Over the last several weeks, the Blair community has been working to replicate a longtime rite of passage for 10th-grade students virtually: Whereas the sophomore public speaking contest usually takes place live in DuBois Theatre, this year, members of the class of 2022 recorded their speeches and Blair is sharing them with students, teachers and faculty judges here (to watch presentations from the 10 sophomores chosen by their English classes to represent them at the grade-wide event, click here). The panel of remote judges selected the top three speeches and English department chair Jim Moore announced the winners at School Meeting on May 4.
Congratulations to Laila Davson '22 (first place), Casey Canale '22 (second place) and Gabriel Ramirez '22 (third place)!
The assignment, which is based on a narrative essay, is the next iteration of Blair’s public speaking initiative as sophomores build on the skills they learned doing digital essays as part of The Blair Leadership Stories Project as freshmen. The difference is that sophomore orators must deliver their three-to-four-minute speeches live and in one take, as opposed to being able to record more than one take, Mr. Moore said. “The sophomore speech contest gets kids up in front of their classmates, and winners up in front of their whole grade,” he explained. “Although we lose a bit of that by pre-recording them and the immediacy won’t be there, the exercise is important because our students learn how to present themselves in public. Everything these kids learned by doing the digital essay last year is reinforced, and this is the next, more difficult thing. All of these assignments are made with the goal of having students become comfortable with public speaking at all different levels and in all different settings.”
Each year, students are asked to speak about a different topic, and this year, they are charged with reflecting on their most-prized possessions. By doing so, students will give members of the Blair community a window into how those objects became meaningful and a reflection of who they are personally. Other instructions included being descriptive in relaying the physical characterization of their items and the story of how it attained significance.
Mr. Moore and his English department colleagues expected this year’s contest to be both easier and harder than past years in equal measure. “Students delivered their speeches just as if we were in the classroom, but instead of addressing an open room, they addressed a screen,” said English and history teacher Carter Lorant ’09. “Perhaps these speeches were easier to deliver since the audience was not living and breathing right in front of the speaker, but they were living and breathing behind a screen, so the pressure was still there!”
In fact, having a screen between speaker and audience presents some challenges that students wouldn’t encounter in person, such as creating a vibrancy, connection, attachment to the listener and reciprocal line of communication. “It’s much like teaching a class, which loses its essential ‘humanistic’ touch without humans in the same room,” said English teacher David Mamukelashvili. “So, clearly, students faced a mammoth task—to establish their voice and transmit their message without the audience really feeling them, seeing them and being in the same atmosphere as them.”
That’s why content is so important, added Mr. Lorant. No matter what a speech is about and no matter where a speech is given, the speaker has to have something to say. “If the words are not important to the speaker--if the speaker does not really have something meaningful to say--all the fundamentals in the world will not make a difference,” he said. “I hope our community got to see how the up-and-comers are doing, and I hope our freshmen got an idea of what they should be shooting for when their time comes.”
Given the unprecedented circumstances Blair students and students around the nation find themselves in during this global pandemic, Blair English teachers take their hats off to the public speaking contestants for powering through and embracing the situation. They also offered orators a few tips on how to best deliver their speeches virtually: visualize the class while they practice, encourage the audience to relate to their material, and have fun with it. “There is no precedent or basis for comparison in Blair history when it comes to judging a virtual speech contest, so this year, everyone is a winner in my eyes,” said Mr. Mamukelashvili.
English teacher Kaye Evans agreed that having the sophomore speech contest go on virtually gave Blair students and teachers a sense of routine and normalcy about what the spring at Blair looks like. “While the format may be different by presenting the speeches online, students still practiced their formal public speaking skills,” she said.
Mr. Moore noted that coming together virtually during these uncertain and troubling times is more important than ever. “This was an opportunity for us to look at different ways of getting things done and pulling our community together as we deal with the reality of being far apart. Especially in these circumstances, it is really important to maintain our traditions so we don’t lose a step. So that, when we come back next year, we still feel like ourselves and know that we have continued all that is best about Blair.”
To watch all of the speeches, please click below: