What happens when a speaker cancels?

Or: “Why it’s a good idea to keep track of current events that connect to your history class.”

It’s 8:40 a.m. Class starts at 9. I just learned that the speaker I’d set up for my two morning classes can’t make it. I have nothing else planned.

This really happened to me this morning. And it actually worked out extremely well.

If you’ve ever taught (and if you’re reading this blog, you probably have — or still do — that’s my audience), you can relate to all the work that goes into setting up a speaker. Call — propose a date; work with the speaker’s schedule… I took class time to have my students prepare quality questions a few days ago. I even got bottled water for my speaker and tidied the front of the room.

This is a speaker who actually had already visited our class earlier in the year, so I knew he would be good. In fact, when he visited our class back in September, he was superb. My students and I were excited to dive deeper into some of the Civil Rights stories he told us about earlier in the year.

Our speaker grew up in Durham, NC (where I teach), and went to Brevard College. While there, he had a fight with — and then befriended — a white student named Billy. Billy’s father was active in the KKK. Despite that, our speaker and Billy became such good friends that our speaker was best man at Billy’s wedding. That meant, though, that Billy’s father chose not to attend his own son’s wedding.

When our speaker told us this story (and several others about picking tobacco in the late 60s and early 70s), we hadn’t yet studied the Civil Rights Movement (CRM).

And he was still compelling. During the course of this school year, we have often referred to our speaker’s stories. It’s like he’s an honorary part of our class. The class, for context, is a US History survey from 1877 to today.

Now, it’s February, and we’ve been studying the CRM for nearly two months. We have quite a bit more context, and we are ready to ask all sorts of excellent questions… but it’s hard to ask questions of someone who’s not there.

It wasn’t my speaker’s fault. He had a work-related crisis that caused him to cancel at the last minute… He diligently emailed me at 7:40 a.m., soon after he learned of his crisis… but I was busy tidying my classroom and getting bottled water… so I did not see his email until 8:40, when I finally checked my phone. I was standing at the entrance to our school, wondering where my speaker might be…

So what should I do?

I had nothing prepared. Zero. Zilch. I’d even left the quizzes my students took the previous day (and that I’d already graded) on my kitchen table at home. I mean why would I need those? We would be engaging with a superb speaker all class long, right?

As it turned out, I had just come across two great resources that I wanted to share with my students — though I wasn’t sure when we’d have time for them. I’d stored those resources in the shared notes for our class under “items we might get to later.”

In the minutes before class started, I decided that “later” would be “today” 🙂

One resource was a broadcast I heard just two days ago — it was an interview with the Dean of NCCU’s law school, Phyliss Craig-Taylor on NPR’s “The State of Things.”

Dean Craig-Taylor was, to quote NPR, “part of the first wave of black students to integrate public schools in Alabama. She started attending an integrated school in third grade, and it was a challenging and formative experience. White children taunted her and threw projectiles at her, and she collected each item in a cigar box. These objects later served as evidence in a lawsuit to push for stronger integration of public schools.”

She grew up as the youngest of 12 students, and her mother signed up to have Phyliss integrate their local school as a 3rd grader (along with her brother, a fifth grader, and her older sister, who was in high school).

This was perfect timing, because my students had just seen video footage of the Little Rock Nine (the first nine blacks to attend Little Rock High School in September of 1957) from the “Eyes on the Prize” video series. We could compare the struggles in 1957 Arkansas with the struggles in 1964 Alabama.

I was worried my students would need visuals, but they did a great job listening to the first 11 minutes of the NPR broadcast. They asked excellent questions and empathized with Dean Craig-Taylor.

After that, we watched the first 7 minutes of a book talk by Tim Tyson. Tim had spoken at the Regulator Bookshop back on February 1, 2017 (if you click the link, which I highly recommend, Tim starts talking at the 4:30 mark).

Tim’s talk was remarkable — I was there at the time. But I was sitting way in the back (or rather, standing — it was standing room only — I’ve never seen the Regulator Bookshop so packed), and I could not record much of the audio with my cell phone. Thankfully, CSPAN recorded the event, and that recording finally came online about a week ago. So we watched. And Tim Tyson is one heck of a compelling speaker.


In fact, after class, I found myself compelled to watched more of Tim’s talk.

My students don’t know this yet, but what we’re going to do tomorrow is watch the next 15-20 minutes of Tim’s talk, which makes salient connections between the topic of his book — The Blood of Emmett Till — and politics today. It also makes a good case for why it’s important to study history.

My students and I left off at the 11:00 mark of the video, when Tim says “I’m 57 years old — I didn’t expect to be fighting for Brown v. Board of Education and the damn Voting Rights Act [applause]. I had another thing or two in mind.”

That’s a compelling place to pick up tomorrow.

I suppose that the lesson here, if there is one, is that it pays to follow current events and keep track of your resources.

It’s also probably not a bad idea to have a back-up plan just in case a speaker cancels unexpectedly.

And a final bit of good news is that our speaker is coming next week. When he arrives, we will be even more ready to engage with him.



About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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One Response to What happens when a speaker cancels?

  1. Tina Bessias says:

    Such an adventure! I love bringing in guest speakers, but they always involve a high degree of uncertainty. One of the good parts of that is that students see the limits of our power. When we face them and say, “I couldn’t get a response” or “He just canceled,” they get a glimpse of adult life in its messy reality.

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