When Melissa Woodward was going to community college, she was terrified of giving a speech in front of her classmates.

“I took it at Blue River because I didn’t want to have to take it at (the University of Central Missouri) because it would be a huge class there,” Woodward said. “If I was going to be embarrassed, I didn’t want to pay as much for the class.”

Ironically, Woodward, who is now a English language arts support teacher at Osage Trail Middle School, is involved with a growing program that focuses on improving students’ speech and writing skills.

She was selected by the Ford’s Theatre Education team to be a national oratory fellow for the third year in a row, one of 32 teachers in the nation to participate this year.

The Ford’s Theatre National Oratory Fellows program started in 2011 and helps teachers integrate oratorical skills and strategies – from performance to speechwriting – into their curricula.

Woodward was nominated two years ago by Jeff Williams, the principal at Bridger Middle School when she taught there. She also got nominations from fellow teachers Jennifer Stockdell and Jeff Weary.

“The National Oratory Fellows were giving us (professional development) with our building,” Woodward said. “I expressed interest in that. I asked Jennifer Stockdell to come in and observe a speeches unit in my class.”

“Because I did that, I think they thought, ‘Well, Melissa kind of did that on her own. So she would love to do this.’”

Woodward meets with 31 other fellows once a month by videoconference to discuss ways to help students’ improve their speech, leadership and writing skills.

“We also have Skype sessions (with fellow National Oratory Fellow) Ashley Buster, and I’ll set up a web camera so she can see my class,” Woodward said. “Then I will project her (on a screen). And she will talk to my class and ask them to do whatever. It’s like we’re co-teaching.”

She also went to a week-long retreat in early August with lectures, workshops and access to the Ford’s Theatre Historic Site.

“They also teach us how to look at text closely, using historical speeches as we’re teaching, vocabulary and teaching students how to stand up and speak,” Woodward said. “We also focus on podium points like posture, presence, eye contact, gestures, pace, emphasis, tone and volume.”

In her classes, Woodward organizes various activities to focus on those points. Most recently, she had her students stand in front of the class and talk about how their weekends went.

“Sometimes we do really silly activities where we have to talk really fast or talk really slow,” Woodward said. “The kids like a lot of those activities.”

This year, Woodward will be able to take two student delegates, who have shown excellence in oratory, with her to Washington, D.C., for the program’s annual weekend retreat next May. There, students can present a historical or original speech on the Ford’s Theatre stage.

Woodward has presented a theme to her students called “be the change.” Using that theme, students will write and give a speech in front of their classmates in December and Woodward will grade them based on podium points and the quality of their arguments, disproving the other side of the argument and the writing. The students with the two highest scores go to Washington.

“The hope is they create a speech about a topic they care about,” Woodward said. “I want them to take on something they feel like most adults wouldn’t think a kid could create change in. I want them to pick a topic and demonstrate how they could create change. It will be a competition to see who does to D.C. For the kids, it’s all expenses paid.”

During the retreat, the Oratory Fellows and other teachers will work with the students.

“They’ll give speeches with other students from all around the country,” Woodward said. “They’ll get to do real cool activities together. As a group, we take them to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and stand were Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a Dream’ speech. It’s a phenomenal experience for the kids.”

The event at Ford’s Theatre is free and open to the public.

“There’s usually a lot of family and teachers there,” Woodward said. “It’s bragging rights for the kids. They get to give a speech in front of people from all over the world in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Some people will sit there and listen the entire time and even while the kids are practicing.”