The best of Oakland: Oratorical Fest

Kristen Caven, an OUSD parent, volunteer, and author of Perfectly Revolting: My Glamorous Cartooning Career, tells us about a festival that’s become an institution in Oakland. The final competition is March 18 and 19.

Do you want to see the best of Oakland? Come to any round of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Oratorical Fest, at any school, now in its 32nd year. Private, public and charter school students perform famous or original speeches, poetry, and songs about peace, freedom, justice, beauty, human rights, personal struggle, and triumph, or just being a good and authentic person.

I attended the regional competition for middle and high schools on a lark today, helping out an English newcomers teacher, Ms. Colt, who’d had two teachers and three parents call in sick, and could not otherwise take her the 21 kids from our school. But my sacrifice was not entirely altruistic. I’ve often gone out of my way to attend the festival at my son’s elementary school, always a memorable, many-tissue day filled with poetry, inspiring words, and adorable, brave kids.

Today an audience of participants, parents and teachers got to hear the poetry of a hundred children who expressed various perspectives with power, passion, polish and pain. We heard words by Tracy Chapman, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, and even Roald Dahl. There were two Phenomenal Womans, a steady beat of works by and about King, and one impressive channeling of Junior Senator Barack Obama’s 2004 DNC “we are not a black America or a white America” speech. Each student displayed a thoughtfulness that every citizen of this city should be proud of.

Every performer did a wonderful job of expressing their personal concerns through a slice of literature, written by themselves or someone else. All enjoyed their hard-earned hoots and hollers, and some managed to evoke “the ‘tingle’ factor: An Oakland Tech student asking, “What if the tea party was black?” in an original speech that won him a medal. A Montera girl explaining the true meaning of education in a piece by Oakland poet Kameron Moore-Mitchell. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Drum Major” speech about contemplating his funeral, complete with snazzy choreography, by five red-sweatered sixth-graders from Dr. Herbert Guice Christian Academy.

Raymen Justice, the 17-year-old student who lost his life last fall, was present as well. When a Claremont student read “Justice,” a poem about him by her cousin, Oakland poet/activist Lucas Brekke-Meisner, a boy from Castlemont Leadership Prep got up and left the room. Some wondered… was he being rude and taking a break? Was he making a protest? The student apologized when it was his turn to take the stage; he’d been overcome with emotion. He delivered an original poem, “Rise,” which he’d written for his brother Raymen as a eulogy. Over the course of the event, the great words spoken transformed audience members from competing schools to community members with connected hearts.

When Ms. Colt’s students took the stage to recite a poem about King, a hush fell over the room. Her middle school students, recent arrivals to the United States, spoke at a second-grade level, but there was no judgment. They spoke about peace, but their faces and clothing told the quintessential American story: I just came from another country… where there is war.

The Final Competition Dates or the Oratorical Fest will be:

6-12 (Laney College): Friday, March 18 from 1:00 – 3:30 p.m.
K-5 (Acts Full Gospel Church of God In Christ): Saturday, March 19 from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • steve thomasberger

    Allendale Elementary, Redwood Heights, Laurel Elementary and other schools will participate in a March 2nd Day of Action in Defense of Public Education, on Wednesday, March 2nd.

    At 11AM schools throughout the city will hold simultaneous disaster drills to symbolize the “state of emergency” facing public education.

    Following this drill the students, staff, and parents of Allendale Elementary, Redwood Heights Elementary, and Laurel Elementary will march to 35th Avenue (with signs and banners) to educate the public about the disaster our schools are experiencing.

    For further information you can contact the principals of these schools.

    Steve Thomasberger – Allendale (510) 529-6327

    Sara Stone – Redwood Heights (510) 499-6574

    Ron Smith – Laurel (510) 529-1974

  • Oakland Teacher, Too

    Many appreciations to the teachers who supported student participation in the Oratorial Festival! Congratulations to all of the students who performed.

  • Longtime Oakland

    Goosebumps here…. We have to find more ways to let our kids shine. Thank you for this piece.

