“Rigged”- a complex educational experience

A few years back when I was trying to teach my children how to play chess, I came across a really great teaching aid. It was called: “Fritz and Chesster“. I am reminded of this program now because when the child or adult would try and move the Bishop in an illegal fashion, a New York accented voice would pipe up and say, “diagonally, not any which way, diagonally.”

This blog is not–I promise–about chess. I brought up that point because this is the type of blog where I am not really sure where to start, what to focus on, or in which direction to move first. There are a series of complex education-related issues that I would like to touch upon, so forgive me if this comes out somewhat rambling.

For the past five years, I have been witness to an absolutely astounding educational program for elementary and middle school children (ages 8-14) designed to teach them the art of public speaking and raise their confidence by participating in the Modern Woodmen of America Speech Competition. This annual speech contest is an event that I have come to really appreciate.

Each year, the contest has a theme that allows the children to choose a suitable topic with care, research that topic, and write a 3-5 minute speech that they present at their own school. This gives them a wonderful opportunity to do research and put together a logical speech that should be convincing to the audience. The younger grade children receive some editorial help from teachers, but the ideas and content have to come from the children. Then, through much practice and hard work, the participants become “desensitized” to the pressures of oral presentations, and finally deliver their speech in a school competition with an audience of other students, teachers, family members, and of course, judges.

My daughter has been an avid participant in this competition over the past 5 years, and I have had the opportunity of attending many competitions–school competitions, school district competitions (where the winners from different schools compete with each other) and up to the Nebraska State championships–where a couple years ago my daughter was the runner up (2nd place) and narrowly missed going on to the US National championship. That year, the competition theme was “someone who has touched many lives.” My daughter chose J.K. Rowling, making a compelling case for how the Harry Potter series has enticed many young people to become readers, and the positive influence that reading has on humanity. Notable speeches dealt with the Holocaust (1st place that year), Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, and the list goes on. It was an outstanding educational experience to listen to these young people make their cases. I can’t say enough about how much confidence such competitions instill in young people–knowing first hand how difficult graduate students find it to present seminars. For more on how to deliver the very best seminars, I refer you to Stephen Curry’s recent blog.

In particular, since my daughter previously attended a very small private school, I had the pleasure of witnessing children who appeared to have little aptitude for delivering speeches improve consistently year after year until their speeches were exceptionally well done. Similar to languages and chess (and many other academic endeavors), it appears that oration is a largely learnable skill, especially at a young age. Sure, some children will always excel more than others, will be able to put together a logical argument for any speech (or parental wish–try getting them to go to bed at a decent hour when they are better than you at debating!) and have that extra charisma–but from my experience, with a little coaching and patience, it seems that almost every child is able to put together a coherent and worthy speech that he/she can take pride in.

By the way, just as a rambling aside–unlike experiences at chess, these competitions are heavily skewed towards girls, who tend to constitute about 75% of the participants, and an even higher percentage of the winners at each stage.

Where am I going with this blog? Well, after generally praising the competition and everything related to it–including the good sportsmanship and support for all participants, whether their speeches were excellent or not–I hope that this next bit does not come across as “sour grapes.” I have always been against parents who become overly involved in their children’s sports, becoming upset if their child does not play well enough or succeed. They are out there to learn and have fun–in my humble view–not to become professionals. But I see that other parents have differing views. Nonetheless, I would like to share with you all the bizarre experience that my family encountered recently at the Nebraska State Championship.

For those of you on the other side of the pond, Nebraska is an east-heavy state. Omaha, at the south eastern end, has a greater metropolitan population of about 1 million people, and the capital and next largest city (Lincoln) is only 45 miles west. Yet the state extends about 500 miles west, and is extremely sparsely populated west of Lincoln. In any case, this year for the first time since our daughter began to participate in this competition, it was decided that the contest would be held in Hebron, Nebraska, population under 2000.

We had no qualms about taking a half day off work to drive out 150 miles–after all, our Prius gets good gas mileage–and we were curious to see a small Nebraska town. This year, the speech contest theme was “The Greatest American Invention” (see details below):

School Speech Contest Details

Instructions for participants*

“An American Invention” is the topic for the 2011 School Speech Contest.

The United States of America is the birthplace of many great inventions. Students are asked to select one invention and discuss it in their speech.

In organizing their speeches, students can consider these questions:

What is the greatest invention in United States history and why?
Who is the American citizen(s) who created this great invention?
How did the invention positively impact American life? And how does it continue to improve the quality of life for people?

Students can use the questions above to help formulate ideas, but they should not be limited by the list.

Speeches must be at least three minutes and no longer than five minutes long. Speeches must be in the students’ own words. Complete rules are outlined in the contest organizer’s booklet.

Judging criteria
Contestants will be judged using the following 100-point system

40 points for material organization
This accounts for theme and subject adherence, structure, content, logic and color.

40 points for delivery and presentation
This includes voice, pronunciation, enunciation, gestures and poise.

20 points for overall effectiveness
This scores impression and effect.

