A recent article in Forbes magazine claims that poor communication skills are the greatest deficit facing college graduates today. According to a high school presentation teacher: “In this era of email, texting and voice mail, true face-to-face communication is becoming a lost art. While many people are comfortable with private, individual conversations, most people are uncomfortable speaking to groups, large or small.” While I do not agree with all of the solutions presented in the article, I definitely agree with the assessment.
Even beyond preparing our students for careers, we should be concerned about preparing our students to be the best possible ministers of the Gospel. As Peter wrote, we must be prepared speakers: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (I Peter 3:15, KJV).
This summer at the Classical Conversations Parent Practicums, we will be talking about this very thing. Our theme this year is “Cultivating the Conversation: The Art of Rhetoric.” During the three-day practicums, we will spend a lot of time thinking about how we can teach our children to think and speak well. We will delve into questions such as: “What is rhetoric?” “Why should I teach it to my children?” and “How do I teach it to my children?” Preparing for this season has me thinking about all of the speaking practice children receive in the Classical Conversations program, from Foundations through Challenge IV.
Once (and only once) my small son complained about his Foundations presentation. “Daddy, this is a waste of time. When am I ever going to do this in REAL LIFE?” This led to a long conversation with my husband about his daily presentations with clients in his financial planning business. (At the time, I was the state manager for Classical Conversations in Oklahoma, so I, too, could have shared a few “real life” speaking stories about information meetings and practicums.)
The Classical Conversations curriculum provides many opportunities for students of all ages to practice different kinds of speaking. Most of us are familiar with the Foundations presentation, which usually starts off as show-and-tell for the very young and progresses to a summary of a history or science card as the students get older. Fewer of us are aware that reading papers aloud in Essentials is another way for students to practice rhetorical skills. Still fewer of us are aware of the wide variety of speaking practice that students get in the Challenge program.
In Challenge B, students practice rhetoric by discussing current events each week in the fall semester. In the spring semester, they continue to hone their skills by participating in Mock Trial. Whether they serve as attorneys or witnesses, all students get to practice speaking in front of an audience. In my son’s Mock Trial last year, students presented their case before an Oklahoma Supreme Court justice in front of an audience of parents, grandparents, and community members.
As students move into Challenge I-IV, the speaking events become even more specific and more frequent. Challenge I students learn the formal rules of policy debate and engage in weekly debates. For the remainder of their Challenge career (Challenge II-IV), students participate in regular speech and debate events. In Challenge II, students complete both Team Policy and Lincoln Douglas debates.
In my class this year, we will complete two team policy debates. The first was about whether or not the National Endowment for the Arts should be abolished or reformed. This spring, we will debate whether or not Facebook should be subject to federal regulations. Our Lincoln Douglas debate will revolve around movie-viewing standards for Christians.
Challenge II students also present an art grant proposal to their classmates. Then, as a class, students must award grant monies as they would in an actual peer-review process. In Challenge II and III, students deliver lectures on visual arts, classical music, and philosophy. Students in Challenge III and IV serve as the discussion leaders in literature, history, and philosophy/theology. Challenge III and IV students also engage in a wide variety of speaking events including expository speeches with visual aids, memorized historical speeches, and impromptu speeches.
By the time these students graduate, they should be prepared to speak on anything in any place at any time!
Throughout the spring, our Writers Circle authors will share many more thoughts about the important art of rhetoric. Let us work together to train each child to be “a godly man, speaking well in his attempt to persuade others to believe and act in accordance with biblical wisdom” (Rhetoric Companion, p. 20).