By Mike Marsee
Steve Meadows has something to say.
Meadows, who teaches speech classes at Danville High School (Danville Independent), believes strongly that schools should value the spoken word as a necessary skill for their students.
“So much communication in real life is spoken, much more than writing, much more than reading. And even though it’s a much bigger percentage of what we do in life, we study it far less than reading and writing,” Meadows said.
Meadows teaches at a school in which speech is part of the required curriculum and coaches a forensics team that has won multiple state championships. He was honored last fall by the National Communication Association with its Marcella E. Oberle award for Outstanding Teaching in Grades K-12. He said he hopes the award will amplify his voice when he talks about the need for better speech education.
“I’d like to leverage it that way, for sure,” Meadows said. “Maybe it gives me a little bit more of a voice, where I’m not just a single teacher trying to do this, but I’m a teacher recognized by a national organization.”
Meadows is in his 22nd year at Danville High and he has taught speech classes throughout his tenure. For the past three years, the school has required students to earn one-half credit in speech as part of the district’s District of Innovation plan.
“There are not a lot of schools in the state that require it, very few that I know of,” Meadows said. It’s something a lot of schools end up working it into other classes or the English teacher will take care of it or it will just happen in social studies. The great thing about Danville is they’ve really invested in the idea that direct instruction is actually important.”
Meadows said public speaking is a requirement for graduation in many other states.
“And in some states, every school has a speech and debate team just like every school has a basketball team. It’s just expected,” he said. “In Kentucky, it’s very much district by district, and even school by school in some of the districts.”
Meadows had been involved in speech and theater programs as a high school student, but he had no training in speech and theater classes when he was asked to teach them in his first year at Beechwood High School (Beechwood Independent), where he taught for three years before coming to Danville.
“I always thought it was important, but I’ve certainly grown to appreciate as a teacher just how important it is for kids to get over stage fright, to be able to stand up and just present something in an organized way,” he said. “If they can do that, they have such a leg up on other people competitively. In the workplace, they’re going to get a job over somebody who can’t do that, they’re going to get promoted over somebody who can’t do that, especially once they get in there and show what they can do.”
Meadows said the skills learned in a speech class also can serve people well outside the workplace, in settings such as in a parent-teacher association meeting, a church or a committee meeting.
“I don’t get nervous when I talk in front of people and presenting,” said Caroline Bugg, a sophomore at Danville. “With other classes that you take, like biology or math, you take those to kind of figure out what you want to do when you’re older. But you have to know how to speak in front of people the rest of your life no matter what you do, so this class is important.”
Meadows was happy that speaking and listening standards were written into Kentucky Academic Standards, but he said that doesn’t go quite far enough.
“It gave us a place at the table officially. The bad thing in Kentucky is that we don’t test that, and because we don’t test it, it doesn’t get the emphasis that other areas that are tested do,” he said.
Most Danville High students take Speech I as freshmen. Skills learned in that class, such as documentation, can be used in English classes.
“It supports all the language arts, which is nice,” Meadows said.
Danville also offers Speech II-III-IV, and a large forensics team – 37 members this year in a school of about 500 students – as an extracurricular activity.
“These kids get so much exposure to different kinds of communication and explore ways to get messages across to people effectively. I just think it’s a very valuable skill, as valuable as any other curriculum that has advanced level,” Meadows said.
Danville senior Dylan Godbey said the speech and forensics programs challenge students to do things outside their comfort zone.
“Nothing else pushes you in the same kind of manner,” he said. “No one is going to be there to hold your hand, and it pushes you and allows you have a stronger work ethic.”
Meadows said many of his students have shown a willingness to try new experiences, such as studying abroad, and have gone on to professions where speaking is an important part of the job, such as teaching and law. He said that’s satisfying, but it’s just as satisfying to see his students’ skills evolve in his class.
“The thing I like best about teaching these classes is that you actually get to see the change,” Meadows said. “When someone becomes a better writer, that happens much more incrementally. When someone becomes a better speaker, you see a huge difference from day one to the end of the year. That’s very fulfilling and it’s immediate feedback, which all of us like.”
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