Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
Kennedy Cleveland banged a white rubber mallet on a podium at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center on Thursday, and demanded order from the people sitting in front of her.
The Roberta T. Smith Elementary School fifth-grader was a contestant in the speech portion of Clayton County Public Schools' 20th annual "Hear Our Voices" competition.
Cleveland was acting out what she called her "fate," to someday become a judge. She donned a black cape and held members of the audience, including one member of the "Hear Our Voices" panel of judges, in contempt of her "court" for imaginary outbursts, and for holding cell phones in their hands.
The young, would-be jurist then told her audience, criminals "will be crying for their moms" when she gets on the judicial bench.
"Order in the court!" Cleveland exclaimed. "I said order! For your outburst, you will have 82 days in jail. That's what he gets for robbing a store," the fifth-grader said.
More than 30 Clayton students, encompassing all grade levels, made their voices heard during the speech portion of the competition on Thursday. The event is a Clayton county-specific language arts contest, in which students are challenged to put forward their best writing and oratory skills. Students also entered a separate writing portion of the contest on Wednesday.
"It's a literary competition where students can enter their poems, short stories, essays, or give speeches," said Clayton County Public Schools Language Arts Coordinator Ebony Thomas. "It's really just a time to celebrate our students' literary talents."
The judges for the speech portion of the competition included a pair of high school instructional facilitators, a pair of teacher development specialists, an elementary school principal, a middle school assistant principal, and a middle school media specialist. There were no contestants from the schools that provided judges, Thomas noted.
Contestants were judged on the delivery of their speeches, from the way students spoke, to what props, if any, they used, she added.
The competition's winners will be announced by the beginning of next week. Thomas said there will be separate grade-level winners for writing and speech. There is not one, single, overall winner, she said.
School System Chief Academic Officer Diana Carry said the competition is important to the school district because it forces students to focus on four key areas of language arts: listening, speaking, writing and reading. She also said the district is looking at forming oratory clubs in its elementary schools, to begin developing public speaking skills at an earlier age.
"As we look at how we can turn our students into better public speakers, we recognized that we already had high school debate clubs," Carry said. "But, you can prepare them in elementary school. That way, they already feel comfortable speaking in front of a group of people by the time they get to high school."
The speech portion of the contest proved to be a mixture of different forms of creativity, as several students, like Kennedy Cleveland, took their oratory performances beyond the simple "stand behind a microphone and speak" approach.
Another Smith Elementary School student, fourth-grader Kira Neal, stood next to a mirror and described from which family members she inherited her physical features. "When you look into the mirror, most likely people will see themselves," she said. "But, not me. I see my whole family. My mom, my dad, my uncles, my aunts, and you probably won't even believe it, but even my twin sisters."
There was even some fancy footwork put on display during the competition. Xavier Pierce, a third-grader from Riverdale Elementary School, did a dance called, "The Charleston," while he spoke about his family in South Carolina.
"That dance always makes me think about South Carolina," he said, while shuffling his feet, shaking his hips, and waving his index fingers in the air.