Submitted by Margo McKenzie, Founder of giftofletters.com
Ten contestants competed in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Oratory Contest at the Ronald Edmonds Learning Center 113 in Fort Greene on Thursday, February 15, 2017. Principal Ms. D. Daughtry welcomed an enthusiastic, expectant audience of students, teachers and parents after which sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders wielded their way through various speeches Martin Luther King had delivered.
Contrary to last year, early arrival and front-row seating ensured that parent Sandra Prichard would not miss her daughter’s participation in what the principal coined, “This special moment on the school’s calendar.”
Courageous Nashali Arias broke the ice as the first contestant reciting King’s “Speech to Young People” (Part 2). Eight additional contestants followed her in the following order: Giana Ospina, “The Length of Life”; Anastasia Olive, “I Have a Dream”(Part 1); Jasmine Godfrey, “I Have a Dream” (Part 3); Nicholas Lodge, “I Have a Dream” (Part 4); Nahliyah Willis, “A Drum Major For Justice”; Tyarie Knight, “A Sermon on Peace”; Allen Arias, “Stand Up for Righteousness”; and Amanda Brown, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
Students watched a video on King’s life and legacy while judges calculated their scores.
In addition to commemorating Dr. King and his oratory, public schoolteacher Ms. Priscilla Edwards, founder and advisor to the more-than-thirty-year-old oratory contest at the school, honored Mr. Robert Smalls with a short biography in the program. Smalls freed himself from slavery and was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives  where he “authorized legislation that created the first free and compulsory public school system in America.” In an atmosphere where public schools are under attack, Edwards felt compelled to remember a man who fought for public education for all in South Carolina. After all, “presidents, lawyers, doctors, ambassadors and teachers” came through public schools.
Why toil with children to memorize and recite when you have a full teaching load? Observing student growth from the first day of preparation to the day of competition is a satisfying reward. “They all go away more confident.” Seventh-grader Giana Ospina pushed herself to participate because memorizing this speech “builds up my stamina to understand more sophisticated words.”
Do you utilize any specific strategies? Nahliyah Willis said, “We just have to recite the speech as if we are Dr. King ourselves.”
Other oratory contests inspire students in middle school and high school to hone their oratory skills. Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt are a few oratory competitions still open to contestants this year. These contests motivate students to develop one of the most important skills needed for success in life: communication. According to Forbes’ website, Warren Buffett maintains, “Communication will instantly raise a person’s professional value.” Thousands of adults who realize the value of the skill join public speaking organizations.
For the King contest, judges scored each speech using a rubric of five critical public speaking categories: eye contact, confidence, voice, delivery and enunciation—basic requirements for communication on any level. The anxiety of preparation caused a few students to recoil from the challenge. However, if students take advantage of people such as Ms. Edwards, they will not cave into the “emotional pressure” that the competition can create, said eighth-grader Tyarie Knight.
This is the second year 7th-grader Nicholas heard about the contest, but last year he “didn’t feel ready. Some people get a calling. It wasn’t my calling last year. This year, I realized when the opportunity comes, you must take it.” Nicholas rose to the challenge and shared second place with Tyarie.
Four students walked away with trophies but Ms. Edwards honors all participants with dinner. Last year, students opted for Dallas BBQ, followed by a tour of Manhattan. Once Edwards presents three choices, students will exercise their voices, yet again, by casting their votes for the site of this year’s celebration.