Thirty Days of Making: Published Rhetoric Manual, in Practice

I’m in Day 11 of a short series: Thirty Days of Making. Every day for the next thirty days, I intend to make something, anything, that is in some way connected to school. There won’t always be pictures, and I reserve the right to credit myself for things that I help my kids make. But I’ve decided that I need thirty days of maker success and maker failure under my belt to be a better designer.

I’ve decided that artwork counts, but not writing (unless it’s part of the art, like calligraphy). Digital work counts, but it has to be useful or publishable.

Some days there will be pictures, some days there won’t be. Each blog entry will contain a list of some of the materials and tools, a quick review of the success or failure of the Making, and a reflection on what I think I learned from the endeavor.  (My friend Alicia is beginning a new series along these lines, 12 weeks of the Artist’s Way — I wish her well in her process, go check her out!)

Reason for the project: Faculty Advisor to the Debate Club

I’ve already spoken at length about the Public Speaking Manual, and the reasons for producing it.  The most important reason is that my lawyer colleague who helps me run Debate Club can’t be there all the time.   Knowing that I had to put it into practice today, by a late-night email from him that he was unavailable today, I finished the last six pages of design and editing work, and put it into operation today with my students.

I would call it a success.  I’ve already talked about the process quite a bit — although finishing the design of a manual at 2 in the morning the day it’s going to be used for the first time at 3:30 pm, is challenging. So I’m going to talk about that next.

Process and Result:

I’ve already noted prior articles where I’ve commented on the design work in terms of developing the manual, so in this section on process let me talk about implementing it.  First, it’s always easier to create a manual of practice than it is to implement.  Today, I was hugely helped by the fact that it was our Autumn Field Day, right before a long weekend.  About half our usual crowd was there, as a result.  This gave me a chance to reëstablish the egregore of the group from something wild and crazy to something considerably more serious and useful.   This was an accident of scheduling but nonetheless quite useful!

Second, I chose as our Master of Ceremonies a young man in the seventh grade who is neither our best speaker, nor our worst.  I selected some older and some younger students to be our new officers — the Ah-Counter and Grammarian and Timekeeper — to track our common-core information.  We have to learn how to speak to time limits and use our time wisely and effectively, so we should track some of that information thoroughly.  By assigning some of these jobs to senior students and some to junior, I helped create buy-in and investment from the crew that was present.   Additionally, as in Toastmasters (I steal quite a lot from them, actually, and I thank them publicly here).  We started with some public speaking games that are already familiar to the group, then moved into impromptu speeches, and then into prepared speeches (although no one prepared for this first round, really — we were really trying out a system [of magic?], rather than investing in it fully… and the result was a bit of experimentation).

I have to say, the choice of a middle-grader who’s neither our best nor our worst speaker was inspired.  It changed the structure of the meeting completely — instead of having kids fight me for authority, they recognized that this was both a game, and practice, for future experiences in which they had to run meetings themselves.  Instead of talking over me, they deferred to the kid in the room who was trying out the role for the first time.  They offered him suggestions and ideas, but he also got to be the final arbiter.  When he lost it completely and descended into gales of laughter, they waited for him to regain his composure and carry on being the leader.

Our reporting officers, the Ah-counter and the Timer and Grammarian, performed similarly well in the last few minutes of the meeting. They explained the information they had collected dispassionately without singling anyone out for errors, and did an excellent job of recording information — especially when they were trying out the rules and guidelines of their offices for the first time.  Other students, again, looked to them for guidance and affirmation.

One of the most positive things to come out of my adaptations of Toastmasters was the index-card response.  Every kid was asked to fill out a card for every speech, from impromptu speeches to ‘prepared’ speeches. By the end of the afternoon, every kid who spoke had at least one 8×11″ evaluator sheet filled out, and a dozen or more index cards with both positive and constructive feedback.  They knew what they were doing right, and they knew what they were doing wrong, and they had written data to look through, to reflect on, and internalize.  Our eighth graders, in particular, appeared blown away by this massive amount of information and genuine opinion they were encountering — and beginning to understand how this was going to really help them become successful speakers.  They also understood that this was a game worth playing: not for points, exactly, but for experience and face time.  And one girl told me, afterwards, that she was astonished at how much she learned about being a public speaker from evaluating what other people said.

