Standing behind a lectern, I was giving my first public speech. I was so nervous and anxious that I used my hands frantically to convey emotions and then, bam!-I hit the microphone with my hand. The entire audience of American strangers laughed. That was my first public speaking experience.
All this started when I was an exchange student in the United States. Once, my teacher suggested to participate in a speech contest. Competing against high school students from all over Chicago, I rose up to the top ten. That was when I started thinking about why did I have an opportunity like this in the US, but not in Armenia? I recall my high school experiences; in all of the five schools I attended, there was no acceptance of any deviation from the dogmatic definitions in textbooks. With a few exceptions, most of my teachers would directly tell me I was wrong every time I interpreted or paraphrased a definition or a concept.
I would not have my skills if it were not for that experience in the US.. More importantly, it has revealed to me two important truths that I live with till today: opportunities are a right, not a privilege and it is not about teaching what to say, but teaching how to say.
Democracy is built on the basis of free discourse, debate, and expression. The Ancient Greeks would gather and discuss the issues that concerned their cities at agoras. The whole idea of education is based on the tradition of the seven Greek arts- one of them happens to be rhetoric. If so, how is it that we note the importance of teaching our children geometry, grammar, math, and even singing, but often ignore the essential pillar of democracy that is rhetoric? Is it because we do not want citizens who can speak up, critique, and raise their concerns?
From my perspective, there are effective ways to solve this crisis and one of them is the creation of nationwide network of public speaking and communication clubs at the majority of high schools in Armenia. Three basic steps that should be undertaken are:
- A team of independent experts from the fields of formal and non-formal education, communication, and rhetoric should draft a test club plan.
- An implementation of the plan in sample schools of different regions
- Performance reports should be filed for later analysis, according to which the plan should be edited, and a new “first season” of public speaking club networks should be placed in Armenian high schools.
Having myself managed a public speaking club, “The King’s Speech” at the American University of Armenia, I have learned the following important lessons. Firstly, it is important to value and consider the club members’ opinions on the club goals, activities, and performance styles. The club must have an “uberized” system of facilitators. That is to say, there should not be a hierarchy of knowledge and tasks in a club or club network. Finally, knowledge must be shared openly and be provided to all club administrators and facilitators to be on the same level.
The experience I have had and the plans I hold are cemented by the responsibility to give every student an opportunity that they are entitled to. After all, it is a right, not a privilege.