by Claudia Sherman, for Friedel Jewish Academy
In 1948, Modern Woodmen of America, the nation’s third largest (based on assets) fraternal benefit society, developed a speech contest to offer young students an opportunity to develop skills in clear thinking and public speaking. Today, according to the organization’s website, the contest “is an important event in schools across the nation.”
And since 1989, Friedel Jewish Academy has been participating in the speech contest. There are plaques on the wall in the school’s fifth/sixth grade classroom to signify the school’s involvement in the contest for the past 26 years.
“It was my first year here,” said Denise Bennett, Friedel’s fifth and sixth grade general studies teacher, “and I jumped at the chance to participate. I think public speaking is an important talent to develop plus most of these students go on to have Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. This is great practice for those events.”
Fourteen Friedel students including fifth graders Daniel Denenberg, Becca Denenberg, David Kay, Abby Kohll, Rachel Kricsfeld, Leora McNamara, Matan Shapiro, Gavin Smith, Almog Zinman, and sixth graders Rachel Aoki, Sarah Aoki, Zoe Berman, Destiny Howard, and Doron Margalit delivered their speeches on March 13 in a crowded school commons area filled with the student body, speakers’ parents, grandparents and other relatives, neighbors, and rabbis of the speakers. “An audience of 50 or so is plenty intimidating,” acknowledged Bennett who doesn’t want an audience’s size to be “too scary” for her speakers.
This year’s speech contest theme, chosen by Modern Woodmen for fifth through eighth graders, was “The importance of healthy living.” Topics in the past have “usually had some kind of historical or civic slant to them,” such as ‘My state,’ ‘A person who has overcome,’ ‘An important American landmark,’ and ‘An American invention,’” Bennett said. Speech length is three to five minutes, and students are not allowed to wear costumes, special clothes, or use visuals or props.
Bennett requires her students to write and rehearse a speech, although she doesn’t force them to compete in the contest. “The students do the writing themselves though they are free to get advice from classmates, parents, and me,” she explained. “We work together on revisions and making the speeches clear and smooth. Once the speeches are written, we do a lot of practice in front of each other here at school.” She announces the topic in the fall and advises her students to consider the possibilities. In January, she encourages the youngsters to begin writing. By February, “We officially begin, and they receive planning pages to help them organize. I give talks about how to effectively begin and end speeches and how to transition during a speech.” After working on the speeches for several weeks, the students focus on presenting the culmination of their work.
Many of the students read their speeches or at least refer to them as they speak. Those who progress to district and state levels, however, must memorize their presentations.
“Participants learn skills that will help with school projects, job interviews, and even careers,” according to Modern Woodmen. Students also gain new public speaking skills, fine-tune existing English skills, and enhance self-esteem.
Bennett added that the “contest gives students experience with research, organization, and effective writing techniques. It helps their reading skills and oral fluency, and it builds confidence,” she emphasized. Former students have told Bennett that the contest gave them confidence for their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs and for their public speaking classes in high school and college, and it helped them in their chosen careers.
Modern Woodmen provides three trophies for the top three speakers at each school, pins for the other speakers, and certificates for all. The top three speakers’ names are added to the school plaque at Friedel.
Judges for the Friedel contest are selected by Bennett. She’s asked former students who are in speech classes in high school or college, business people, librarians/teachers, lawyers, writers, and actors. “I try to find people who know firsthand the value of public speaking,” she said. This year’s judges were Nancy Rips, Jan Fischer, and John Rosman. Contestants are judged by how well their material is organized, delivered and presented, and for overall effectiveness.
This year’s top two speakers, Daniel Denenberg and Rachel Kricsfeld, will go on to the district competition which usually includes six or seven schools. Friedel has hosted the district competition three out of the past four years,” Bennett noted. The top two speakers from districts go on to state/regional competition which selects one champion whose speech is videotaped and sent to nationals. Judges from Modern Woodmen’s national headquarters in Illinois choose the top winners.
Three Friedel students have won the state contest: Jacob Katzman in 1994, Elissa Wiener in 2008, and Sarah Kutler in 2009.
Participants learn “that even though they may be really nervous, they can do this and succeed,” pointed out Bennett. “They usually feel really relieved and proud when it’s finished. It’s a very memorable experience!”