Fifth-graders get over the public speaking fear

As comedian Jerry Seinfeld once pointed out, the fear of public speaking is so intense that most people giving a eulogy would rather be in the casket than standing in front of an audience. Yet the ability to speak effectively, be it before a crowd or a conference table, is highly prized by employers.

Fifth graders at High Point Elementary in Sandy Springs are starting to hone those skills by competing in an annual oratorical competition sponsored by the North Perimeter Optimist International club. But it’s still hard, said 11-year-old Wyatt Bardin.

“At first, I didn’t want to do it,” he admitted. “But my sister did it twice when she was at High Point, and my parents encouraged me. Even then, I didn’t want to do it.”

Bardin stuck with it, and after writing a four- to five-minute speech around the topic of optimism and practicing it to perfection, his attitude shifted. “After getting the hang of it, it was really fun,” he said.

Early intervention teacher Lori Simon saw the value of such an exercise 13 years ago when she was teaching fifth grade.

“At the time, there were maybe three or four students doing it,” said Simon. “But we grew to having about 30 participate, and we’ve now limited it just to any fifth grader who wants to do it.”

For most of those 13 years, High Point students have moved on to compete against other area elementary and middle schools, and some have gone to the state finals where the participants include high schoolers. This year, 12 students composed and delivered speeches that involved combining vocal techniques and hand gestures. The preparation takes place during school hours to give all students a chance to work on the project and to get some one-on-one coaching from teachers who volunteer their time.

“I tell them it’s like a one-man show: You have the stage for four to five minutes, and it’s your time,” said Simon. “They learn confidence, how to make eye contact, how to get their thoughts together and how to speak to other people with meaning. They also learn where to move to make an impact and how to make eye contact.”

Bardin got some practice by reciting his speech in front of his class and fellow competitors.

“I talked about how optimism can be very different from reality, but at the same time, very similar,” he said. “After doing it once, it turned out to be fun.”

Fellow fifth grader Latham Minns also found the fun in the process.

“I think I got stronger speaking to strangers; it’s now easier to speak to people then it was before,” he said. “When I got close to four minutes, my friends would push me and boost my confidence. I remember when practicing, I forgot part of my speech, and my friends would remind me of what words I was missing and suggest hand gestures for me to do. It got me closer to my friends.”

The two students finished at the top of the school’s competition and acquired a lifetime skill, said Simon.

“Whether it’s middle school, high school, college or life, they’ll use theses skills for the rest of their lives. And when parents see their own children with a skill they don’t have, they see how important it is, too. At the end, something magical happens: They can do it, and the experience becomes so worthwhile, they want to do it again. It doesn’t need to be scary at all.”

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