This I Believe: A Ninth Grade Rite of Passage

Every Thursday morning at 10 a.m., Upper School students gather for their weekly assembly in the Alumni Commons of the Stevens Building. After a variety of announcements from students and faculty — the upcoming dance, a reminder about a test, yearbook committee requests — the room begins to hush and students shift their bodies to get comfortable and settle in. They take a break from the hectic pace of their day and listen attentively to a student or two deliver their This I Believe speeches.
Over the course of the year, every ninth grader delivers a This I Believe speech. The project has become a rite of passage and a culminating moment for the students as they begin to think of their lives beyond Country School. Much like the National Public Radio program that it emulates, the essay is a personal exploration of a student’s closely held beliefs and the principles that they are beginning to use to guide their lives. The national program was first broadcast in 1951 by renowned radio journalist Edward R. Murrow and brought back on air 50 years later in 2001. In 2009, the project was initiated at Country School in the ninth grade by former Assistant Head of School Francie Irvine.

“Ninth graders are idealistic, thoughtful and interested in the world and their place in it,” said Ms. Irvine. “We thought This I Believe would be a good vehicle for students to dig deeper into their values.” Upon Ms. Irvine’s retirement in 2012, the project was stewarded by former Assistant Director of Admissions Ryan Kimmet and by the late Head of Upper School Tim Delehaunty. Alumni and faculty members remember fondly how Mr. Delehaunty covered his office door with index cards containing snippets of ninth graders’ This I Believe speeches, which he then mailed to students a year after their graduation.

Students begin to write their first draft over the summer before ninth grade. They are given some guiding tips: “be specific, tell a personal story and come to a point about something you have learned about the world, yourself.” Upon their return to school in September, they are expected to be ready for the final editing process to begin.

“I tell them to write the speech that only they can write,” said Upper School English and History Teacher Liz Carroll, who now co-leads the This I Believe project along with her colleague English and History Teacher Tom Giggi.

“I also understand that asking a 14- or 15-year-old to be vulnerable is a tall order.” “We are asking students to say ‘This is who I am,’ and that is huge,” agreed Mr. Giggi. “It requires independent thinking, self-reflection and the confidence to share something personal with their peers.”

Ninth grader Mason Zea wrote his speech about the impact that his grandfather’s death had on him. He was reserved in early drafts of his speech, unsure of how personal and forthcoming to be in his writing. “It took a while for me to write about how he died. But I realized that it’s a big part of my story.”

Editing and revision are essential parts of the This I Believe process. “We are looking for that kernel in each student. Sometimes you don’t even see it until a couple of drafts in,” said Ms. Carroll. 

Ninth grader Ellie Walker, who wrote about accepting her individuality, struggled with narrowing her focus and expressing what she wanted to say and how she wanted to say it. She spent the summer before ninth grade recording numerous audio notes on her iPhone, all relating to her view of the world. “I had so many ideas and rewrote my speech 14 times throughout the month of August. And then I edited it more when I came back to school.” “Ellie took the project very seriously,” said Mr. Giggi, who worked closely with her as her English teacher. “She really wanted it to represent herself.”

Ellie and Mason remember sitting in the audience as seventh and eighth graders listening to the older students deliver their speeches and asking themselves: “Would my speech be as good, as powerful?” Now that their speeches are behind them, they feel relieved and satisfied. “Time stood still while I was giving the speech,” said Mason. “And then it was one big rush.”
New Canaan Country School admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin and are afforded all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, age, sex, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry, or disability in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, financial aid policies or any other school-administered programs.