Student Voice! You don’t have it if you don’t speak well.

voice

  1. The sound produced in a person’s larynx and uttered through the mouth, as speech or song. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/voice

Student voice. What a hot topic! Educational conferences have themes such as “Raising Student Voice” (NCTE) and “Speak Up! Finding and Using Our Voices in a Noisy World” (NEATE). Social media is full of posts about how to increase student voice. Educational publications have articles about student voice. A true buzz word of our time! Unfortunately, every single one of the mentions of student voice ignores the first and most important meaning of voice: speaking. The conference with the theme “Speak Up”? Not one strand about oral communication. The “Raising Student Voice” conference had hundreds of sessions with exactly ONE session about how to improve students’ oral communication. Think about that. It is an example of an epic fail.

When you see the word voice used by educators, it might mean choice or options as in “give students voice instead of directing their learning.” Sometimes it means opinion as in “we need to value student voice and make them feel comfortable expressing their ideas.” Sometimes it means literary style as in “Hemingway has a unique voice in his writing, and we want students to develop their voice as well.” I’m not arguing with any of those: I think we should give students choices, we should value their opinions, and we should let them have their own style. But we should also give them the gift of being able to verbalize well because when you see the word voice used by everyone else on the planet, it means what you hear.

How can so many people talk about giving students voice without thinking about oral communication? That’s the original and most important voice! How do we declare what we want? How do we express our opinions? Overwhelmingly by speaking. We say things out loud. Often, that speaking is face-to-face, but increasingly digital media is used which expands the reach and importance of verbal communication. Tragically, students don’t speak well. You’ve noticed.

Have you noticed all the people talking about Amanda Gorman’s poem at the inauguration? Not one has mentioned how beautifully spoken the poem was. It was more than the written word that impressed. Remember how amazed people were when students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School spoke? You heard many comments about how well they communicated, and some conspiracy types thought they must be paid actors because normal kids just don’t speak that well. Two important points: one, we were impressed because good speaking is not the norm for students and two, the way they captured America’s attention was by speaking. As much as we value writing, speaking is by far the number one way to have an impact.

“All kids can talk already.” “Speaking is not on the Big Test.” “I have never been trained about how to teach speaking skills.” “I have activities where I make students speak so I have this covered.”

All of these are good excuses for ignoring the direct instruction needed to give students real voice. But the truth is, it isn’t that hard to teach students how to speak well. Just as there are specific lessons to improve writing (punctuation, capitalization, word choice, sentence structure…) and to improve math (common denominator, order of operations…) and to improve reading (setting, metaphor, plot line…) there need to be specific lessons to improve speaking.

I’ll give you one example. The biggest weakness of almost all speakers is that their talks are dull. They speak in a lifeless way. You know that it is difficult to listen to the end of any student podcast. Lesson one: to demonstrate the importance of adding life to their voices, let students practice with phrases where the meaning can change depending on how it is said.

I don’t think you are dumb. (But everyone else does?)

I don’t think you are dumb. (You know I am?)

I don’t think you are dumb. (You think he is?)

Lesson two: Play this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ouic59Gv0x0 There is a visual of a voice with no life and a voice with life as well as an audio modeling the difference.

Lesson three: Give a small practice speech where adding life makes a huge difference. Have different students speak encouraging each one to add lots of feeling.

One time, we had a squirrel in our house. When we opened the door to let our dog out, it ran right in. Everything got crazy! The squirrel was running all over! My mom was yelling, “Do something! Do something! Get that thing out of here.” My sister jumped on a chair and stood there crying her eyes out. My dad was chasing the squirrel with a broom from room to room.  “Open all the doors!” he yelled to me. “I did already!” I yelled back. Finally, it ran out. After a minute or so, my dad started laughing. “That was interesting,” he said with a chuckle.

All three of those combined might take 40 minutes of instructional time, and every student will learn one of the keys to effective speaking. Will all students master this? Of course not, just as not all master the skills of writing or math or drawing or anything. But all will get better, and all will understand how to communicate better. Many more resources are here: https://pvlegs.wordpress.com/2018/06/10/shortchanging-speaking/

Bottom line: do not ignore the most common and most important definition of voice. If you really want students to have voice, give them the gift of being well spoken. Visit www.pvlegs.com

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Give Students a Digital Voice First

You want students to speak to the class. Maybe students are reciting poetry or participating in a mock trial or presenting their research reports or giving a book talk or making a podcast. Every teacher has speaking activities. I’ve written elsewhere that all students tend to dislike these presentations in large part because we have never given them specific, direct instruction about speaking skills. (See https://pvlegs.blog/2019/11/16/100-english-teachers-walk-into-a-bar/.) I want to talk here about the few students who have another problem with public speaking.

Introverted. Shy. Lacking self-confidence. You know these kids and you have several of them in your class. Even if you gave specific lessons about how to speak well, they would still be reluctant to get up in front of the class. We can’t give in to that fear, though, because oral communication is the number one way adults communicate, and we don’t want to rob any child of her or his chance of success. Some kids hate math, some hate writing, I hated art (It was supposed to be a cat!), but we want to help all students become complete and competent in all areas. Including speaking.

A solution? Give kids a digital voice first. Don’t have the students get up in front the entire class live. They aren’t ready. Use one of the many digital tools available. Students can record, delete, rerecord, delete, rerecord until they have something they are proud to share. Move from a high-stakes, live show to a low-stakes but-still-developing-speaking-skills show.

