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Lone Peak High junior to compete in national speech contest

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Junior Ella Henslee stands with Bill Cummins, American Legion District 7 Commander after her first place finish at the state oratorical contest on March 12 in Great Falls, MT. PHOTO COURTESY OF TONY COPPOLA

By Gabrielle Gasser ASSOCIATE EDITOR

BIG SKY – Next month Lone Peak High School junior Ella Henslee will travel to Indianapolis to put her award-winning speech on the U.S. Constitution to the test in the national American Legion Oratorical Contest. Henslee will be the first LPHS student to compete in the contest on a national stage.

Henslee, 16, will represent District 7 of the American Legion as well as American Legion Post 99, competing against 49 other students on April 23-24 for the national title. In her second year of competing, LPHS teacher Tony Coppola said Henslee has grown a lot as an orator and he looks forward to seeing her continue to succeed.

High school students who participate in the oratorical contest, established in 1938, each prepare an eight- to 10-minute-long speech about an aspect of the U.S. Constitution with emphasis on the duties and obligations of citizens to the government. Each student is also randomly given one of four predetermined topics, as part of the assigned topic portion of the event and asked to deliver an additional three- to five-minute speech on it.

Coppola requires all his students to write and deliver a speech about the U.S. Constitution which they can then use to participate in the American Legion Post 99 Oratorical Contest if they so choose. 

Henslee’s speech this year is on the Electoral College; how it was intended to be used at the time of its establishment and how it functions in the modern world. Contestants use the same speech through each level of competition, so Henslee said she is focused right now on perfecting her delivery for nationals.

Henslee accepts her first place award at the state contest. PHOTO COURTESY OF TONY COPPOLA

Henslee said she has learned a lot while participating in the competition. “I didn’t know before this year why the Electoral College was created in the first place, but it was so smart, it was so cool.”

Coppola said Henslee’s performance in the assigned topic portion of the state competition was what made her stand out, calling it “the icing on the cake” of her win. 

MS/HS Social Studies teacher Coppola said he first encouraged Henslee to compete last year because she had a great speech but a fear of public speaking.

“I feel like some students and just in life in general need that nudge and I think that’s what I gave for her and she’s taken to it,” Coppola said. “It’s been a lot of fun to watch and be a part of and I’m just excited that she gets to go and gets to see it through.”

Henslee poses with the U.S. Constitution in Coppola’s classroom. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

In her first year of competing, Henslee placed first in the post competition and fourth in the state competition.

After the initial taste of victory, she was hooked.

“I wanted to be the best,” Henslee said.

This year, while she noticed other students around her abuzz with jitters, she was confident. 

“It was good to know I wasn’t the most nervous,” Henslee said. “I was gonna be fine.”

This newfound confidence carried Henslee through the state competition and Coppola said it was very apparent that she was going to win.

“Thinking about where she started as a sophomore and where she is now as a junior, it’s basically a 180,” he said. “She’s very confident up there and competent and her speech has only gotten better.”

To prep for nationals, Henslee said she has been watching videos of past speeches and taking notes on what she likes and doesn’t like in the delivery. 

“I think I’m an eloquent person,” she said. “…If I notice I don’t know where I’m going next, I can talk my way through it and eventually I’ll find where I’m supposed to be.”

In addition to watching past videos, Henslee said she also listens to a voice memo of herself delivering speeches on each of the potential topics as she falls asleep. 

Henslee will travel to Indianapolis with her mom and Coppola for the contest and she said she plans on bringing her mock trial bag to “psych out the competition.”

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