“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning”
– Maya Angelou
I can remember with great clarity the moments in my young life when I had to speak in front of a group for the first time. It took so much courage to stand before adults and peers and play a witch in third grade. I can barely remember the “before” of that moment, however, and how scared I must have been. What has stayed with me is the exhilaration I felt when it was over and I heard from my parents and friends that I was convincing as a mean and terrible witch! I felt a kind of power that I would work to cultivate and hold in my growing self over many more years.
Recently, students in Grades 4 and 5 prepared speeches as part of their campaigns to hold offices in our student government at Grace. The lead-up to this time of year often takes me back to my own moments as a student when I too had to find the courage to speak. Each year more than a dozen students prepare posters and work on written remarks that will be shared in an assembly with their classmates in Grades 2-5. They are all quite remarkable to hear. Each student offers ideas for making Grace a stronger school and bake sales tend to be a common initiative. But what you also hear in these testimonies are a reflection of what matters at Grace: kindness, helping others, and offering leadership that is thoughtful, representative, and compassionate. It is one of the most mission-affirming days of the year.
This year, we had one candidate for secretary who has been a student at Grace since Kindergarten. Limited in speech and mobility but not spirit, Ali delivered her remarks with the assistance of her iPad and a voice device which we were able to connect to our sound system. She has delivered prayers in chapel with this device before and performed in plays with her classmates. While the voice is automated, Ali’s facial expressions when she listens to her own words convey her emotion behind the sentences. She can even be seen laughing at some of her own jokes. In her student council speech, Ali shared, “I am strong. I am powerful. I am smart. That is why I want to be secretary.” A core message of her speech was: “Do not underestimate me because of my disability.” Our community was overjoyed when Ali was announced as the winner for secretary. She had delivered her message and been heard.
Listening to Ali and her peers last week, it struck me that Grace is committed to making spoken communication a central learning focus for students when they are at Grace. Called “oracy” in Great Britain, it’s the art of spoken expression. We recognize that communication, as one of the 5 C’s of 21st century teaching and learning, will be increasingly central to the success of our young students when they go on to have speaking opportunities in secondary school, when they interview for colleges, and ultimately when they are seeking jobs in the workforce. Beyond that, strong oracy allows us to be heard and understood, and there are few greater needs as humans than to feel like others know and understand what we are saying.
At Grace, we work to create a trajectory of opportunities that encourage and teach children to speak and communicate effectively — with each other, with adults, to a crowd. Beginning when students are in Kindergarten at Grace, each class is invited to offer personal prayers in connection to the week’s homily in Chapel. Gathered in the company of their close-knit community, Grace students put their hearts into these prayers. They are a chance to offer up an intention to God at the same time that they create space for practicing using a microphone and delivering a message. As an Episcopal School, we often talk about our “calling” in life, and we hope that praying in chapel is a time when our students can feel called to speak their hearts to their community.
The process of finding our voices, of course, starts much earlier than Kindergarten — as anyone who has ever met a preschooler knows. We have seen the depth of frustration that unfolds for our youngest students who cannot find their words, who cannot express their needs and wants.
Our early childhood curriculum is designed to give our youngest students practice in expressing their needs, thoughts, and feelings in clear ways within a supportive classroom. Through daily circle time, and in structured and unstructured play, our talented teachers work with our three and four year olds as they learn how to ask for what they need, to share out loud during circle time, and to play collaboratively and even resolve conflicts with friends.
The parent of a prekindergarten student recently shared her experience during a parent-teacher conference about her daughter. The teachers, she wrote,
“. . . talked about raising strong girls who are not only smart but courageous enough to be smart as well as voice their needs and wants with authority. Their goal for [our daughter] had nothing to do with what she can do with a pencil and paper but 100% on how to mold her for the world to not just thrive but really excel. I was floored. Their goal wasn’t just for the 180 days of the school year; it was 180 days plus 30 years. This is family. They care beyond their jobs.”
As a school that welcomes children for their first real school experience and takes seriously the project of preparing them for a future we cannot predict, we value the time we invest in helping our students to build their confidence and agency through speaking and presenting their ideas and their prayers. We want to make space and create an ongoing practice where they can speak their truth and gain comfort with their oracy skills. Just as student council speeches are a testament to our students’ growing “voices,” so is the final chapel of the year when our Grade 5 students pray their prayers of gratitude for the school that has shown them grace, and helped them to find purpose and self in that moment of truth telling. And these prayers are a final and proud realization of their journey to finding a voice.
About the Author
Jennifer S. Danish was appointed Head of School at Grace Episcopal Day School in Kensington, MD in 2016. Her twenty-four-year career in independent schools includes both teaching and administrative experience. At St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School, Jen served as the Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, Interim Head of Lower School, and Assistant Head of School for Enrollment, Communications, and Marketing.