  • Nextset

    While I’m sure all this was great fun I can’t help but notice the difference between what goes on at good schools such at Piedmont, Orinda, Lafayette, Belmont and the other “monts” and what we see here.

    Gee, wonder why they aren’t singing the praises of “peace, freedom, justice, beauty, human rights, personal struggle…”?

    Some might assume that’s because these schools are populated with the Vanderbilts and other such families. But no, they are increasingly populated by minorities such as Jews and Asians or (gasp) Italians/Irish whose great- grandparents were poor and immigrants. These schools even include certain blacks.

    And they are bringing up their kids to focus on technology & commerce by age 14, as well as competence and competition in math, science, languages and other academic subjects. They see what is coming in this nation and they want their kids to stay ahead of the poverty and decline of middle class. One other thing I noticing different from my own experiences, upper class (& professional) parents are getting their kids ready to move (travel, relocation, going away to school, etc.). Upper class kids think nothing of traveling across country for an internship and finding temporary housing in a distant city to do it. They know they’re not staying in CA. And they know why.

    The black schools need to stop playing the self indulgent games and get with the changes. Time is running out. There is only so much time to get the schoolkids ready for the Brave New World. I don’t believe for a minute that this here nonsense is going to keep the student’s heads above the high water that’s coming.

    As far as I’m concerned these silly events should be changed and the energy put into forcing the kids to give presentations on research projects on subjects foreign to them. Like capitalism, finance and Thomas Edison (commerce and industry). Beyond that there needs to be more focus on geography, travel, and field trips. Especially for the black and brown kids.

    What we see here is feel good indulgences that will not make these kids more employable or feed them into industry, commerce, professions or military. This is more Pacification. It makes the kiddies think they are accomplishing something when they aren’t.

    And that’s not what a good school does, a good school makes the students more employable and more upwardly mobile.

    Brave New World.

  • Hills School Parent

    In addition to being part of a spine-tingling event when watching children of all grade levels and colors speak about civil rights, equality and the “Winds of Change” (this year’s theme, I think), the children who participate in this event practice some important skills that will serve them well in their future. Students research to find the work they will perform or they write their own. They are required to attend lunch-time practices. They memorize, they recite and they stand tall on stage in front of 400+ people. I know many adults who would be fearful of participating in such an event. Public speaking was important in my professional career, requiring all the skills that these students are practicing when they participate in the Oratorical.

  • Kristen

    There are many careers that require oratory in the Brave New World. Every business, religious, and political leader, not to mention entertainer, has to learn how to use their voice to inspire and lead.

  • Debora


    The list of finalists will be on the district website soon. The winners include those from private schools. The two students – brothers, same mother, same father – who won awards are top academic students at Joaquin Miller Elementary School. They have excellent science fair experiments, participate in class in a productive way, are in the top 10% of their grade levels on tests and in group projects. They are delightful, insightful and strongly academic.

    There are private schools who participate as well and the students come from the hills, the “monts” and so on.

    While I agree that oratorical feasts can be nothing more than feel good sessions, I think you should review the rules of the contests. In my daughter’s case, she presented with quotes from Coretta Scott King that include, among others “Segregation was wrong when it was forced by white people, and I believe it is still wrong when it is requested by black people.” and “Freedom and justice cannot be parceled out in pieces to suit political convenience. I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.”

    In preparing for her presentation every year, my daughter, and others like her, select passages and strive for understanding. The rehearse before and after their regular school day. And the vast majority of the students at my daughter’s elementary school are high achieving, hard-working students who use this as an opportunity to begin to understand the process of integrated schools, education based on hard work and why the friends – often one of color and one white student can stand together for their presentation.

    And, yes, I believe that STRONG academics – beyond what is taught in many classrooms is important – but I also believe speaking before an audience of 200 – 400 people is also important. In many adult careers fear of public speaking stops people from achieving their personal goals.

  • Hills Parent

    I attended one of the oratorical semi-finals recently. While I was very impressed with the caliber of performances and the children seemed delighted to attend, it was an event that literally took up one ENTIRE school day. The performers were on stage for all of 5 minutes, yet they were in attendance for something like 5+ hours.

