In an effort to offer students an often overlooked aspect of a well-rounded education, Westwood Middle School has incorporated a speech and theater class into general population class listings.
“Anytime you have a student in front of a group, we create more of a leader than a follower,” said Director of School Dr. Keith Brewer.
“Not only does it give that message, but it enforces the vision that the board has of creating leaders in our school district.”
Brewer added that it creates uniqueness in the school district and especially the middle school.
Westwood teacher Karen Lewis elaborated, “It’s a speech and theater class in a nine-week rotation with art and keyboarding. Every nine weeks I get a new group of students.”
These elements are ignored a lot in other schools, she says.
Speaking in public is one of the most common fears. The class gives students an early opportunity to face that fear in a more comfortable environment.
“We had to get the basics down just to be comfortable.”
Students, Lewis explained, had to first just stand before the class shake hands and hold eye contact.
“We learned how to write a speech, starting with how to write a hook, the introduction and thesis statement, three main points,” she said.
“By the end of the course, [the students] have been able to see how it can help them in their other classes, whether it’s social studies presentation or standing up in science to deliver the results of an experiment. It feeds all the other classes.”
The class researched Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year-old girl shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan and later addressed the United Nations.
Students divided into teams and for presentations using all the elements of public speaking.
The new program gives students who may not perform as well in traditional pen-and-paper classes a chance to shine in ways more comfortable to them.
“We’ve had several students who are illiterate because of their learning disabilities.”
All of the students, even the ones learning disabilities, were able to recite the classes’ talking point, Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”
“I have kids who can’t write their names well, but they can recite 32 lines of poetry and be so proud.
“It’s been really good as a confidence builder.”
Lewis explained a little-known aspect of learning – actions and memory are connected.
“Your body helps you remember things. If you assign a gesture with a line, then you do that gesture and your body automatically remembers the line.”
Students connect their lines to motions on stage. More lines get different moves, a new location on stage or sweep of the audience.
“They’ve learned to use their imaginations again. It’s taken a lot of though to get them to start playing again. They’re use to sitting in a chair and being still. A lot of times, there are no chairs in here,” Lewis said.
She has seen big leaps in the students’ personal development.
“One seventh-grader in the first quarter, if I’d had her in a language arts class and graded her on …written work, I would not have seen the full-picture of this little girl. She led group discussion.”
Lewis said that other students have told her that they have come to school a certain day because their group needed them.
Speech and theater class has been slated to continue next school year. Upcoming additions will include Robert’s Rules of Order, the recognized guide to running meetings and conferences.