In one level, Rhetoric II is a class like any other at Regents School of Austin. It meets four days a week for 55 minutes. It requires homework, participation, and demonstrated learning. It earns 1.0 credits toward a student’s graduation requirements. On his final transcript, it shows up as a single line with a number and a grade posted next to it. But every Regents School graduate knows that this description does not do this course justice whatsoever. Rhetoric II—the Senior Thesis—was always intended to be more than just the last requirement of a senior course, and it indeed is.
For the last ten years the senior thesis has been a requirement for graduation at Regents. Seniors must select a topic for their thesis that is both researchable and debatable, and faculty have the final say in approving students’ topics. Seniors must deliver their thesis in a public forum in front of a panel of judges. The students’ speeches are between 17-22 minutes in length, followed by a rigorous round of 20 minutes of Q & A. This Q & A session weighs heavily in determining the final grade. Students are only permitted two sheets of paper (8 1⁄2 x 11, front side only) when presenting their theses.
Each student is paired with a faculty advisor who mentors the student throughout the thesis process by interacting with the student’s research and written work. The advisor also helps the student prepare for the Q & A portion of the presentation and serves on the judging panel. Each presentation is recorded on DVD and stored, along with the written text, in Regents’ library. We believe that these presentations are the culmination of each student’s education at Regents.
Students prepare an annotated bibliography early in their research, gathering reputable sources for both sides of their issue. This process prepares the students for the more rigorous research method that they will face at the collegiate level and presses them into defending their sources.
Prior to the thesis presentations, students present in class an anti-thesis. These enable the students to honestly consider the opponents’ perspectives and compel them to dig more deeply into the research. Regents gives an annual Senior Thesis Award at graduation based on evaluations from the course instructor, judges, and other faculty.
Since Regents is a Christian school, students consider the spiritual aspects of their topics. Some topics naturally lend themselves to a spiritual bent, but others do not. We challenge the students to consider how their topics have been shaped by man’s sinfulness, by man’s redemption (or lack thereof), and what scripture may relate to their topics.
Quintilian said, “A rhetor is a good man speaking well,” so we spend significant time on delivery. Our students must be able to speak well so others will want to listen. Throughout the year, students practice speaking in front of their classes, honing specific delivery skills. Every student participates, there are no exceptions. The teacher offers immediate feedback. This brief assessment should be both positive and constructive. The rhetoric teachers try to make these days fun and entertaining because mastering difficult concepts, such as movement, can be frustrating for students. By keeping the class lighthearted, students are much more willing to address these more challenging issues and begin to lose their fear of standing in front of an audience.
Students who complete a thesis at Regents know that they have done something substantive and difficult. We believe they have begun mastering the art of persuasion, thereby preparing them for college and beyond.
Listed below are a few of the activities that we use at Regents to help our students improve their public speaking skills.
Bad-Habits Activity – An important first step in speaking well is identifying problems in students’ presentations. For this activity, the teacher lists specific bad habits (e.g., saying “uh”, leaning on the podium, and playing with clothing) on note cards and hands these cards out to students. Each student also receives a paper with a paragraph to read at the podium. One-by-one, the students must stand at the front of the class and read their paragraph while exhibiting the bad habit. After giving the speaker a moment to demonstrate it, members of the audience try to guess the offending trait. This fun activity permits students to look ridiculous as long as everyone looks equally ridiculous.
Psalms Activity – The teacher identifies various portions of the Psalms that lend themselves to passionate or angry pleas. These verses are randomly distributed to the class. Students must display the appropriate emotion in a believable manner. Some students are much more capable than others at expressing the designated emotion. We have discovered that a sincere interaction with this activity can be a beautiful demonstration of religious affections.
Gesture Activity – After providing basic instruction on gesturing, the teacher selects short paragraphs of great speeches from J.F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Winston Churchill, etc. (see www.americanrhetoric.com for a collection of great speeches) and asks the students to consider how they would incorporate gestures into their speech. The students must then deliver their paragraph using the appropriate gestures. Immediate feedback is especially important to the success of this activity. An alternative gesture activity is to watch video clips of presidential debates and evaluate the various speakers’ mannerisms.
Eye-Contact Activity – Each student is given a clicker. These clickers make an annoying sound. The teacher asks a student to go to the front of the room and speak on a topic that he knows well and can talk about comfortably. Once the student begins, the audience members begin clicking their clickers. The speaker must make sustained eye contact with each member of the class. When the speaker accomplishes this, the person he is looking at should stop clicking. If the speaker looks up at the ceiling or down at the floor or away from the audience in some way, all clickers resume. When the speaker has made meaningful eye contact with everyone in the classroom, all clicking should have stopped and only then is the speaker finished.
The Dreaded Cowbell Activity – Because we want our students to avoid certain words (e.g., uh, um, well, like, you know) when answering questions from the judges, they need to be alerted when they lapse into saying them. For this activity, the teacher brings a loud cowbell to class. The students must answer classmates’ questions about their thesis. When the speaker utters any of the banned words from our list, the teacher rings the cowbell LOUDLY. Regents’ rhetoric classes do this activity near the time of the actual thesis presentation. Although students hate this day, it works wonders.
Regents’ faculty have many more activities that refine students’ presentation skills. All in all, though, whether speaking or writing, excellence is expected.