    I think the kids would have been much better off in school learning or doing public speaking within their class/school, than sitting through several hours of oratorical presentations. When I looked at the list of schools participating, it was mostly the lower performing schools. There is probably a good reason why most of the hills schools and/or schools with strong academics opted to skip the competition. They know there is a better use of the time.

  • Nextset

    Kristen and Debora: You are right that there are careers that require superior verbal skills. Excercises of this type, even if slanted toward left wing politics, could be useful in pursuit of careers requiring verbal skills and public speaking. (though some industries and carefully not hiring anyone with a history in race based activity)


    There is a visible effort here to steer black and brown students away from commerce and industry into social work where their prospects for economic mobility are less. I only have to look at the younger generation of blacks in my own family. They are taking careers in commerce and industry – industries that were not really there when I was a child. They are often the first or only blacks at their levels in their industries and their competition are WASPS and Jews (not Asians) for the most part. Their careers are line and production/operations not social work, PR, or Government laison. And they make more money than those of us in medicine and law. We’re impressed even if we don’t understand all the nuances of what they do.

    They do move around the country in some cases. There was more travel/relocation in their career paths than ours.

    My concern is that even in middle & high school these black/brown kids are being groomed for AA/social work careers because they are black. That is really not a good thing in this Brave New World. Those jobs are not going to be there. And those attributes are being deselected. Nobody wants a rabble rouser in cutting edge industry, they are in business to compete.

  • Hills Parent

    I was at Home Depot the other day and a friendly African American employee working at the cash register looked at my kids and said “how old is they?”, followed by multiple other grammer errors (the person was not someone who grew up elsewhere and had recently come to the USA).

    Due to either heavy use of slang and/or lack of proper schooling, so many black/brown kids don’t learn how to speak correct English. Even for a basic job at Home Depot, I would expect someone to have better language stills. If the kids aren’t learning it at home or in their community, they need to learn it at school. There is no way I would ever hire someone who spoke “ghetto” on the job.

  • Nextset

    Hills Parent: Speaking Ebonics is one of the ways the blacks are kept in their place and out of society at large.

    I don’t believe OUSD has any intention of correcting black speech. I believe – somebody correct me if I’m wrong – that OUSD takes the political/policy position that the chillun are supposed to go forth keeping it real and not speaking standard english.

    It’s not that difficult to correct bad english. You get in their faces if required and make them repeat bad speech correctly. I don’t think that is ever going to be OUSD’s classroom policy.

    Which is why better families look elsewhere to send their black children. Like the Charters I suppose, or church schools.

    It’s all a sorting mechanism. It’s really too bad for the black kids who wind up in OUSD.

    Because good jobs will not hire such people. Nor will good customers trade with such people. Not for long, anyway.

  • http://www.eastbayconservative.com The Boss

    I saw a study once that suggested that pidgin dialects are a surprisingly large portion of what people typically call “racism.” The study cut across several countries with all sorts of ethnic groups involved. In other words, a minority can improve his lot a surprising amount by simply making a strong effort to have excellent speech patterns and grammar.

    On a related note, there are famous studies about how resumes with “black sounding” names do more poorly than those which don’t. I’ve always thought these studies did not actually demonstrate racism so much as the above effect.

    So, bravo to OUSD for focusing on oratory. I hope they do focus on grammar and diction. And, I hope they listen to a few speeches by Dr. King — a man whose speeches only used “Ebonics” for effect.

  • Nextset

    The problem with bad English is that the listener can easily make calculations about whether to expect the speaker to meet any other normal expectations – such as sanitation (washing hands after defecating?), lie cheat and steal issues, fraudulent lawsuits, and so forth. There are experiences that lead one to have a concern that refusal to meet basic norms in one area are closely associated with falling down elsewhere.

    It’s not racism, it’s experience, whatever the experiences of the listeners are. Or maybe it’s racism exercised in self defense. It really doesn’t matter what you call it. In the Brave New World, people understand it’s up to themselves to avoid becoming a victim. And you can be severely hurt by people who just don’t get it about stopping at red lights – or any other “traffic controls”.

