Recently our school celebrated what we call the Night of Recitation. It is a twenty year old tradition that has a different theme each year. Imagine every class from Junior Kindergarten to the Seniors performing a short skit or reciting some piece of excellent prose or poetry—and not only every class, but every student in every class. Why do we do it? Why do we ask our students to recite in public? Recitation is a valuable and important aspect of a classical education. It helps students develop excellent rhetorical skills, it gives them almost immediate feedback on their hard work, and it challenges their fear of speaking in public.
Develops Rhetorical Skills
Rhetoric is a huge part of any good classical education. At Trinitas we teach formal classes in rhetoric beginning in the tenth grade, but training in rhetoric skills begins in Junior Kindergarten and continues through graduation. Part of the vision for our graduates is that they would articulate precisely and reason persuasively—those things take training over time. The Night of Recitation is one important aspect of that training. In preparation for the Night of Recitation, teachers assign parts to all students a few weeks ahead of the big night. A first grader may get only a few lines of an excellent poem while a ninth grader may be asked to memorize twenty or more lines of prose. But the memorization is the easy part.
Teachers actually teach the piece the students are performing so that the students gain a thorough understanding of the point they must get across to the audience. Teachers then work with the students on the stage several times each week on such things as enunciation, diction, and inflection so they do get the right point across to the audience. The recitations often include dialogue between students on stage so that each student must pull his weight well to properly communicate the piece to the audience. If one student’s inflection is wrong on a keyword, he will have made the rest of the class’s work null. No pressure!
All of this preparation is great for the big night, but it also gives teachers a touchstone from which to work for all sorts of other rhetorical exercises during a student’s academic career. The touchstone is no less valuable for the student, who can recall his lessons in preparation for the Night of Recitation and apply it in the delivery of a speech or in a college or job interview.
Provides Immediate Feedback
Few areas of study offer feedback as immediately as preparing and performing a recitation. With recitation, teachers are able to model just what they’re after by speaking the piece for the student. The student can mimic the teacher and practice that with repetitions until he has it perfect. The student can hear for himself right away the difference the change in inflection or intonation makes. Video comes in handy too. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and I have seen students learn in an instant from watching themselves on video what it might have taken days to teach them otherwise.
This kind of feedback builds the teacher/student relationship because as the student puts into practice what the teacher asks him for, he can see the results—he can see his teacher was steering him right. Similarly, on the stage for the big night students often perform based on the feedback of the crowd. When a certain way of presenting or an intentional mannerism is funny to the crowd, the students learn to play it up, adjusting their performance to the feedback of the crowd. That is just good rhetoric at work and it is the kind of experience that quickly builds confidence in students because they can immediately see the reward for their effort.
Challenges Fear of Public Speaking
I once heard that the widest spread fear in the world is the fear of speaking in public. I’m not sure that is true, but I do know it is a big concern for many parents who consider bringing their children to our school. They see how much speaking our students do and fear their children cannot do the same. I am happy to report that no Trinitas student has ever run off the Night of Recitation stage screaming or melted into a puddle during the performance. Our children are often capable of so much more than we think!
The best way to overcome fear of speaking in public is to speak in public. Our students get lots of opportunities to do it, and Night of Recitation is by far the grandest. We find our students well prepared on that night. Nervous? Yes, but not afraid. And that is even true for the “shy” students who arrive at our school peeking from behind their parents’ legs. By the time that night comes around, they will have practiced so well that they know not just their own part but their classmates’ parts too, and I daresay even the most nervous among them exudes confidence.
Of course it is not uncommon for someone to forget a line at Night of Recitation, but that is the beauty of a classically trained mind—they are able to get back on track without help, or their classmates make a quick adjustment and carry the show forward. That’s a pretty amazing thing to see, especially when it’s third or fourth graders doing it. Their familiarity with their pieces and the support of their classmates are just the sort of things to make them successful and help them lose the fear of public speaking.
The Night of Recitation may be the biggest night for our students to display their rhetoric skills, but it is one performance among many smaller ones Trinitas students experience in their day-to-day academic work. This work helps our students learn to articulate precisely and reason persuasively. Every adult finds himself or herself in interactions that either feel like or actually are public performances. Even an impromptu conversation in a staff meeting could turn into an opportunity to use speaking (rhetoric) skills to strengthen an argument. That opportunity to tell someone about the Gospel will at the very least require us to be winsome and to speak precisely. At Trinitas, we aim to find our students well prepared for all those situations and more, and part of preparing them is having them recite on the public stage.