Monday, January 17, 2011

Reflections on Judging a Speech/Forensics Tournament

On Saturday I volunteered to serve as a judge at the high school forensics invitational tournament.  In the past I ran the extempt room.  After several years of that, I asked to do something new.  The speech coach graciously agreed. I thought I would judge extemporaneous speaking. That is what I did at Midland High School in addition to lettering in debate two consecutive years. 

First some background.  When I went to high school the debate team and theater team had different teachers. This was back in the late 1970s. As a debater/extemporaneous speaker, I practiced with other debaters.  We did not practice with the theater students. In fact, the only time we really interacted with the theater team was at tournaments.  Hence, I cannot recall watching a storytelling or poetry event.  On reflection I think that was a loss on my part. You will see how this relates later.

Current day.  As noted earlier, I asked for something different and the speech coach readily agreed. Round one I judged storytelling. I have watched it a couple of times at various events with dozens of other people, but frankly did not give it much thought.  You know how that goes, it is entertaining, but you also have distractions like kids whispering, people coughing and chairs moving on the floor,

The storytelling round was so much fun and so enjoyable. I saw several talented kids and could tell how much work they put into their piece.  The selected stories were different and really highlighted the strengths each kid has.  The body movements and voice inflections were so impressive. You knew who was talking in the story by the voice. The body movements just added to the storytelling.  I laughed. Alot (so did the timekeeper).  One note of clarification, when you judge a forensics event, your distractions are minimal. Few people are in the room and it is very quiet. You intensely pay attention to each kid because you have to assign a rank and complete a ballot. 

The second event I judged was interpretive poetry. Now I have not read much poetry in my life so I was not necessarily looking forward to this. I did write a couple of poems years ago, which was a big mistake.  Just like storytelling, I thoroughly enjoyed each performance. Unlike storytelling, a contestant cannot move around much.  A reader must rely on the poem, performance, and voice inflection.  In this round all the contestants were female.  Each young lady demonstrated considerable poise.  I could see they put considerable thought and practice into their poem or poems. Like storytelling I laughed, but also teared up during one reading.  I discovered that we have some absolutely beautiful poems that can be quite moving.  Both of these events prove that the writing is the foundation, but the reader can truly make it his own piece.

The last event I judged was impromptu finals.  Unlike the previous events, this one had three judges.  More on that later.

First side note.  During the interpretive poetry round we had a lag time waiting for a contestant.  Some kids are entered in two or three events so it is not uncommon to have to wait for one person to perform.  Unless a contestant has another event to go to, usually they stay after they perform.  In this case I had Carly, Jordan, Tonya, and Sara in the room.  From what the young ladies told me, boys do not sign up for interpretative poetry. I learned a lot about these young ladies. One wants to study linguistics and enter the military.  Each contestant is taking a foreign language and they started talking French.  Each one is giving serious thought about what college to attend. One had not one, but two songs written for her.  One wanted to take Latin, but the teacher retired.  These are intelligent, articulate, and talented young ladies. 

Second side note. During the impromptu finals, I got to talk to the other two judges and time keeper. Both judges graduated from the local high school and were attending college in Kentucky. One is a theater major, one is a communications major that is now leaning toward law school and wants to specialize in entertainment law.  That would be a fascinating discipline.  The timekeeper was a freshman in high school and is thinking about law school.  These are well educated, serious minded people with serious and challenging thoughts.  We swapped war stories about extempt speaking competitions and I found out not much has changed from my decade to their decade. 

The reason I tell you this is I also judged forensics last year in another Kentucky county invitational tournament.  I was traveling with the local team and volunteered as a judge. I was assigned extemporaneous speaking.  An older gentleman was with us.  At one point he looked around the school lobby, which was filled with students, and asked me can you believe these kids are our future?  I responded I think it is wonderful, look at them and how creative they are.  It is one year later and I am more confident given what I saw on Saturday.  Talented kids taking stories and poems, giving the story or poem a creative interpretation and entertaining an audience.  The creativity of these kids was refreshing and invigorating.  We are fortunate.

Finally, and most importantly, I gained a new appreciation of poetry and storytelling.  I doubt I will ever read or listen to a poem in the same way again.  As for storytelling, it is a unique form of art, and one that is underrated.

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