It’s 3:00 on a Tuesday afternoon. You’re on the second floor of the Yeshiva Ketana of Long Island, entering the library.
That’s when you hear Mrs. Golda Gross, director of general studies, coaching a boy as he is about to give a presentation.
“Remember, speak clearly, at a good pace, and maintain eye contact with your audience. Pull them in with your words,” Mrs. Gross tells a tall boy in front of the room. “Take a deep breath, smile, and begin.”
Shoulders back, hands and tone rising and falling softly for emphasis when necessary, the talmid begins to discuss the challenges and strengths of Learning from Mistakes. His sentences are delivered naturally, though they are well crafted, as is his entire three-minute talk.
When he finishes, those in the audience clap as does Mrs. Gross. “Well done,” she tells him with a smile.”Your tone and pace were excellent. You held our interest.”
“We developed this program because we at Yeshiva Ketana of Long Island feel that each student should be comfortable speaking publicly and expressing himself eloquently,” says Mrs. Gross. “Our public speaking program teaches the boys the benefits of preparation, the importance of clarity in speech, tone of voice, and eye-contact. They learn to connect with their audience and speak to their audience. I enjoy seeing how much they learn from their own speech preparation, but even more so, I enjoy the process by which they gain confidence, improve their articulation, and use their vocabulary. And, though they are young, this program forces them to consider their listeners. It enhances a student’s speech and his respect for his audience.”
In fifth grade, Yeshiva Ketana of Long Island students study public speaking during a dedicated period in the week. The instructor, Mrs. Dorie Shoshana, an articulate and eloquent role model, introduces and coaches the boys in the basic principles of public speaking. Under her tutelage, they learn to make eye contact with their audience, modulate their voice and tone, and focus on body movement and posture. Furthermore, they begin work on the basics of rhetoric: creating interesting, clear, and organized talks to present to their fellow students.
At the end of fifth grade, the students feel at ease in front of their peers and are ready to speak in front of their classmates. “Fifth graders have important opinions that they develop through logic and critical thinking,” says Mrs. Gross. She smiles. “Fifth graders are also still young enough to feel comfortable and uninhibited when sharing their ideas and opinions in front of an audience.”
This fifth grade course is a preparatory program, of course, leading to each talmid’s ultimate public speaking challenge: his bar mitzvah pshetel.
For this reason, the program continues with a refresher class when the students enter seventh grade, a little before the talmidim are on their own to study, prepare, and deliver a talk at their bar mitzvah to an imposing audience of peers and adults. At the beginning of the year, Mrs. Gross personally reviews with the class the principles they learned in fifth grade. The talmidim then prepare a brief presentation on a topic of their choice. They share their presentations in class and then formally for the public. This presentation is filmed for a DVD memento for each student. The DVD is also used to present to younger classes who are excited to learn from the upperclassmen and who feel excited about entering the program themselves.
“The boys learn to understand an issue, explore relevant information, and strategize their approach to persuade people in their reasoned discourse. They learn how to craft an argument logically and how to create intelligent pointed statements that will convey what they know to their audience,” continues Mrs. Gross. “Then they create the DVD that documents their accomplishment, a 21st century version of a publication of their speeches. They’re proud; they’ve learned to speak with poise, reason, and wit.”
“I love attending the boys’ bar mitzvahs and hearing their beautiful pshetlach,” says Rabbi Zvi Bajnon, menahel, “Through the rebbeim and our school’s public speaking programs, a Yeshiva Ketana graduate is an impressive ben Torah. He learns well; he has a fabulous knowledge base; and he knows how to convey his thoughts respectfully, reasonably, and confidently.”