    The process of learning and speaking proper English is no different that learning and observing rules about not spreading venereal disease, or any other thing you do to fit into society and not become a problem/danger to yourself and others. It may seem like a huge jump but there you have it. We have a lot of rules in society – about driving and parking your car, volume on your radios, sex, checkwriting, many things. some rules are in the Penal Code (underage sex, anyone?), many are not (in the Penal Code, anyway).

    When you have a “school” that refuses to teach black students (as opposed to white and jewish) how to use the English Language we can safely assume that’s not all they are not being taught. So we shun these products in society. We don’t hire them and we don’t trade with them absent some exceptional reason.

    Poor things don’t even realize how they were shortchanged.

    This state of affairs should never happen in a public “school” that I’m operating through my taxes and my government. But it does. But only in the black schools. The white kids in their schools are corrected. There is no accepted “norm” of white bad English. One might argue those kids are considered more important by their government schools, important enough to correct their English. Important enough to teach.

    We should have better black schools at OUSD. It doesn’t cost more to correct English.

  • http://www.eastbayconservative.com The Boss

    Right. The key point there is the differential treatment of the kids based on race.

    That’s the real racism in our society. Lower expectations for minorities enshrined in liberal policies.

    Which reminds me of the thing that I find the most shocking, disgusting and criminal about OUSD:

    Why is there no magnet school system for all kids — of every color, income and background — who show promise?

    As far as I’m concerned, the lack of such a system at OUSD makes the district a joke. And that, my friends, is why my kids attend private school.

  • Hills Parent

    To me, the gap between the races has a lot to do with cultural differences. I know professional, well-educated, well-spoken, successful African Americans and I never thinking about our different skin colors etc. In most cases, they also have mainstream (“normal”) names.

    However, when I meet someone with either a very ethnic name, poor language and/or with their pants slung so lowdown that it looks ridiculous, it creates a bad impression and highlights in my mind the differences I have with this person.

    They say first impressions are everything and my first impression of minorities in those situations is a negative one. I believe it is this cultural gap that keeps blacks in lower socio-economic tiers and that holds them back from otherwise reaching their full potential. It’s a shame.

    The reality is that most people need to fit in with mainstream society to make it and large portions of black/brown kids will be left behind. It is very troubling that the schools are enabling this to happen (by not correcting their language etc).

  • Jim Mordecai

    Hill Parent:

    Seems like you are arguing that black/brown kids should be left behind if they are not white enough because whites are the power structure.

    How would you feel if public schools stop enabling white and black students to speak only one language and left behind those that only spoke English? Would you feel that other children that came to school speaking a second language had an unfair advantage?

    Don’t standardize testing of standard English filter out those children lacking in middle class speech?

    My understanding of Ebonics is that the idea is, not to teach how to speak Black English, but how to teach those speaking Black English to code switch when appropriate. I never understood why that was not a reasonable way to teach in the mind of the public?

    But, basic to some of these arguments above is the idea that middle class values should be the only values taught in the schools and the school teaching intolerance of lower class values is the expectation for many both lower, middle, and upper class parents.

    While it is obvious that schooling in America is done mainly by white middle class women, the public schools enroll children from a much larger group than that that narrow group.

    In fact there is a constant struggle as to what values should dominate in public schools. And, there is the added struggle over whether the school curriculum should reflect Christian values. E pluribus unum is an ideal not a reality in public schools with status quo values fighting to keep say the definition of marriage to include same sex couples out of the public school curriculum. Also, the issue of sex in a school curriculum is yet another controversial religious and class value struggle.

    Why can’t we just get along? But, toleration for others is not an option when it comes to public schooling that is funded by the entire public and not just the part of the public that dominates with its middle class values.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Harold

    @#15 – that is ridiculous! “normal names”? The President of The United States of America, doesn’t have a “normal name”. Sagging pants. That’s hilarious. Go checkout Skyline after school one day. Black/White/Latino and Asian boys getting their super sag on. It’s the style these days.

