In Room 137 at Haycock Elementary in McLean, Virginia, students in Jon Baker’s fourth grade class on Monday morning each took turns reciting a line from Abraham Lincoln’s “Response to a Serenade.”
Each step they took was carefully crafted, with the help of Ford’s Theatre Teaching Artist ChelseaDee Harrison. She helped students warm up their voices, and was adamant that they slow down, emphasizing that some members of the audience may be hearing the words for the first time.
Just down the hall, in Room 133, another fourth grade class was practicing Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” There too, students were told to make sure they project their voices. They also practiced which words in their sentences to emphasize.
The Fairfax County fourth graders have been busy preparing for the 2024 Abraham Lincoln Oratory Residency and Festival at Ford’s Theatre next month. The annual program is offered to D.C.-area schools every year. This year, Haycock’s students were selected.
Each of the six fourth grade classes at Haycock will perform a famous American speech. Four of the six classes are performing Lincoln’s speeches.
“It’s got them being better at communicating and projecting their voice,” Baker said. “It just helps in everything that we do in the classroom. It really allows the kids to feel like they’ve accomplished something.”
Until the performance, the classroom is the stage, and students are getting feedback from teaching artists.
Student Kira Crandall said the practice strategy has evolved. First, she said students read their lines from a sheet of paper. Then, they did away with the script when they had the lines memorized. She’s enjoying some of the movements students are making to emphasize different parts of the speech.
“Those movements are really fun, because it showed how meaningful the words were in that context,” Crandall said.
Some students were able to craft their own movements to correspond with their line, and some had the chance to work with a partner, Maisy Sheckman said
“It’s fun to have people watching you,” student Connor Van Riper said. “So then, you can express what the speech means.”
Not every student is that eager to perform, though. Tyler Strott, who said he practices his portion several times each week, anticipates the experience may be a bit nerve-wracking.
“It’s a lot of people that I’m speaking to,” Strott said.
But, later this week, the fourth graders are expecting to perform their speeches for other students. Strott has also appreciated tips on how to bow, including the tip to do so for a few seconds.
“I actually haven’t bowed much in my life,” he said.
The Ford’s Theatre teaching artists have been working with the students for an hour at a time, for five sessions, Baker said. He’s also devoted a few minutes at the start of class to practicing the speech.
And, he said, the students are grasping the meaning of the speeches, instead of just memorizing the lines.
“We’ve got nerves, we’ve got excitement, being very proud of what they’ve done,” Baker said. “All those emotions are playing into it.”