One Step Closer to Graduating: Senior Speeches Conclude with Paean to Creative Writing

Seniors ticked off another “last moment” in the long farewell that marks senior year with Monday’s delivery of the final senior speech.

Jack Kilduff ’18 argued for the expansion of creative writing in high school English courses, and he received, in accordance with longstanding tradition, not merely applause, but also a standing ovation from the seniors, who sit at the front of the theater. While the ovation could not be interpreted as a reliable indicator of enormous, pent-up enthusiasm for creative writing, it undoubtedly demonstrated the collective relief in the Class of 2018 for reaching this milestone moment.

The 9th grade speech program will wrap up on May 10 with a speech by Kate Zak, who is arguing in favor of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

The speeches for both the 9th and 12th grades are persuasive in nature, and students have wide latitude in picking topics; all students work closely with a faculty advisor in the process of researching, shaping an argument, drafting their speeches, and rehearsing in the theaters to master pacing, eye contact, projection and expressive speaking. The speeches are delivered, typically one each day during chapel period, to all students and faculty in each division; the seniors speak from the soaring stage of the Samuel C. Johnson Theater, and the 9th graders speak in Price Auditorium. Faculty members grade the speeches, and the top three speakers of the year do a repeat performance for speech finals, when the speeches are assessed by a panel of judges. The winning speaker in each grade receives an award. 

Senior speech finalists were announced on Tuesday, May 1: Hans Christoffersen, who spoke about renewable energy; Caitie Sullivan, who spoke in favor of school music programs; and Eliza Dixon, who spoke about athletes kneeling during the national anthem as a civil rights protest.

“The Senior Speech Program is one of the most important vehicles by which we prepare students to become ultimately useful and responsible citizens of a democracy,” said Dr. Natasha Naujoks, Upper School history teacher and director of the Senior Speech Program. “By practicing the art of rhetoric, students exercise the linked imperatives to write well, speak well, and live well.”

Many speeches this year reflected political and social concerns that are currently making headlines, such as the opioid crisis, cyber security, and medicinal marijuana. However, students also chose to explore less well-known topics that require raising audience awareness of the issue, such as humane approaches to farming, alternative energy sources, asteroid mining, and artificial intelligence in the workplace, to name just a few.

This year, several seniors took on topics related to the college process, including an exploration of test optional college admissions, the use of legacy as a factor in admissions, paying college athletes, and approaches to secondary education in Europe. Topics related to school life are also popular, and some 9th graders spoke about teaching cursive writing, universal pre-kindergarten, replacing textbooks with tablets, and the positive impact of having cooking classes in school. Topics cannot be repeated in an academic year, a requirement which often forces students to think creatively about possibilities, and it provides a truly multi-faceted array of substantive topics for the audience to consider.

"Students relish the opportunity to express their opinions; the 9th grade speech program provides a forum to do so while teaching students how to make an argument that is grounded in research," said Mrs. Liz Booker Staub, Middle School English teacher and director of the 9th Grade Speech Program. "This skill will serve students well beyond their years at Norfolk Academy."

Senior speech finals will be Wednesday, May 9 at 9 a.m. and 9th grade speech finals will be Thursday, May 17 at 10 a.m. Both events will be held in the Johnson Theater.