Year for Priests: Learning how to advance the dialogue

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

I have just completed my first month of classes at Detroit Catholic Central High School, which means that my students in Public Speaking are giving their first major presentations this week.  Everyone always enjoys “Speech Week,” not only because students get to hear other students but also because I allow the students to facilitate their own “Q&A” after their speech.

People believe that the most difficult aspects of a speech class concern the mechanics, but usually this is the easy part.  It only takes one time for students watching themselves on video to correct most of the issues, or my count of just how many times they said “um” to raise their awareness enough to cause dramatic improvement.

The more difficult issues often concern content — specifically, the student’s ability to critically defend their beliefs.  Far too many students focus their content on their own beliefs rather than considering the opinions and objections of the audience.  Though I allow students to present themselves without interruption during the speech, many students are quickly challenged by their peers during the Q&A session because the speaker failed to consider those to whom he was speaking.

The lesson is an important one:  unsubstantiated opinions sound good when you are the only one speaking, but they do very little to contribute to actual dialogue on any given topic.  This week, I am once again watching as students discover that classroom discussions are far more interesting when the data is more persuasive than the person.

All this leads me to a few thoughts regarding popular morality and “church-related” issues since many students attempt to present them during our class.  I must admit that I usually forbid issues such as the death penalty, abortion, contraception and the like as topics because (1) students are not willing to look beyond the surface reasons and therefore come up with incomplete data, and (2) three minutes is simply not enough time to tackle even one part of the issue.  However, being at this particular school, I decided to let them have at it, though I warn them about the dangers.

Today after a class discussion on abortion, one of my students asked if I would be willing to discuss the issue with his family and a few friends.  Surprised by this question, I asked him what was said in class to cause such a request.  He stated that he never thought about the issue as we discussed it after the speech, during which I asked, “how do we move beyond the preconceived notions that have left us in a stalemate, and advance the argument?  What is helpful/required for either side to listen to the opposing ideas with fresh ears?”  Needless to say, it sparked an interesting class discussion.

As I left the school, I could not help but think about the many people who would love to join in on this upcoming discussion.  Over the years, I have met several presenters who speak on moral issues with wonderful mechanics and persuasive passion, but fail to consider the opinions and objections of another’s point of view.  When this occurs, the result in society is the same as my classroom:  a series of short presentations that leads the speaker to believe something important was said, but offers little to advance the argument in a greater context.  The remedy, as my students are discovering, requires more than just good data but a totally different approach that puts the thoughts of the audience before our own.  It requires less judgment, few statements and more questions.  No doubt this is harder, but the result is almost always an “A”.

valkaFather Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May.

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One Response to Year for Priests: Learning how to advance the dialogue

  1. Fran says:

    Reading this makes me want to cry… in a good way. Thank you for sharing this with us and for enriching the lives of your students.

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