From Rhetoric to Reality: increasing access to public speaking

For Summer 2 of my Laidlaw programme, I volunteered with the English-Speaking Union. This blog post describes my experience teaching public speaking and debating to secondary school students from a variety of backgrounds, and outlines some of the challenges and triumphs I faced over the six weeks.

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This summer, I had the pleasure of volunteering with the English-Speaking Union (ESU), a London-based education charity with an international outlook. Over the course of my university career, public speaking and debating have been a huge part of my life and provided me with so many skills, opportunities and contacts. It’s no wonder that my Leadership in Action project led me to the ESU, an organisation which shares my belief that public speaking should be made available to everyone regardless of their background.

The ESU organises a residential debating summer camp each year for secondary school students of all ability levels. The first five weeks of my Leadership in Action project were spent preparing for this camp, entitled Debate Academy, and my final week was spent teaching students directly. I came to the ESU at an interesting time, where the education team consisted mainly of ex-teachers with little public speaking experience. As a result, I was one of the only people involved who came from a debating background. My unique experience led me to take a leadership role on many aspects of the project; I designed the curriculum for four different ability levels, updated the timetable from previous years, and led training for the other coaches on three different debating formats. I also innovated a number of practises, such as the method used to allocate students to debates, and volunteered at other ESU events.

Before this project, I had a wealth of knowledge on debating and public speaking but lacked experience teaching, particularly to secondary school students. In spite of this, I jumped in the deep end during my second week and spent two days delivering public speaking workshops in an East London secondary school. This was definitely a new experience for me and I was fortunate to be supported by my co-workers from the ESU, who made sure I was well-equipped and never left totally on my own. The school we were in was a Muslim-majority, mixed-gendered state school where the majority of students were boys. I found there were a number of challenges in teaching in that environment, particularly with students around the ages of 13 and 14 of different genders who didn’t want to work with each other, and when the students didn’t have much interest in public speaking initially. Still, across both days it was incredibly rewarding to connect with the students and provide each with the opportunity to speak and be heard in front of the class. While something of a trial by fire, I felt I learned a lot about how to manage large groups of students, how to connect while still keeping an appropriate distance between student and teacher, and how to persuade teenagers that public speaking is something that’s for them.

In my final week, I taught the advanced-level students at the ESU’s Debate Academy. The whole experience was both exhilarating and exhausting. Unlike the secondary school I had visited, the 120 students at Debate Academy were already passionate about debating and public speaking and many of my students had several years of experience under their belts. However, other challenges did arise. I was still in charge of the curriculum and of the allocation of students to debates. As a result, what little free time I had between classes was usually spent re-explaining my lesson plans to the other coaches who had less debating experience, or updating the debate allocations to reflect students who were sick or had dropped out. A residential summer camp can also be a marathon – it was a week of long hours as both staff and students grew increasingly tired and the cold started to spread around. Nonetheless, there was still something so rewarding about seeing the lesson plans and curricula that I had spent five weeks designing come to life before my eyes. As we also had a week with the same group of students, I had the satisfaction of watching students who had arrived with little public speaking experience grow into confident, proud students who could construct coherent arguments and speak out.

What was particularly valuable also was the wide variety of students who attended the Debate Academy summer camp. The ESU has a policy that at least half of the students on the camp should be partially subsidised, and there were many students who were subsidised fully. I was so proud that the hard work I had put into preparing for the summer camp had benefited students from very diverse backgrounds, further affirming my belief that public speaking isn’t just something for posh or privileged students but is a set of skills that every student deserves to be equipped with.

Overall, I found my Leadership in Action project to be an incredibly valuable experience. It’s always an honour to work on something that you’re passionate about, but to meet students from a variety of backgrounds, learn so much about teaching, and see my hard work come to life at the end of the six weeks was a genuine gift.

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