One of the several unpopular assignments I force upon my students is the Sophomore Speech. I am capitalizing Sophomore Speech because it has become a thing at our school … a proper thing. Every single one of my 10th grade students is required to write a personal essay and convert it into a speech to be delivered in front of the entire school during our assembly period we call Break.
The word speech has fallen out of fashion these days. It’s much cooler to give a talk than a speech, but talk doesn’t alliterate with sophomore. I guess I could have called them 10th Grade Talks, but as I said, the Sophomore Speech is a thing, so I’m going with it.
Of course, I don’t win many votes for Most Popular Teacher of the Year when I announce this assignment to my students. Most members of our species tend to avoid public speaking whenever possible, and you won’t be surprised to hear that some students consider this the waterboard of English assignments.
“Mr. Brookhouser, I really need to get out of this. I am about to throw up thinking about it.” I reassure students that we work up to the speech with baby steps, and I remind them that Mrs. Rees, the incredible 9th grade English teacher at York, has done an amazing job getting them ready. While I have seen tears shed as a result of this assignment, I’ve yet to see any vomit. I’m ready, though. Our bleach supply is ample.
I tell my students that I want them to be very powerful people. I don’t mean that they should all aspire to be CEOs or senators. I’m talking about influence, not status. I’m sure there are many people doing great things and making the world a better place without ever having to speak to groups of people. I’ve just never heard of them. Few people in power get out of public speaking. After my class is over, my students will have the choice to avoid ever having to speak in front of a large group again. I just don’t want them to reject that opportunity without knowing that they’re actually capable of doing it. When they embrace the opportunity, they embrace power.
It would also be great if they used that power for good and not evil.
Last time I was invited to the Googleplex, an engineer introduced me to the notion of “eating your own dog food.” Maybe the phrase came from Alpo advertisers who claimed that their product was so good that they enjoyed it themselves. Regardless, tech companies started using the phrase to suggest that either the software they were developing was good enough for them to use themselves or it was not, and if not, they shouldn’t make it at all.
When I give trainings, many people ask me about the security of data in Google Drive or Gmail. I tell them what Googlers tell me. Google employees are super concerned about their internal communications getting compromised. They use Google Drive. They use Gmail. They believe in their product. They eat their own dog food.
Teachers produce products too. We create lesson plans, assessments, and grades and comments at the end of the year, but the most important products we make are experiences that lead to growth.
Hearing about dog food at Google led me to ask how much of my dog food experiences I’m consuming. If speaking in front of large groups of people is such a worthwhile experience, why don’t I do it more frequently. It’s true that I do speak in front of my students daily, and I also give tech trainings to teachers throughout the year, but I wouldn’t call them speeches.
So last winter, I came across a post on the TEDx Monterey site accepting TED Talk proposals (note the alliteration in TED Talk). So I applied to talk about the 20% Project in my class.
A few weeks later I heard back from the organizers who wanted to learn more about the project, so we had a video conference over a Hangout. Bob and Eva, I learned soon after
meeting them, are ultra organized, super smart, and wildly creative. They asked me to explain what the 20% Project is and why I do it.
I was ready for this question. I went with great depth into the studies about creativity and motivation and Google and Daniel Pink and The Candle Problem and carrots and sticks and autonomy and mastery and purpose and science! After about 10 minutes of this, Eva cut me off. “Kevin, we all know about this stuff. We want to know why you decided to take on this project and how it looks in your classroom.”
“Oh. Right.” I was not ready for this question.
She wanted me to tell a story, not lecture on pedagogy. Eva asked me to do exactly what I ask my students when writing their personal speeches. Dog food.
I guess I explained my story well enough for Eva and Bob to give me a chance at writing a proper piece that people would actually want to hear because they let me move on to the next step.
So I wrote and rewrote. I devoured honest feedback from friends and colleagues. Through the process, I kept going into theory, and Eva kept reminding me to go back to story.
Then I practiced. In front of the mirror, in front of my dogs, in front of the homeless men on the streets of Santa Cruz.
With my microphone scotch taped to my ear and cheek, I was two eternal minutes away from taking the stage. My wife sat in the audience with students, parents of students, fellow teachers, and I was pretty sure I would stand up there and forget how to get my mouth and tongue to make so many different sounds. I wondered how much I would owe TEDx if vomit ruined the mic.
I paced the “green room” while Ailis Dooner, the 10th grader who has pretty much single-handedly discovered that algae can cure cancer, eyed me. She was scheduled to follow me and asked me how I was doing. “I’m a little nervous, but I think I’ll be ok,” I lied. She knew it. Then Ailis looked me in the eye, and with the fierce commitment of a prized gladiator owner, she said, “Adrenaline focuses the mind.”
I didn’t forget everything. My mouth worked. I showed my slides. People clapped.
I’m pretty sure I now have a little better understanding of what it’s like to be one of my students. I’m reminded about how scary this assignment can be, but I still don’t fully understand it. I’m a grown-up who has lots of experience talking in front of large groups of people, I don’t consider myself someone who is particularly afraid of the job, and I’ve never been told that some grade depended on my willingness to go through with it. But I feel more empathy for them, and I hope that will allow me to support them more next year.
It may not be the exact same vintage my students eat, but I ate my dog food this past weekend, and I’m proud to announce, it stayed down.