Speaking Well Does Not Mean Speaking White

I didn’t think I would have to clarify that. But I had an interesting experience over a tweet I wrote.

My tweet:

An irate response to that tweet: “How dare you tell students that you must speak a certain way! Who are you to insist that only white, middle-class speech is appropriate?”

This provides some important lessons for all of us. First lesson, read before you react. Don’t fly off the handle and make ridiculous (stupid?) assumptions. Had the person read the article or anything else I have ever written, she would have known that I never come close to suggesting that there is only one approved way of speaking. I have made that clear many times in my work, including here. https://www.td.org/insights/code-switching-its-not-always-proper-to-speak-properly A small exploration of what I have written would reveal that the skills I suggest teaching apply to all styles. The comment is as absurd as protesting teaching comma usage. “How dare you tell students that commas are used to separate items in a series! That’s racist.”

Second lesson, we have no idea what it means to teach good speaking. What good speakers do can be done in any language, dialect, or social group. In other words, the skills of effective speaking are neutral: gender neutral, ethnically neutral, politically neutral, religiously neutral, and whatever other kind of bias you are worried about. I’ll give you a couple of examples. All speaking involves what you do before you speak and what you do as you speak. I refer to these as building a talk and performing a talk.

One thing to address before you open your mouth is to analyze the audience. You should plan a different talk about magnetism for third graders than you do for twelfth graders. You should plan a different talk about math manipulatives for teachers at the math department meeting than for parents at Back to School night. You should use a different style for the interview committee at IBM than for the teammates in the dugout. I use a different style for my stand-up routine at the comedy club than for my keynotes at district PD days. Analyzing the audience is a tip for all speakers who want to be successful. It is not class or race specific.

One skill to think about as you are speaking is speed. Great speakers know how to use speed well. They can speed up to create excitement. They can slow down for emphasis. They can stop for dramatic effect. Watch any truly impressive speaker anywhere on the planet. Watch speakers speaking a language you do not understand. That way the message won’t distract you, and you can pay attention to the delivery. You’ll discover that great speakers adjust their pace. Yes, the pace can and should be influenced by the audience analysis. Slam poets tend to speak more quickly than TED talkers. But all effective speakers know how to adjust speed for impact. Learning how to play with pace is tip for all speakers. It is not gender or ethnic specific.

If you are curious about the five skills needed to create powerful talks and the six needed to deliver impressively, visit pvlegs.com. Then use that framework to teach students how to speak well in whatever manner they choose to speak.

As a side-note, notice that the skills are teachable. It is not the case that some kids are good speakers from birth while most are not. All students can improve as writers, as readers, as science-ers, as math-ers, as thinkers, and as speakers. Want to teach about how to use speed well? Have a little lesson about speed. Put up this mini-speech:

Just a nice relaxing day in the park. We were sitting on our blanket, looking at clouds, looking at flowers, sipping lemonade. Ahhh, peace and quiet.  But suddenly it all changed. We heard screaming and yelling and people were running toward us. Picnic tables were being knocked over. Stuff was flying. Someone shouted, “Look! Over there! An alien spaceship!!” Panic took over! Up in the sky was a large…a large…oh, for heaven’s sake…a large blimp shaped like a flying saucer. A stunt by some company advertising something. No big deal.

Have different students deliver the words focusing on speed. Where should we be slow and deliberate? Where should we speed up? Where should we pause? Why? How does changing the pace add to the words? Who did you think did the best at changing speed? Want to try again to see if you can do even better? Will all students master pace? Of course not, just as all don’t master our word choice lessons. Will all students improve at a skill that great speakers use? Yep.

Bottom line: settle down. Don’t be so quick to take offense. And don’t be so quick to assume that speaking is somehow different than other language arts. It can and should be taught. All students deserve to have an effective voice.

 

 

 

About Erik Palmer

The #1 language art is speaking. By far. I'm committed to promoting the teaching of oral communication in all of its forms.
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