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Three Public Speaking Tips From a Little Schoolhouse on the Prairie – Patience Griswold (04/15/2019)

Three Public Speaking Tips From a Little Schoolhouse on the Prairie

If you’ve ever found yourself in the dreaded position of giving a school presentation, chances are you’ve heard this clichéd advice: “Just picture everyone in their underwear.” Giving a class speech is something many students push through, red-faced and dry-mouthed, with the knowledge that it will be over in a few minutes.

In recent years, many are suggesting that quiet students shouldn’t be forced to speak in front of their peers. As an introvert myself, I understand that public speaking is scary and avoidance seems like a great option. But since avoiding something only makes anxiety worse, perhaps it’s time schools face(ed) public speaking fears head-on.

I discovered a way schools might do this when I took a day trip to De Smet, South Dakota to check out the Laura Ingalls Wilder historic site.One of the most interesting things was the small, drafty, dimly-lit schoolhouse that Laura taught in at age 16.

Little House School

The desks held McGuffey Readers. As students progressed through the McGuffey grade levels, the difficulty of the reading lessons also progressed. Students moved from phonics, to proper emphasis, and then to reading as a rhetorical exercise.

Skimming through the Readers, here are three ways to conquer a fear of public speaking:

1. Push through fears. The Readers acknowledge that public speaking is uncomfortable and expect kids to push through it:

Every person, in beginning to speak, feels the natural embarrassment resulting from his new position. The novelty of the situation destroys his self-possession, and, with the loss of that, he becomes awkward, his arms and hands hang clumsily, and now, for the first time, seem to him worse than superfluous members. This embarrassment will be overcome gradually, as the speaker becomes familiar with his position; and it is sometimes overcome at once, by a powerful exercise of the attention upon the matter of the speech.

2. Understand what you want to communicate. Readers students practiced public speaking by reading and presenting another person’s work. They were taught to fully understand what the author was communicating before attempting to present it to the class:

Before attempting to read a lesson, the learner should make himself fully acquainted with the subject as treated of in that lesson, and endeavor to make the thought and feeling and sentiments of the writer his own.

3. Recognize that excellent communication is a lifestyle. The concept of ethos, from classical Greek rhetoric, was important to Readers students. Ethos refers to the credibility of the presenter. In other words, good, persuasive speakers live in a manner consistent with the messaged they convey:

Grace in eloquence, in the pulpit, at the bar, cannot be separated from grace in the ordinary manners, in private life, in the social circle, in the family. Begin, therefore, the work of forming the orator with the child … by observing and correcting his daily manners, motions, and attitudes.

Perhaps one of the reasons that today’s students are terrified of public speaking is that they don’t get as much practice as they would have in a McGuffey-style one room schoolhouse. 

Where the Readers focused on the value of reading and communication, the modern education system often focuses on getting students ready to pass the next test. Given McGuffey’s five generations of successful use in the classroom, maybe modern educators have something to learn from this approach.