Which is what happens in Toastmasters to me, all the time.

Reflection on My Learning: 

Again I recognize that there’s a huge distinction between producing a manual of practice, and putting it into practice.  This isn’t exactly a physical thing that I made, though. Should I count it as a made thing for the day, though?  I don’t know, but I kind of feel like it’s a part of this community that has not worked well for me for years, and I finally got out my tool bag and my sack of wrenches and fixed it.  I kid you not — I think this was the single best meeting for the Debate Club since our founding meeting four years ago.  We’re on track to do some amazing things, or at least that’s how it feels today.

Even so, I’ve learned that I still haven’t learned everything.  One kid pointed out after the meeting that the questions in the Evaluator’s sheets are all pretty much yes-no questions.  I told him that was awesome — I’d fix them in next year’s version of the manual.  But he’s right. I should have consulted with more people about the contents of the evaluation, and should have consulted my own Toastmasters’ Competent Communicator Manual more closely (except I didn’t want to be accused of plagiarism, so I didn’t).  Another kid suggested that we add in a section for evaluating the work of the officers, which Toastmasters in fact does, but which I left out because — well, lots of reasons, but mostly I forgot (and secondarily because I worried about it taking too much time away from the work of training our kids in public speaking. But creating the role of the Officer Evaluator gives another speaking part to a student, it’s true — more practice!

And I also think I learned that the role of a Secretary and a Bailiff is invaluable — The secretary is someone to track attendance, to write a brief factual summary of each speech, and to note down who fulfills which roles and who’s fulfilled the speaking requirements.  I can do that, but it also behooves me to train some students to do those kinds of tasks too.  The Bailiff would also be a valuable officer, to help organize kids to set up the room before each meeting and make sure that people are in attendance on time.

So version 2.0 of this manual is already under discussion and in the works before we’ve even finished working through version 1.0 of the process.  I’m very pleased indeed.

Reflection on General Learning

I am tired.  Between finishing up the layout and the writing of the manual at 2am today (which is why this counts as today’s Thirty Days of Making – it did, technically, happen today), participating in Autumn Field Day, and running the meeting [or more accurately, nudging the meeting while a kid ran the meeting], I’m mostly tuckered out.

But I’m also thrilled.

Because I think I saw a couple of big things come to fruition today.  First, I wrote, designed, and laid out a manual of practice in three days.  Second, I found a community willing to buy into that manual of practice, and try it.  And third, I Made a process.  Ok, I didn’t make it.  I copied it — but as I recently told another artist, I did it without tracing paper — I did it by looking at the original models, and then I copied them by hand in my own way.  But I demonstrated to my own satisfaction that I could design a process, and teach it in an afternoon, and put it into practice with a group.  A process can be borrowed from one context, and reëstablished in another, and people — teens, even — will buy in.  

They’re hungry for it.


Five out of Five stars.  Today had every reason to be a disaster — tired, hungry kids, no snacks in sight, no sugar, no gifts, nothing except a twenty-nine page handout of stuff they’re supposed to read, learn and absorb, and which will require them to WORK.  HARD.  And they’re eager for it? Ok, that’s great!  How could I do better?

Actually, I know the answer to that. One of my other Makings this month is going to be the ten-page Leadership Manual to accompany this binder:  How to be a good Timer, a good Ah-counter, a good Grammarian, and a good Master of Ceremonies. And a good Evaluator.  And this is where I’ll include the two new officers, the Bailiff and Secretary.  With forms for a fellow student to evaluate your work and sign off on it as a quality effort, and provide feedback on how to do it better. Then we’re not just giving the Distinguished Communicator award, we’re giving the Community Pillar award too.

I think I’ve really made my own day.

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