This public speaking initiative has been part of the eighth-grade curriculum for some time, but under Lauren Paul’s leadership, it has shifted to the current personalization model. In previous years, students presented research-based papers. Paul, who serves as the Middle School English Department Chair, recalls that when she began teaching at Severn five years ago, presentations covered generic subjects like the Chesapeake Bay or how to stay hydrated. "These just weren't topics that resonated with an audience of all middle school students," she said. Fortunately, she had experience with this type of activity at another school where the speeches were personal and had seen how meaningful that could be.
Believing that changing the subject would significantly enhance the unit, Paul took her stand and revised the program. At the beginning of her second year, she had students select a personal experience, story, or belief to share with their peers. “It’s still wide open, but this shift encourages students to be vulnerable, which is too often seen as weakness at this age. I want them to understand that it is a sign of strength,” she said.
“Encouraging students to talk about who they are is really important for this age group in particular,” she added. “They can be quick to conform and lose themselves to become part of the group. But everyone should be able to stand up and say, ‘This is who I am.’”
And the results have been remarkable. “Some of these speeches are just beyond brave and vulnerable,” she enthused. “Students have shared about losing siblings, dealing with disease, struggling with mental health, and more. I had one student stand up and tell everyone about her struggles with ADHD – something nobody knew about her.
“It’s really brave to get up in this setting and say, ‘These are my challenges.’ And I’ve witnessed the new connections that it creates. If your relative had cancer, and so did mine, well, now we have something in common that we didn’t know about before.”
In fact, students have embraced the idea so fully that every year she has a student or two who will come to her privately and say, ‘Nothing bad has happened to me, so what do I talk about?’ In those cases, she reassures students that the point isn’t only to share a hardship but to share who they are. She encourages them to talk about a particular sport, hobby, or family member's impact on their lives.
“The goal here is simply to speak from the heart,” she said. “It really connects to the Severn mission of being known and valued. I want students to tell their peers who they really are, to give them the opportunity to know and value one another.”
The speech project is introduced very early in the year, and students generally have a first draft done by mid-September and the final version in early October. By the middle of October, the presentations begin. Typically, they are delivered three times per week at Morning Meeting. The speeches wrap up before Spring Break.
The initial reactions to this project vary widely. "Some kids are so excited about it, and others are terrified. Fear of public speaking is real, and overcoming that is part of the lesson,” said Paul. One former student, now in the Upper School, had such an intense fear of public speaking that she couldn’t even stand up in front of the class without breaking down. Over the year, she worked through that fear and eventually overcame it.
‘Courage will get you through’
One year before Sally Reed ’25 gave her speech, her brother – a Severn alum – passed away. While most of the Severn community knew about the tragic loss, there was no question that this was the story that Reed would tell. She had been sharing it individually with many people already, and the eighth-grade speech – with the theme “Tell a Story That You Learned From"– allowed her to say it all out loud to everyone. But she had another, better reason as well. “It’s a story that is an important part of who I am, so not telling it would have meant not being true to myself,” said Reed.
In her speech, Reed shared not only the details of what happened but also what she learned and how she felt through it all. The response from her peers was so positive that it marked a significant turning point in her sense of belonging at Severn. “I had a difficult transition to Severn in sixth grade,” she explained, “but after I shared my story, everything changed. I got like 50 texts from my classmates, girls and boys. Looking back, it meant so much to get that support, and it helped to cement some of my closest friendships."
She also feels that the overall experience of listening to everyone else’s speeches helped her to gain a deeper sense of empathy. “Maybe someone else didn’t experience the same kind of loss my family did, but just listening helped me to understand that other people are going through tough things, too," said Reed. She also thinks it helps to know that people are listening – it makes you feel less alone.
In keeping with the theme of the speeches that year, Reed feels that sharing her story of loss and what she learned from it ended up teaching her something else. “I learned that in tough situations, courage with get you through,” she said.
Speak Your Truth
While students are indeed learning academic skills through this project – formal writing, sentence flow, proper grammar, logical structure of a speech, and more – Paul is much more focused on teaching them how to write about something personal. “I want them to get up there and speak their truth," she said.
They also focus on the presentation: Are students confident in their delivery? Does the speech match the emotion they’re portraying? Paul teaches her students these skills as well, pointing out that talking about a serious topic with a big smile can make the audience uncomfortable. And these are skills that translate to the classroom. Paul has found that students generally have a much easier time getting up in front of classmates for a smaller presentation after going through this experience.
“I gained confidence from this speech," said Reed. "Knowing I can do something like that at a younger age really changed my perspective. So when I’m faced with presenting a chemistry project to 10 people, it feels really easy because I have that experience of sharing a personal story with 250 people.”
Grant Lonergan ’25 had trouble with public speaking all his life, which is why his eighth-grade speech was so impactful. The topic of his speech was his father’s fight with cancer, something that most of his classmates didn’t even know about. Because the subject was so personal, it actually helped him to break through and gain a comfort level with public speaking.
"It was something I wanted to tell people about," he explained. "It was hard to talk about but obviously really meaningful. That made me forget about the audience because I was so focused on telling my family’s story.”
As it happened, Lonergan’s eighth-grade year coincided with the virtual learning environment created by COVID, and most of his peers delivered their speeches over Zoom. He was one of only a handful of students who presented in person. “That definitely gave me more anxiety, but I was also glad I did it in person because it made it much more meaningful,” he said.
One particularly memorable moment in the speech was a mistake. Lonergan pronounced empathetic incorrectly as emphatic. "That is the kind of thing that usually would have caused me to start stuttering and derail me," he said. "But this time, I could just get past the stumble and keep going.
"It made me realize, wow, I really can do this," he added. "It was powerful for me."
“At the end of the year, there are always students who thank me, but they did the work,” said Paul. “They hand me gold; I just help them to polish it up. They embrace this idea and run with it. And I couldn’t be prouder because I’m asking them to do something so scary – to be vulnerable in front of their community.
"I hope the buzz out there is that kids are getting real and that it's a success,” she added.