  • http://www.eastbayconservative.com The Boss

    Harold –

    That’s funny. Don’t see too many saggy pants at my kids’ private school. Wonder why.

  • Hot r

    what a bunch of old geezers…Private school students know all the lingo that
    the public school kids know, and they Twitter and text it to their friends, while listening to all the music they listen to down in the flats. Don’ t kid yourself. they may not wear the clothes but they can afford better drugs, drink more expensive alcohol, and have better access to parents’ medications to trade with their friends while developing that great sense of entitlement you are paying for. Just wait until they get to college Dad. Oh and keep that class warfare thing going…

  • Hills Parent

    Jim, what I’m saying is that black/brown kids who speak “ghetto” or look the part are unlikely to reach their potential. And the worst thing is that these kids (and their community/school) are holding themselves back by creating a negative first impression.

    Being honest here and admitting what others may keep to themselves. When I hear “ghetto” language and poor English skills or see some of the ridiculous outfits that many kids wear today, my opinion of them immediately drops a few notches. I’m not the only one. Many others, including most future employers, will have that same thought. The prevailing culture within OUSD or among its educators enables this to happen by not insisting of higher standards and correct English.

    There is a lot to be said for middle class values and fitting in with the mainstream culture. People of any racial group who can do that will be more successful in life. It’s really that simply.

    As for “normal” names: of course there are always examples to the contrary, but generally speaking ethnic or unusual names often create negative perceptions. Google it and read up. I’m sure even Barack experienced this. I recall reading articles that said if Barack had a more mainstream name, it would have helped him. When I hear some names that people have chosen, I often cringe with horror and pity the child (poor name choices happen in all racials/cultures, but in my opinion this is more common among minority groups).

  • Hills Parent

    Harold, the sagging pants may have many followers (it’s still ridiculous no matter who is wearing it) but it does seem more common among African Americans. I’ve got family up in Marin and in other predominantly white cities and don’t see it much there. But drive thru Oakland and it’s all over. I don’t think too many white parents or middle & upper middle class parents would be supportive of that look for their sons! Or if they did, they would certainly make sure their kids could clean up when needed.

  • Turanga_teach

    Hills Parent,
    “As for “normal” names: of course there are always examples to the contrary, but generally speaking ethnic or unusual names often create negative perceptions. Google it and read up. I’m sure even Barack experienced this. I recall reading articles that said if Barack had a more mainstream name, it would have helped him.”

    Hmm…I can imagine reading articles that say if Barack had a less ridiculous society growing up, it would have helped him…but part of making society, over time, less ridiculous is the cumulative effect of people like our current president overcoming exactly the kind of small-mindedness that sees an “ethnic” name and gets a “negative perception.”

    I’m all for code-switching, as a previous poster noted, and I think it needs to be explicitly taught at times. But there’s a difference between being flexible with language in different situations…and seeing an “ethnic” name as a burden to set aside.

  • Cranky Teacher


    You think middle-class schools (“white and jewish”) schools are telling kids how to act? No.

    Kids primary influence is parents, secondary influence is peers. Teachers and popular media are much further down the list.

    Many suburban white kids are total brats as teens — but culturally they are prepared to code-switch from teen slang or Britney Spears lingo whenever it suits them — they’ve learned those modes by the time they were 5-6 years old. It is effortless for them to butter up a teacher or act faux-humble for a cop.

    Teachers in Piedmont don’t socialize the kids, they come pre-socialized.

    In fact, teachers in high-poverty schools do much MORE socializing of kids toward the middle-class “norm” because they themselves come from that norm.

    Now, I get that you want them to be more ruthless about that norming, and that’s fine. But please don’t continue to spread the falsehood that teachers in upper and middle-class neighborhoods are the one’s teaching kids how to “fit in.” Their job is primarily to force-feed kids acres of AP Test facts to they have a shot at Harvard and access to the power elite.

  • Hills Parent

    Turanga, you can’t tell me that you’ve never heard a name which made you pity the child and wonder how that name will affect them in the future.

