their speaking more impactful given their attention to specific language, gestures, intonation, etc.
I have always loved the premise of Nancy Duarte’s Ted Talk, “The Secret Structure of Great Talks,” as it notes the power of storytelling over presentation as well as a structure that helps to reign in an audience and build their excitement over the course of the talk. She analyzed many talks and found that this same structure can apply to Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” Steve Job’s 2007 iPhone launch, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.”
We hear the power of someone who knows how to deliver a speech, story, talk, presentation when we attend conferences, listen to politicians, watch actors accept an award, listen to the public comments at Board of Education meetings. The ability to deliver a message orally is evident in these situations and too many others to note.
What a life skill I would have been helping my students gain if I had taught them strategies for speaking, in any genre or form. How to choose the genre or form to fit the content, the audience, the purpose. How the word choice and how these words are emphasized can change the meaning of the message. How the way we speak is often the first way new people judge us. The way we speak is the way we present ourselves to others, and this matters, whether in a friendship, a classroom, a job interview, or the grocery store. The way we speak matters.
In his book, How to be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi shares a phrase that his dissertation advisor in his African Studies graduate program at Temple University used to say. He says that Professor Ama Mazama “taught him that the power of the spoken word is in the power of the word spoken” (167).
As Lin Manuel-Miranda says (as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton): “My power of speech, unimpeachable.” So let’s support and teach all children how learning the power of the oral tradition can be unimpeachable.