About 400 eighth-grade students at John Muir Middle School compete in an annual speech competition each year.
Though there are only four winners — one from each of the eighth-grade English classes taught by four teachers — the creator of the event sees it as 400 students being better trained for their lives as adults.
Rod Rothacher, an eighth-grade English teacher at John Muir, started the competition in 2006 as a way to help his students improve their public speaking, which he believes is an important skill teens should have.
“Hopefully, the kids use some of the skills that they picked up during the project, and they keep writing and speaking,” he said. “We have some fantastic speakers that I hope will continue speaking and using their voice.”
The contest started with just classes taught by Rothacher, but it quickly blossomed into other classes. In addition to Rothacher’s classes, the competition involves the classes of eighth-grade English teachers Steven Moos, Mark Norberg and Justin Riner.
“Now, it’s a full group effort,” Rothacher said, adding that Noon Kiwanis Club of Burbank became involved about four years ago to help sponsor the event and hand out awards to winners.
“I never intended it to get this big in the first place,” Rothacher said. “It just grew like a vine.”
The winner from Riner’s classes was Lilyan Hawrylo, whose speech was about her being biracial and about identity itself.
Lilyan, who is African American and of Polish descent, said she wanted to convey in her speech that race does not matter and that people should put aside their racial differences, much like her parents did.
“I think that, in the future, there’s going to be more biracial people, so I hope that my speech helped others understand my perspective,” she said.
Michelangelo Salazar, who was the winner in Norberg’s classes, decided to base his speech on a less serious topic, which was trying to convince people that water is not wet.
He said he saw a video online about the topic and tried to see whether he could prove, or at least develop a compelling speech, to show the audience that he was right and that everything they have been taught was wrong.
“It’s really difficult to find reputable sources online about why water isn’t wet,” Michelangelo said. “You have to think outside the box.”
Trying to convince people that water isn’t wet proved to be a difficult task, but Michelangelo said his teacher helped him put all his points together and gave him advice on how he should deliver the speech.
Though he is only in the eighth grade, Michelangelo said he understands the importance of learning how to speak in public and is thankful that John Muir has each eighth-grade class go through the speech project.
“Everyone has to do public speaking at least once in their life,” he said. “Doing this in the eighth grade really helps for when we move on to high school, college and our jobs.”