The Great Debaters

To Speak In Lieu of Talking

Jose Vilson Jose 4 Comments

The Great Debaters

Today, I got the wonderful opportunity to see the portfolio-based assessment presentations / defenses at an alternative high school. While it’s certainly a time-consuming process for all parties involved, the results justify the means. The students spoke with such clarity, even when struggling with the language, I only wished my students could speak with such voice for themselves.

One girl in particular jolted me to the core. Her autobiography portfolio, a culmination of her best and worst personal experiences, made me quiver. Her tales of how her father and mother met, her dead grandfather, and the loss of her best friend didn’t unnerve me much. Then, one of the judges (a teacher from the school) asked: “So you mentioned something about only hearing [the story of the relationship between your mother and father] from your father. Tell us more about that.” She replied, “Well, I heard the story from my mother, but my father told it in a different way. There are some things I didn’t know, but I learned a lot from that.” The teacher pushed on. “So what are some of those things?”

The girl replied with an uncanny aplomb, “Well, for one, Mom told me that it took 2 years for them to get married, but my dad told me it was 3. They had a big fight.”


“Because my dad cheated on my mom.”

My jaw dropped, but I held it together with my hand wrapped slightly around my mouth.

“And he said it so calmly, and I almost didn’t even do the interview. I was about to stop completely, but then he came and told me some of the details behind that, and I said ‘OK’ and continued from there.”

A certain amount of deductions took place in my mind before I could totally react, but after the interview was over, I gave her a nod of acknowledgment. While the presentation wasn’t as crisp as it could have been, every adult in the room found themselves contemplative at her calm and spunky demeanor while she told these stories. For anyone that wants to know the difference between speaking and talking, there’s your prime example.

In a social context, that might not mean much. We’re inundated with sordid tales of sexual and moral transgressions, many we won’t share because they’re more shameful than we’d ever acknowledge. Constantly, people have asked themselves whether our world has somehow climbed deeper into a dearth of shallow self-aggrandizing and argumentative cluttered discussion with no real implications a la Chris Matthews.

Very few speak.

Today, she spoke.

And that’s why we as educators learn how to develop our voices, because people like her need it. This isn’t just about educators, though. It’s about anyone who would like to be heard. It’s not about the volume, though that helps. It’s about that wonderful balance between precision and accuracy with a touch of humanity.

Until then, none of your cursing or sesquipedalian musings won’t remedy the power of using words effectively and passionately.

Jose, who hopes John Holland gets a chance to read this …

p.s. – Does anyone have any other stories to help develop this difference between talking and speaking?

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 4

  1. NYC Educator

    A big part of being a good teacher is learning how to react–quickly and surely–to entirely unexpected circumstances. In your case it was the challenge not to react. That’s a tough test for me, I know.

    You seem to have done well. But who knows what the next kid will say.

  2. K.

    Talking – the endlessly repetitive things we teachers say about how kids should be, act, think.

    Speaking – that single, meaningful thing we say that actually gets through to a kid.


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  4. Post

    K, in a word: BANG! You get the gist. And sometimes, it works the other way around, too.

    NYCEd, frankly, I didn’t think I was in a position to say anything. That was hard because a) I was a visitor and b) I didn’t think it was my place to put a value (up front) about her experience. Having said that, there’s no greater temptation at that moment but to speak, at least in an effort to comfort.

    She spoke to me, man.

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