The Speaker’s Corner

Guest Article by Julia Holup
University of Pennsylvania

ETA Julia Holup with student at SMK Seri Dungun
Fear.It can be a helpful thing in the right doses, at the right times. We carry it with us every day, like a lightweight coat that helps minimize risk and shield us from danger. Fear is what stops us from walking down the dark alleyway at night, from skipping blindfolded along the edges of a steep cliff, or biting into a ripe berry on an unfamiliar plant. It’s our safety vest, our Jiminy Cricket; in moments of peril, it can keep us on our feet.
But fear can also work against us, turning our lightweight coat into a straight jacket that prevents us from growing, reaching, and achieving. At times it’s difficult to distinguish between fear that helps us and fear that holds us back.

The fear of public speaking is pervasive at my school. If I could color in the outline of every student or teacher who has revealed this fear to me, the whole school would be a shaded hue. The mention of speaking publicly in English is enough to – quite literally – send students running through the door. Of course this fear is not unique to my students or to Malaysia. People all over the world routinely rank the fear of public speaking above the fear of death. Even as a public speaking advisor in college, I remember the looks of anxiety and dread on the faces of the students I coached- some of the brightest biochemistry minds in the country fraught with fear.

Speaking publicly in a foreign language only increases anxiety. My students would argue they have good reason to steer away from speaking. I’ll embarrass myself; My friends will laugh; I’ll cry; I’ll faint! But the fear of public speaking doesn’t serve to protect us, at least not in the same way fear does when we’re approached by a wild animal. It silences us, our ideas, our voice, our ability to communicate – the thing that makes us human.

The more I watched my students shy away from speaking, the more I felt inspired to help. With the support of our principal and English Panel, the SMK Seri Dungun Speaker’s Corner was born. Launched in February, the Speaker’s Corner is a weekly forum for students to practice their public speaking skills. The program is simple. Each week a student is chosen to represent the Speaker’s Corner and deliver a 3- to 5-minute speech to the student body during Sunday morning assembly on a topic of their choice. Throughout the week, I coach the student, working on refining grammar, pronunciation, and delivery until together we’ve shaken loose their nerves and hung them out to dry.

The most important part of the program so far has not been what the students say in their speech, but the simple act of having said it. From the beginning, I tell my students they are free to speak about whatever they chose, even if that means reciting Selena Gomez lyrics or lines from a novel. Their delivery, too, though important for developing good habits, is a lesser priority.

It’s the experience that matters. The power of the Speaker’s Corner stems from what students stand to gain in terms of their confidence- both in speaking and in life. The experience of having faced a fear head on, and overcome it, has a reverberating power beyond measure. It’s the taste of what it feels like to switch out their straight jacket for a light coat; the wisdom to call upon a small victory and apply it to larger challenges.
So far I’ve seen the change in my students, noting subtle differences in behavior and the way they carry themselves. When I first started coaching Raihann, her English pronunciation was shaky. And the multiple uses of the word “magnificent” in the poem she chose to recite kept tripping her up. But we kept working, kept rehearsing. Repeating difficult phrases like “beat like bullets on the roofs” over and over again until we fell into fits of giggles.

Capturing video helped to bolster her confidence, serving as pure, undeniable evidence of her progress and promise. I remember sitting with Raihann after our last practice session, watching as she viewed the video of her speech. It was subtle; the pride in her eyes, a tinge of disbelief. But I could see the fear that had been boiled up within rising like steam off her shoulders.

When Raihann delivered her speech to the assembly on Sunday, there was a marked change in the audience, too. There is power in watching a peer on stage. Sometimes it takes watching others like you overcome fear, unscathed, to help you identify your own anxiety as restrictive rather than protective.
Breaking free from fear takes courage, but courage is contagious. And at Sunday morning assembly, my students are slowly catching the bug.

Raihann delivering her speech

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