Speech No Longer Required for Middle Schoolers

Solani Notani

Middle School will no longer require seventh grade students to take Speech, dropping a course mandate that has been in place for 25 years.

Although Speech will lose its status as a required elective, students will have the opportunity to take the class during sixth, seventh or eighth grade.

The change is a result of the transition from trimesters to semesters for Fine Arts courses and the desire to give students the opportunity to sample a broader range of courses at greater depth, said Head of Middle School Susan Palmer.

“The philosophy of Middle School arts and electives is exposure,” Palmer said. “We hope to give students lots of options so they can find what they enjoy through trial and error.” ​

As a result of the shift to a semester schedule in 2020-2021, seventh and eighth grade students will be able to take only four Fine Arts electives rather than six. Those courses, however, will have additional meeting times beyond what was typical during the trimester calendar.

“I think the teachers are really going to value having their kids for a longer amount of time,” said Palmer. “Since each elective meets every other day, with trimesters it was hard to really delve deep into a course.”

While Speech will no longer be required for seventh grade students, the course will be opened up to three full grade levels on an elective basis, Palmer noted.

“Any student who takes Speech as a sixth grader is automatically qualified to take Debate as a first-semester seventh grader, earlier than in the past,” she said in an email.

Eliminating the Speech requirement for seventh grade is not favored by everyone.

Among the critics are faculty and students in Greenhill’s nationally renowned debate program. Many Upper School debate standouts were introduced to the discipline through the Middle School Speech requirement.

Director of Debate Aaron Timmons, who teaches and coaches Upper and Middle School speech and debate classes, describes public speaking as an essential skill that should be inculcated in a Greenhill education.

“I think [this change] is doing a disservice to the students,” Timmons said in an interview. “There is evidence to suggest that public speaking or the ability to orally communicate one’s ideas is one of the most vital skills. Colleges and employers want students who are comfortable and good at public speaking. No matter what career a student goes into, it will be important for them to be able to communicate their ideas effectively.”

In the current Middle School Speech elective, Timmons teaches students how to craft arguments, organize their thoughts, prepare and deliver different types of speeches and familiarize themselves with the fundamentals of debate.

Two seventh grade students who took Speech this year said they favored the course requirement. The students are not being named because of school privacy guidelines for Middle and Lower School.

“Many people in our class did not want to take Speech at first, but since it was required, they eventually realized how helpful it really was and some even became interested in debate from it,” one of the students said.

The other seventh grader said that giving students a broader choice of electives could come at a cost.

“Although Speech not being a requirement opens doors to a larger variety of electives, speech is a very important part of everyday life,” the second student said. “It is better to have that established early and later have a variety of options.”

An unintended consequence of the change could be a negative impact on the Greenhill debate program, Timmons said.

“There could be short-term and long-term harm to the debate program since less students will get exposure to the class,” he said.

The larger concern, Timmons said, is that students who need the most help with public speaking will not take Speech.

“Public speaking is the number one fear of many individuals,” Timmons said. “The class not being a requirement means students can go their whole Greenhill career without professional training in public speaking, and there are some students who won’t get the chance to properly deal with their fear.”