At school we had a big fair with performances by all the students; the theme of the fair was “The Future.” For my younger class we discussed the future in relationship to many of our science topics, but I decided that in my English class of 5th and 7th graders it would be useful and interesting for them to spend some time thinking, writing, and performing about their ideas for their own futures.
Two weeks ago I gave them prompts to write about their dreams and goals, from education to career to family. When I realized most of them were writing down random degrees they had heard of, I gave them homework to find out the meaning of the sets of letters, and decide which degrees they actually wanted for their hopeful careers. In class we edited and expanded their ideas until each student had a paragraph or two he was happy with.
Pramod, one of my 7th graders, said he really wanted to be a doctor, but had no idea which studies were involved. I assigned him some extra work: to talk to a local doctor and find out what degrees and studies he had done. Pramod originally protested, saying he was too shy to talk to a doctor, but he came to class two days later with a full paragraph constructed from the notes he’d taken. He told me he’d gone to the doctor’s office three times until the doctor had time to talk to him, and found out all about which degrees a doctor needed, how long the studies were, and what the degrees actually meant. As he explained the progression to me, he spoke with the confident understanding that comes from information discovered personally.
I had them tackle the memorization of these passages one piece at a time, saying, “when you eat dinner do you put all the food in your mouth at once?” No Ma’am of course not. “Right. You take bites. So it’s the same thing. Piece by piece.” I assigned each student one clause at a time, and they had to write it 5 times, say it 20 times, say it backwards 5 times, and say it forwards again 10 times. They sat at their desks or wandered around the room repeating that clause, and when they thought they were ready they came to me. If they could say the clause and their speech up to that point properly I underlined their next clause and the whole work started again.
For three days our class was a constant mumble of voices as they worked hard at learning these passages; the background noise was frequently punctuated by excited students calling me over to hear how much they’d completed. I spent most of the class sitting in a chair in the middle of the room, and my kids would line up eager to rattle off their sentences.
We had one practice run with a small audience three days before the actual show, and at that time students who’d recited their whole speeches to me minutes before tripped over their words, forgot entire sentences, and even froze up completely on stage.
Afterwards they all came to me upset.
“I know my speech, ma’am,” Kamlesh, the student who had completely frozen, told me, “but then my heart is going like this—” he hit his chest rapidly with his hand.
“It’s okay,” I told all of them. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I know you know your speeches.”
I was interrupted by a chorus of worried “but ma’am” protests. They were all really upset with themselves.
“But,” I continued a little louder, “you got nervous on stage. That’s o.k. Everyone gets nervous sometimes. Really truly it’s okay. Do I look angry? No. You all—ALL—did a good job. And we will practice more and more, and everyone will do better and better.”
Kamlesh was still really worried.
“I will practice ma’am,” he said, “but I know when I say to you, but still…”
“Yes,” I told him and the rest of the class, thinking rapidly about how best to approach the stage fright issue, “I understand. That’s why tomorrow when we practice, we will also practice how to walk on and off stage, how to not be nervous, all of that. And we will talk about what to do with an audience. Okay? So, do you know what I want you to do tonight?”
I knew they were expecting homework speaking or writing or even illustrating their speeches, all of which we’d done. But right at that moment I decided a different tactic would be more helpful.
“I want you to relax. Your homework is not to worry about the speeches. Put it away, and don’t think about it, don’t worry about it. And tomorrow we will start learning how to do all these things—not be nervous, more hand gestures, everything. But tonight I want you to relax.”
The next day we started strong as I tried my best to give them tools to overcome stage fright. One at a time I helped students decide how they could add movement, hand gestures, and props to their words. From the city campus I brought a broken computer, medicine bottles, and costumes for them to use. Over and over I made them practice walking on stage, breathing, and smiling. I taught them to look steadily at one person’s forehead, so they weren’t scared by meeting people’s eyes and didn’t let their gaze wander distractingly. As they said their speeches to me I constantly tapped my finger on my forehead to bring their visual attention back and remind them to focus. They practiced in front of each other and their teachers.
On our last day of class we had rehearsal in the upstairs room where they would be performing. They all did fairly well, and I was especially proud of Kamlesh, who not only presented his speech nicely but also managed to do so over the younger students as they came in talking loudly. I told him if he could manage that feat, speaking to a quiet audience would be easy. Still, despite all the work and my praise, my students were not fully convinced they could do well in the performance.
On the night of the show Pramod and Kamlesh seemed happy, but couldn’t quite let go of their nervousness. I sent them to get dressed, then looked around for someone to tie their ties. Both Manoj sir and Vinay sir were busy, but the founder of the school, Nita Kumar, was happy to help. They were so intimidated by her that I had to guide them across the courtyard to where she was standing, promising that she would not bite their heads off.
Backstage all the students were incredibly nervous, some talking too much and others not talking at all. I walked over to the corner where they were and they grabbed my arms, trying to get my attention so they could practice their speeches one last time.
“Shh,” I tell them. “Breathe. You know your speeches, and I know you know them—just breathe.”
Priya took a huge gasping breathe and pretended she was setting the audience on fire with her exhale. They laughed a little. Again and again I told them to breathe; if I stopped they started getting all nervous again, so I stayed with them.
“Now tell me again, what do you do when you go on stage.”
“Breathe,” they told and showed me. “Smile.”
“And I look here,” said Pramod, tapping my forehead.
When our group’s turn came they went out one at a time on stage. Priyanshu with his computer keyboard “I want to be a BIG man of India”; Sandeep “I will do doctor and police work. . . I will be happy in my life”; Pradyum, another computer engineer “My family will live with me and I will have a child and then some of my family will not live with me”; Suruyabali “I will study bio science and be a doctor”; Saurabh “I will be an engineering doctor”; and Shubham, who begins by pretending to not notice the audience as he types on the computer “My children will be players or students? I think my children will study.”
Then it was time for my three 7th graders. Kamlesh was first; standing tall in his white clothes and tie, he really looked like the doctor he wants to become. “In hospital I will do operations which is very necessary. My mother and father support me, ‘you can do these things.’” He spoke clearly, his hand gestures understated but all remembered. He came back and looked at me.
“It was fine?” he asked.
I was beaming. “It was wonderful.”
Priya was next. Once shy and self-isolated in class, she has become so confident especially in her acting, and her speech was the most exhuberant, as she illustrated her words with big smiles and wide gestures. “I will teach small children Hindi, maths, English, and art. Sometimes I will also teach big children. . . . my family is very important to me. When I do wrong things, they will help to me to do my work.” We’d gone over that sentence many times every day, and while she still didn’t get it quite right, overall she did really well, and when she returned, I gave her well-earned praise.
Last was Pramod, who also looked very much like a kind and serious doctor. He took a breath and let it out with a nod before going on stage. His presentation was also amazingly done, every word correct, and I wondered if anyone in the audience knew how much the speech and information was his own work.
After all the performances Pramod introduced me to his father, and I awkwardly spoke a few Hindi sentences of my student’s praise to the silent man.
“My father studied to 8th grade, but not English,” Pramod told me. “His sister studied to Interim, 10th or 1tth, and his brother my uncle studied to 11th grade interim.”
His voice spoke of the pride he has in his family’s education.
“And you?” I ask. “What class will you study until?”
“I will complete the courses of MD and MS to be a doctor,” he grins as he launches into his speech for the las time. “I will do the competition of MBBS. . . After studying I will work in a hospital. My family and my patients will be very important to me. All my patients will be like my family.”
As I told him then, I honestly believe he will do all this and more.