We The People and Deep Practice

Public speaking is tough. Just ask Marco Rubio. 

Marco Rubio delivering the Republican response after the
2013 State of the Union address.

This week has been a challenging and exciting week in my classroom. I took a small group of US Government students to Jefferson City, MO to compete in We The People. This is a national civics and constitutional competition where teams have to speak from a prepared remark and answer questions, all from judges that they have never met. There is a big intimidation factor here. The teams are only 3 or 4
Center High School Team #1 at
MO We The People 2014
students. They have practiced their prepared remarks countless times to the point where a lot of them have the remarks close to memorized. Yet about 6 feet in front of them are three very professional looking adults whom they have never met. To add to the suspense, the students know that once they complete the comfort of the prepared remarks, they must venture into the unknown that is six minutes of questions and answers.

The question-and-answer part of the competition is really its bread and butter. This is where students are exposed to the harsh reality of their knowledge. The judges ask questions based off of the prepared remarks, but the specific wording and phrasing of the questions cannot be known until the moment the question is asked. The student have to listen to the question, process what is being asked, dig through what they know and give back a coherent answer. The students have all of about 2.5 seconds to complete all of these steps. All of this is doing with those judges wearing fancy suits still sitting 6 feet away.

President Obama at a rally in North Carolina
on Nov. 3rd, 2008.
President Obama gave the annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress last night. You can read the transcript here or watch the full speech here and the Republican response from Rep. Cathy McMorris Roberts here. That is interesting on its own for the political implications of the speech. I loved the sections of the speech about equal pay for equal work and raising minimum wage. I admit that I am not particularly comfortable with the number of times that Mr. Obama indicated that he would "act on his own" to get this or that done.* All of the politics aside, I love listening to Mr. Obama as an orator. I was in college as he made his run to the White House.The tears that ran down his cheek the day before Election Day 2008 while he spoke of the inspiration he gained from his grandmother provide an image that is forever seared into my mind. While I certainly lean towards democratic ideals, especially in the social sphere, I believe that Mr. Obama won the White House as much because he was and continues to be a great orator as for his political stances.

*Lo and behold, Mr. Obama came out on Wednesday with a series of Executive Orders. These are, overall, relatively limited in terms of action. Anything that he does via Executive Order can be undone January 20th, 2017 when the new President takes action. This is made perfectly clear in a fantastic NY Times article you can read here. Laws, on the other hand, are much more difficult to overturn once they have gone through the Legislative Branch. Much to the chagrin of those who would call Mr. Obama a tyrannical dictator, checks and balances does appear to still be in working order.

I like to use great speakers as models for my students as they learn the importance of quality public speaking. It's important to remind kids that, while many of them may never speak in front of thousands of people, being confident and projecting self-worth will be important for all of them. And I always remind them that one day I may just see one of them inspiring the masses with a great speech. Always dream big. But for most of us, we are resigned to speaking in front of families and friends, speaking at job interviews or speaking in front of a team of colleagues. If you are a teacher like me, every day is a practice in public speaking. Well-known orators like Dr. King and President Kennedy as well as lesser-known orators from websites like TED appear on my screen often to show what good oration looks, sounds and feels like.

We The People is a great competition and was a great experience for my students. You can show great oration and talk about oratory strategy until you are blue in the face, but a person cannot truly become a great orator until he or she has lots and lots of practice. A few weeks ago I wrote a post on Daniel Coyle's fantastic book, "The Talent Code". Motivation in the classroom is absolutely vital. This was one of the running themes in Coyle's book. The other running theme which was probably more prominent was deep practice, where the learner is intently focused on acquiring or increasing a skill by practicing just above the level of comfort.

By competing in front of judges inside the Missouri State Capitol while dressed in professional attire, students were pushed outside of their comfort zone. Some got nervous while others got excited. Most experienced a mix of those two emotions. All of the students were pushed beyond where they normally would practice, which is the key to developing deep practice. I can work for days and weeks in my classroom on Constitutional study, civics lessons and oratory practice with my students. I firmly believe that they grew more during this 30-hour trip than they did from a month in my classroom. This feeling is backed by data and examples in "The Talent Code". These trips and competitions, and others like them, are vitally important to student growth. I encourage you to look for a similar opportunity no matter the subject that you teach.*

I am very proud of my students and the work that they put into this competition. I look forward to competing again in 2015 with a new group of students. I hope that you enjoyed the video of their competition. What activities do you do that help put students into real-life, sometimes stressful situations that help them discover deep practice?

*I cannot write this post without thanking a number of groups and individuals that helped make this trip possible. First to the Missouri Bar Association who funds the competition and encourages many of its members to serve as judges - thank you. To Millie Aulber and the Center For Civic Education - continue your work helping young people find meaning and importance in our government. To Beth Heide, Principal and former US Government teacher at Center High School, for taking my class to We The People in 2004 and encouraging me to take my class now as a teacher. To all of those individuals who came to Center High School to listen to our students practice and provide wonderful feedback - Rick Chambers, Sally Newell, Beth Heide, Judge Lisa Hardwick and Joe Stokely - your patience and advice inspired the students more than you realize. Finally to Russ Sackreiter, who took our team under his wing, providing many hours of guidance and advice both to myself and to all of the students. This truly would not have been possible without your immense effort.
Center High School trophy from
We The People 2014
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