Every Form II (Grade 8) student at Landon must conceive, write, and present a speech each year to the Middle School community. This capstone project, known as “This I Believe,” allows boys to not only reflect on an experience that shaped their lives, but also to learn the value of being vulnerable in front of others and the skills of persuasive writing and public speaking.
“The speeches are powerful for the students because in their best years, in their best moments, they are able to share and lean into discomfort while being supported and celebrated by their peers,” said Form II Dean Eric Harrison. “To be vulnerable and be open, when boys and men are often told by society not to be, it’s powerful.”
“This I believe” speeches started on National Public Radio in the 1950s by journalist Edward R. Murrow to give hope to those still reeling from the effects of World War II. The essays are 500 words long, or about three minutes, and each one gave a snapshot into the core values the writer believed in. “The goal was not to persuade Americans to agree on the same beliefs, but to encourage them to develop respect for beliefs different from their own,” Harrison added, citing Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Muhammad Ali, Bill Gates, and Tony Hawk and the thousands of ordinary citizens who have participated.
At Landon, students prepare by practicing in the classroom in front of a podium and watching a TED Talk on the science of stage fright. When they are ready, the boys can choose to read their speeches to the entire Middle School or in front of their Ethics class.
However, the process really begins in English class. The literature assigned for reading and analysis in the course, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, uses thematic connections dealing with speaking up and speaking out on themes of growing up and grappling with injustices, said Middle School English teacher Jamie Sorge.
“For some, the writing comes naturally and easily. But there are a lot of boys who have a hard time because they want to find the perfect topic,” added Sorge. “They don’t feel like they have had a moment in their lives to share. That’s one reason why we do the first draft in English class and focus on the power of storytelling. We also hope those literary pieces may spark something inside. That ‘aha’ moment does come eventually, you never know exactly what will spark it.”
The Form II outdoor trip to West Virginia near the start of the school year is one place that often creates that moment, Harrison said. The boys, along with teacher-coach-mentors, go back country camping for three days. Time is set aside for journaling alone, and the boys participate in team-building activities that challenge them to think about their strengths and areas for growth. “The trip really encourages the boys to look inward,” he added.
“The way we really approach this exercise for the boys is with the mindset of leading yourself first,” Harrison said. “In order to lead others, you have to lead yourselves, we tell them. This speech helps them identify a core piece of themselves and their identity in an age-appropriate way in front of their peers and teachers who support them.”