We had already witnessed some so-so choices by children at the school competition level–“The Doughnut”, for example being weeded out (although the delivery was poor anyway). By the district competition, we were already exposed to some excellent themes and excellent content combined with sparkling deliveries. “The Teddy Bear” was a very polished speech that probably lost points for not being significant enough. Among the best speeches (that received 2nd and 3rd places and also went on to the State Championship) was a speech about “Smoke Detectors”, and a speech that I thought was outstanding: “The Atomic Bomb.” The latter, delivered by a 12 year old boy, was extremely compelling as he presented his case in an unusually mature and measured manner, not at all daunted by the enormous complexities of his chosen topic. His point, that “greatest” doesn’t necessarily mean “most wonderful,” was well taken.

Now to the absurd. The host school had 3 competing children. The school principal, who hosted the competition, introduced the judges–all three were local (teachers, etc.), and one was his sister-in-law of the principal. That seemed odd, but well, small town, small pool to choose from.

The speeches were mixed. There was a beautifully orated speech about “The Washing Machine”–well researched, excellent flow, and flawlessly presented. I assumed that although it was very strong, it might lose points for its ability to convince the judges of the “greatness” of the invention. There was a speech on “The Telephone,” but I thought is was weak in presentation, with the inital opening gimmick of starting the speech while pretending to be on the phone with a friend being far too long (over a minute of the 3-5 minutes allotted). There was “Facebook”, which I found weak compared to what I thought the speech would be about in the first place–the computer. “Cool Aid,” a local western Nebraska invention was ridiculous, in my view. There was a well delivered speech with fairly weak content (made a poor case) for “High Speed Stroboscopic Photography.” The young lady spoke very well, but I found it irrelevant to hear that she had spent a school field trip at a local museum devoted to this type of photography–it turns out that it was developed by a local Nebraskan from the town. The final speech, which was weakly delivered by a 14 year old boy, was about “Duct Tape.” Neither theme, content nor delivery were compelling, and my wife whispered to me (ah, the advantage of speaking Hebrew!) “That was the worst speech,” when it was done.

In the end (biased though I am), I could not help feeling that the 3 children from my daughter’s district were heads and shoulders above the rest. Imagine our astonishment when the principal announced the judges choices: First place: “Duct Tape,” and two other local children from the school in 2nd (“High Speed Stroboscopic Photography”) and 3rd place (“The Telephone”). As good sports, we clapped and applauded the winners. As we were leaving, a parent of the boy who discussed “The Atomic Bomb” said: “Duct Tape? How could the judges possibly send someone to represent Nebraska giving a mediocre speech on Duct Tape?”

Our daughter took it very well. She understands that in speech contests, statistics apply. There is a lot of subjectivity among the judges. Over the years, several times she has come in 2nd place in her school, but 1st place later in the district–proving subjectivity in these types of competitions. I fear, however, that she learned a more complex educational experience this time–sometimes no matter how hard one tries, things can be “rigged” against you. The only thing to do is to shrug it off, pick up the pieces, and go on fighting the next battle. And that, too–unfortunately–is a valuable lesson.

***For those of you who are interested, Mika has kindly agreed to make the audio (but not video) of her speech “The Blood Bank” available for Occam’s Typewriter readers (below)***

The Blood Bank- Nebraska State Speech Competition 2011



About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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5 Responses to “Rigged”- a complex educational experience

  1. Stephen says:

    Well, an important life lesson, I guess… hope your daughter keeps on speaking! (BTW the photo at the bottom didn’t display for me).

    And… just in case you’re interested, this is my off-spring speechifying last year. Her topic even less serious than duct tape. 😉

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_IH1HsBPwEU

    • Steve Caplan says:

      My daughter did not want her video shown, so I “blacked it out” for her…

      Corduroy- great topic! As for the contest here, “originality” was NOT one of the criteria being evaluated. Content, however, was supposed to be judged. So when the “Duct Tape” winner spent a precious 45 seconds of his speech to explain how the invention could be used by men to remove unwanted chest hair, I felt a deep sense of embarassment and shame that this speech would represent our state at a national competition. No wonder Nebraska has a name as being “somewhat behind” other parts of the country.

      Your daughter clearly has talent! I saw the other stand-up video sometime back- hilarious.
      I think our offspring put us to shame when it comes to public speaking–which is great.

  2. When I was in third grade or so I won a poetry “declamatory” contest reading Blake’s “The Tyger”. To this day I remember the other kids sniggering because I refused to complete the rhymed couplet “hand or eye” by pronouncing “symmetry” incorrectly. I think there is nothing more exposing than speaking in public! It’s good when kids get experience doing it.

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    There’s certainly nothing like standing up in front of a group of people and having to recite, speak, or sing in order to get one’s adrenaline flowing. However, I’ve come to the opinion that it’s worse to watch or listen to one’s students or children, because there was nothing that one can do to release the tension. The speaker, on the other hand, usually warms up and becomes confident after the first couple of sentences are uttered.

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