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Reviving the Art of Public Speaking: AP US History Students Collaborate to Compete in Oratory Competition


Reviving the Art of Public Speaking: AP US History Students Collaborate to Compete in Oratory Competition
Erin Piemontesi

by Sara Walsh

Keshav Sivakumar, '23, experienced a meaningful surprise while recently walking through the Lincoln Memorial with his family on a visit from India. Sharing the moment with his teacher Rose Eberhardt, he recalled turning to his mother and saying, “Mom–that’s my line! It’s in the wall!” 

Keshav was referring to the wall engraved with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, in particular, the words Eberhardt had assigned him to perform in his AP US History class for the Ford Theatre’s Online Oratory competition.     

Earlier this year, Keshav and his classmates analyzed, memorized, and recited either Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1948 Address to the United Nations or Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Competing with 30 other schools nationwide, the students took part in the online competition, which pairs a teaching artist from Ford’s Theatre with the class, offering guidance for preparing and performing the speeches. 

Eberhardt signed the class up for multiple reasons, in addition to the old-fashioned thrill of competition. The opportunity provided a new way to prepare for the upcoming AP US History exams in May. In fact, the Ford program aligns with AP’s assessment of documents, where students are tested on critically considering excerpts for rhetorical devices, tone, background knowledge, intended audience, and purpose; here, they had the extra benefit of practicing oratory skills. Shaking her head at the general tendency today to rely on sound bites for information, Eberhardt recognizes and is doing her part to draw attention back to the art of public speaking, popular interest in which, she notes, has “lulled.” 

Through the project, the students also deeply considered content that was elegantly crafted and  steeped in calls for dignity, courage, and kindness. In the case of Roosevelt, the class learned of her fear of speaking and her self-doubt. They also read of how she overcame her anxiety, buoyed by the tenacity of her belief that the future must include human rights guarantees. Lincoln’s speech, too, offered guidance on character; in Eberhardt’s opinion, it is the best inaugural address in American history. She points particularly to his use of a Euclidean Geometric structure, with clauses of “if this, then that,” followed by “therefore.” The solution for Lincoln–his “therefore”--is universal magnanimity. Eberhardt herself reverently recites Lincoln’s words “With malice toward none with charity for all” from memory and is visibly stirred by his message: “That’s his solution to the whole geometric problem–we all need to be kind.’”

In preparation for the recorded speech, Ford Theatre’s teaching artist Victoria Reinsel visited the class on three occasions, offering specific instruction regarding intonation, cadence, and pacing. She individually addressed each of the nine students’ deliveries, and the classmates listened to one another’s feedback. Eberhardt was moved by their genuine engagement: “They were quick to adjust their lines–remarkably. It was brave of them to do [the competition]. I was asking a lot, and they did it well.” 

The process was collaborative throughout, with the students supporting each other during their recitation practice and even devising a novel way to produce the video montage of the speech. On account of conflicting schedules of ballet, golf, and soccer obligations, the group had difficulty meeting at the same time. Yuna Chenette (‘24) suggested they speak to Jaymes Dec, her computer programming teacher. Dec asked each student to record their lines, leaving space at the start and end to allow for a smooth transition. Eberhardt gathered and numbered each of the nine sections, and Yuna and Dec worked to compile it. Each video is an individual one, but compressed together to look like the group was present as one class. 

In addition to making for a more meaningful trip to D.C, Keshav recognizes the lasting effect of this work. He shares, “A project like this–I think more than homework–ingrains the lesson in my mind. The memory is really strong, so it helps me remember key concepts, themes and ideas that I need.”

Certainly, too, the experience emphasized the value of the spoken word on history–an essential lesson for this group of students who will remember these historic leaders’ words as they move onward, rising up to their futures with courage and kindness. 

Listen here for the AP US History’s class recitation of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural by Nara Jung, Pasha Levy, Tucker Rothman Uhrich, Keshav Sivakumar, Andrew Ena, Nicholas Mekhael, Yuna Chenette, Jordan Levitt, and Anna Shumway.