The Middle Ground

An NJHS officer gives his application speech virtually, explaining why he is the best candidate for treasurer.

An NJHS officer gives his application speech virtually, explaining why he is the best candidate for treasurer.

My language arts students met in “full face,” complete with smiles, at the beginning of the 2020–21 school year—albeit in grid view on a screen through a created and provided link. Several months later, we embarked upon our second meeting, this time in person! This one required us to wear face masks, which challenged our traditional means of communication—and brought about the realization of all that is heard and seen through our mouths: intonation and tone, frowns and smiles.

Public Speaking Redefined

As part of our adoption of a new language arts curriculum presented to students through a new conduit in Canvas (a course management system that supports online learning and teaching) last academic school year, the eighth graders in my class had several assignments that required audio and visual recordings. For these recordings, students were encouraged to fulfill the following requirements:

  • Show passion for the topic
  • Use applicable voice tone and intonation
  • Include facial expression
  • Incorporate academic word choice
  • Show evidence of rehearsal and reflection

The students committed themselves to showing emotion through ethos, pathos, and logos—the cornerstones of persuasive communication. The need to be seen and heard, sans masks, was indicative in these speaking arenas. Some of these spoken assignments were embedded in the Canvas program as “discussion boards,” through which peers in the same language arts class were required to watch and listen to two classmates and provide constructive feedback to the speakers. Though a seemingly daunting task for the middle level student, I believe this exercise was a most fitting adaptation in the times of virtual learning.

Thoughtful student peer responses left on the discussion boards looked like this:

I really like the use of the timeline in your video; it helped me better understand the time periods of the war.

Looks like you put lots of time and effort into this.

I thought it was cool in the beginning when you both talked in sync.

Wow, Hayden, I love your creative idea on writing/drawing in the video! It really helped me stay interested and understand what is going on in your documentary. Good job!

As the year progressed and the students matured, they held themselves to improved, higher performance standards. I was granted permission to share exemplars with all classes from these high-level communicators, and on the whole, the student recordings were elevated as a result! Students were expected to incorporate visuals in the way of manipulatives, charts, and graphs. We explored the different avenues of creating infographics (in a virtual Friday lesson), and some technologically advanced students incorporated these into their presentations. Students even created TED Talks as an assignment to highlight a social issue about which they felt most passionate. They shared researched material as well as their own experiences or viewpoints on the topic.

Though one might think that these recordings were a lesser compromise of an in-person presentation, as an educator for 26 years, I found them to be the opposite. They upped the ante of what the kids—typically awkward, often insecure/shy middle level students—could actually compose to express their thoughts, feelings, and aptitude in “showing what they know.” In fact, this format promulgated a breakthrough that resulted in many individuals turning in an assignment that they otherwise might not have done outside of a virtual setting.

As another piece of building public speaking skills, my students participated in debates after a virtual visit with a local college debate professor in what was a culminating classroom experience in May. Couple that end-of-year timing with the students’ formative recordings and the product was a confident, formal discussion of well prepared, well defended, and—most importantly—controlled arguments with the aforementioned key elements (pathos, ethos, and logos) included for the “win” in persuasion.

NJHS Overcomes Communication Barriers

Also as part of the digital communication puzzle, I had to consider what to do with my NJHS chapter, a membership of 40 returning eighth graders who were eager to serve. I began the school year with a Zoom meeting with my officers from the previous year who had attended the LEAD Conference in Chicago with me and had presented there as well.

These officers suggested I take video submissions from NJHS members wanting to run for office this school year. They knew how much it meant to serve in this capacity for their beloved NJHS and wanted this opportunity for others. As a result of their prompting and encouragement, I requested that those interested in running for officer positions submit a recording of their appeal for votes from the general membership. Then, we could post these videos for the other members to cast their educated votes based on these speeches/appeals.

Thanks to their videos, we found some of the best, most sincerely servant-minded officers in the history of our chapter.

This focus on virtual public speaking throughout the year rolled on to include a virtual induction ceremony. Screens were shared for all 113 inductees (an exceptionally banner year), and all officer-elects played their important leadership roles in honoring the pillars of this great organization while welcoming these new movers and shakers—these future speakers—into the fold.

After this past year, our hybrid system of learning has not proven to be detrimental in the realm of public speaking; rather, it has become an encouraging story of successful adaptation. —


Amy Krueger is an eighth grade language arts teacher and NJHS adviser at Rockwood South Middle School in Fenton, MO. She was also named the 2019 NJHS Rynearson Adviser of the Year.