How the Oratorical Festival can help your children become active learners in their Orthodox faith


By: Katherine Orfanakos Demacopoulos


As the daughter of Presvytera Margaret Orfanakos and Fr. John Orfanakos – the former national chairpersons of the National Oratorical Festival from 1986 through 2018 – I am a passionate advocate for the program. I like to say that I grew up attending Oratorical Festivals the way other kids my age attended baseball games. With the repose of my dear parents, I am honored to be stepping into their shoes and serving as the National Oratorical Festival chairperson. Together with my niece, Stephanie Orfanakos, we plan to create a regular blog presence for the Oratorical Festival on this site – where you can see what former participants are up to today and get expert advice from former participants and parish, district and metropolis chairpersons.


Too busy for our own good


Teenagers have more activities competing for their attention and time than in any previous generation. Sports teams are expecting year-round commitments along with extra training if the student-athletes want to stay competitive with their peers. The pressure to attend the best college possible or secure academic scholarships means that students are loading up on difficult homework-intensive classes (sometimes even opting out of lunch so they can fit in more academic subjects) while also finding time to serve in leadership positions in clubs. Activities like Driver’s Ed and SAT / ACT classes need to be squeezed in somewhere. This is also happening at a time when these teenagers are bombarded by constant reminders on social media that ‘while you were out with one group of friends, another group of friends had a fantastic time doing something else…without you.’


It’s not surprising that anxiety levels have been on the rise. In a recent study by the National Survey of Children’s Health, researchers found a 20 percent increase in diagnoses of anxiety between 2007 and 2012.


In this type of environment, I know it is a struggle just to carve out the time to bring your teenagers to church and to make them attend. Most families are bringing their children to church less often than they had been brought to church when they were the same age their children are now.  


But we need to avoid the temptation to excuse ourselves. It is our responsibility as parents not only to nurture their minds and ensure they learn essential life skills during their formative childhood years, but to nurture their souls as well. In fact, by providing a regular presence in their life – a place where they can be disconnected from the world for just a couple of hours a week – and by modeling regular prayer at home, you can help your children cope with the stress they face. Dr. Harold Koenig, associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at Duke surveyed more than a thousand studies in his Handbook on Religion and Health. One study he cites found that people who are more religious tend to become depressed less often and when they do become depressed, they recover more quickly.


I believe that church attendance, while important, isn’t sufficient. I believe we need to look for opportunities for our children to practice their faith and to pause and reflect on what their faith means to them. For our children to become life-long learners in their faith, we need to encourage them to be active, not passive, learners.


According to the Center for Educational Innovation, active learning refers to a broad range of teaching strategies which engage students as active participants in the learning process. In a traditional class, it is common for only some students to participate actively by asking or responding to questions. An active-learning classroom, in contrast, includes activities that are designed to engage the entire class, such as writing exercises, group activities, peer review, brainstorming, role-playing and more.


Proponents of active learning point to a body of research that shows that learning is more durable and lasting when students are cognitively engaged in the learning process. And here is the challenge… how can we ensure that our children are really and truly focused on their faith? Is it enough to occasionally bring them to church or even bring them every Sunday? Do we know for sure they are actively engaged during the service – maybe they (like I confess I am, sometimes) are busy making mental lists of what they plan to do as soon as they are released from church.


In the United States, we are fortunate that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese offers a program that can help your teenagers become active learners in their faith -- the St. John Chrysostom National Oratorical Festival. Students in 7th through 12th grade research and write short essays on a topic of their choice (chosen from a list of topics published annually). They deliver them as speeches at the parish level and the top-ranking speakers move on to subsequent festivals.


According to researchers in the field, three of the primary principles of active learning are:

  • Students are asked to generate connections, questions, and solutions. Students are far more likely to recall and comprehend a topic if they are required to produce ideas rather than receive information from an instructor or textbook.
  • The teaching process should involve helping the learners integrate new information into their pre-existing knowledge networks.
  • Long-term retention of information requires the repetition and spaced retrieval of learned information.

I am struck by how beautifully the Oratorical Festival aligns with these key principles.  


To write a 4-minute speech, teenagers develop their own ideas in the context of what they know about their church and faith. They may think about their personal experiences, read scripture, consider what they have learned in Sunday School, read about the lives of saints or their writings. Furthermore, once they have written their speech, they need to practice reciting it – as participants are judged equally on both the content of the speech and their delivery. I learned as well in my research that repetition is how memories are moved from temporary storage in the hippocampus of our brains to more permanent storage in the cortex of our brains. I know this to be true from personal experience as well with the Oratorical Festival -- I know participants from the 1980s and 90s who can still recall entire paragraphs of the speeches that they delivered decades ago.


One final thought – and I share this as both a passionate advocate for the Oratorical Festival and a mother of 4. No child is ever going to come to you and say, “I want to write a 3 – 4-minute speech about my faith.” Please consider treating the Oratorical Festival like one of the other things in your child’s life that they may not want to do, but you find a way to get them to do it anyway. As parents, we are confronted all the time with situations where our children don’t want to do something that we know is beneficial to their growth and health. Going to school, getting shots, eating their vegetables – these aren’t choices you leave up to your child’s discretion. You might reward them, you might praise them, you might threaten them (just kidding) -- whatever your parenting strategy is in these situations, please consider applying it here for the benefit of their long-term spiritual growth.


Stay in touch with the Oratorical Festival by liking our Facebook page and following the oratorical_festival account on Instagram. This blog was initially published on the Public Orthodoxy site. If you are a previous participant and would like to share your story, or you are a passionate advocate for the program and would like to write a blog with advice for students, parents or chairpersons, please contact Stephanie Orfanakos.