    And as for “ethnic” names, I’m dealing with today’s reality and not some utopia where every name is accepted on an equal basis and without bias. Parent will do what they want with names, but they should also know about the impact that their choice will have. Opting for a more neutral, mainstream name will help their child, so doubt about it. Can you be successful with an ethnic, unusual or downright odd name, sure, but that’s not as common. If you don’t believe me, read up on it.

  • Nextset

    Cranky: My you’re touchy today.

    Of course the Piedmont teachers don’t have to socialize their kids (as much as OUSD). They do have to set limits, maintain boundaries, impose discipline, all the usual authority things.

    I believe you are responding to my post #13. My point was that being taught to use standard English is important, with consequences for not being so taught.

    Do you have a problem with OUSD requiring it’s teachers to continuously correct bad English? I doubt there is such requirement at this time.

    As far as other socialization lessons, you can learn a lot from required reading. So require reading.

    And if and when the students don’t comply with all of this: Flunk them out.

  • AC Mom

    Hills Parent, The Boss, et al:

    Thank you for telling it as you see it, not because I agree with you, but because I think that people should be reminded that while many people in Oakland may support liberal causes(whatever that means) or claim to be tolerant this city has its own socio-economic hierarchy in play. That the hierarchy exists is not suprising, but rather the facade that many erect to demonstrate that they are “down with (fill in the blank)”.

  • http://www.eastbayconservative.com The Boss

    Just to be clear, I am not tolerant at all. My happiest day each year is when I look at the new ACS estimates and see that Oakland has lost another X-thousand blacks.

  • Katy Murphy

    Please, let’s keep the discussion respectful and relevant to the original post.

  • Debora

    Nextset you are wrong about the black and brown kids being steered toward the Oratorical. At my daughter’s elementary school – and one of the schools that won for the class performance (I am waiting for a complete list of finalists from the district) – had a significant white/Anglo bent to the group.

    The vast majority were the most academically inclined students in the school

    The vast majority speak a second language by choice (rather than a language other than English, then learning English).

    The vast majority voluntarily participate in the district Science Fair.

    The vast majority attend summer programs that focus on mathematics and science.

    The vast majority devote after school hours helping students learn to read, write and master mathematics.

    The vast majority participate in the school Spelling Bee, Matheletes, Book Club, band and orchestra.

    The vast majority are student leaders in school government, play competitive sports and volunteer in the churches, mosques, temples and language schools.

    But, you may find a way to call these kids wrong, brown, black, slackers, not choosers of worthy pursuits, and so on.

    What I know is that the Oratorical provides many students who are not being challenged in their classrooms a chance to research, make choices, rehearse and perform. In my own daughter’s case, it gives her an opportunity to improve over her performance the previous year. It gives them a chance for public speaking venues that are often denied to elementary and middle school students because of their age and life experience.

  • Hills Parent

    Hi Debora, when I went to one of the oratorical days, most of the classes were predominantly black/brown. That’s fine, most of OUSD is the same way so it that sense it was representative of Oakland’s students.

    I noticed that nearly all the schools with the highest test scores were missing – I didn’t see Joaquin Miller, Montclair, Thornhill, Hillcrest. It’s possible that some of those were present on a different day, but the list was in alphabetical order and those schools weren’t on it.

    My issue with the oratorical was that it took several hours and I’m not sure that’s the best use of class time (the hills schools probably concluded that on their own and wanted to focus on teaching).

  • Debora

    Hills Parent: I am still waiting for the scores-and the names of the winners. My daughter attends Joaquin Miller. Several of the students brought HUGE trophies to school. The two brothers I spoke of previously were among the winners – although I am waiting confirmation. We also had another JM student – an African American boy who may have won.

    So – yes, the hills students also participate. The Oratorical is good for them as well as students of other schools. And the private school with winners is Redwood Day School – to be confirmed.

  • OaklandTeacher

    Nextset, what a bunch of Malarky! How do you know what Oakland teachers are required to teach? How do you know what goes on in my classroom? Who are you to say that spending time learning poetry and oration are a waste of time or that it’s not teaching?