Many recording tools are available. Every smartphone has audio and video recording capability. Flipgrid (https://info.flipgrid.com/), VoiceThread (https://voicethread.com/), and Voki (https://www.voki.com/) are examples of sites where students can record presentations, discussion comments, and more. (Send me your favorites—I’d love to add to the list.)

Here’s a look at Voki. I use it to work on one of the skills of effective speaking, adding life to the voice. Students choose an avatar and add a fun voice: https://tinyurl.com/y9fns652

Voki can also be used for presentations (click on the avatar next to the book to start the presentation):

See https://pvlegs.com/ for more ideas.

The bottom line: Speaking skills are important. ALL students need help, and some need a way to dip a toe in the water before they dive in. Don’t shortchange the #1 language art, and don’t shortchange any student. Use digital tools to develop student voice.

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Shortchanging Speaking

A student turns in this paper:

many people think that we should not have ginetticly modifyed foods we could be having health problems in the future if we eat them, Some studys say that they cause cancer. we should pass laws to stop this.

What do you do?

Options:

A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids write.

B)    Nothing. I want authentic writing, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.

C)    Teach some lessons to help improve the writing.

Most of us will choose option C. We won’t do everything at once. We might teach a lesson about capitalization and give practice with capitalizing the first word of a sentence. We might then teach a lesson about “changing the y to i” before adding an ending and give some practice activities. We might reteach sentence structure with lessons about run-ons and then give some practice activities to help students identify run-ons.

A student turns in this work:

1/4 + 1/5  =  2/9    and   2/3 + 2/7 = 4/10

What do you do?

A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids do math.

B)    Nothing. I want authentic work, and I don’t want to devalue student work.

C)    Teach some lessons to help improve adding fractions with unlike denominators.

Most of us will choose option C again. We will teach finding common multiples and give students lots of practice activities.

One more example. A student in your virtual class turns in this talk: Composting

What do you do?

A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids speak.

B)    Nothing. I want authentic speaking, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.

C)    Teach some lessons to help improve speaking.

In my experience, most teachers choose option A. In the case of this recording, the teacher posted it to YouTube for the world to hear even though it is clearly “rough draft” speaking. (I’m guessing it was so poor that you didn’t even listen to the entire one and half minutes.) I have had a few teachers choose option B, claiming that they don’t teach speaking because they value “authentic” speech, as if a child cannot be both well-spoken and authentic. I have found almost no teachers who teach specific lessons with guided practice about speaking skills.

We live in an age where speaking well matters. Digital tools showcase speaking: Zoom, Webex, podcasts, videos, Facetime, Skype, webinars, video conferences, and more. Unfortunately, many teachers fail to pay attention to poor speaking, fail to give needed lessons, and fail to give teaching oral communication the instruction time it deserves. Many teachers watch students speaking poorly and do nothing to help them. We make kids talk after the poetry unit and ignore the fact that most of the recitations are quiet poor. (“That’s just how kids speak.”) We have students do their biography/country presentations and ignore the facts that most listeners were not particularly engaged and two days later would be able to tell you almost nothing about the reports they heard. (“That’s just how kids speak.”) If you listen with new ears, it will be painfully obvious that we have shortchanged our students and failed to give them needed instruction about how to speak well.

Here is an example of the problem: https://youtu.be/KmnoAxptUsA How could the teacher that put this up on YouTube (with identifying information that I removed!) not have noticed that the kids in front of the green screen need help with basic speaking skills? How could he/she have thought that this was the best kids can do? Shame on you for selling these kids short and posting a video for the world to see that fails to show how well they are capable of speaking.

In the “composting” case, I would teach a lesson about Life, adding passion/feeling/emotion to make the talk more interesting, and I would offer practice with little phrases and little speeches so students can develop life. Then I would teach some lessons about Speed, adjusting pace to make a talk more interesting and effective. I would offer practice with some little speeches so students can learn to adjust speed well. See some ideas here: http://pvlegs.com/activities/. Do you see those kinds of lessons and practice activities in your school?

Solutions? Sadly, speaking skills are an afterthought in most materials out there. There are few materials that specifically show teachers how to help students master oral communication, but there are some:

A book focused exclusively on teaching all students to speak well: goo.gl/dgoSS7

An enhanced ebook free for the asking with many audio and video examples of student talks and teachers working with students:

A one-hour video: http://www.ascd.org/professional-development/videos/listen-up-speaking-matters-dvd.aspx

A book focused exclusively on explaining listening and speaking standards with lesson ideas and activities: goo.gl/4iJh1G 

An article about teaching speaking: goo.gl/engkOt

A website devoted to showing how to teach speaking: pvlegs.com

A short video with animated words about how to teach speaking: goo.gl/ven2jp

It is time to quit shortchanging our students. We have expected too little and have failed to give them needed help. Let’s help them with speaking the way we help them with writing, with math, and with all other subjects. They deserve a chance to be well-spoken.

Posted in Speaking | 2 Comments

“Fake News” is frightening…but not the way you think it is

Millions of Americans do not believe Joe Biden received 80 million votes for president. Every election until now reported results and every citizen accepted that those results were accurate. How did we get to a point where millions of us do not believe what has been reported?

Because while you were teaching students to not believe fake stories, the President was teaching Americans to not believe true stories.

Beginning five years ago, Donald Trump criticized the media, targeting specific people, networks, and papers. Initially, he picked on the New York Times and CNN. Now, even Fox News is on his hit list (see an article here). Originally, almost all news sources were called “fake news” by the President. Then they became enemies of the American people. Attacking the press has been a key part of his presidency since the early days.

Screen Shot 2020-01-24 at 8.28.57 AM

All reporting is wrong. Don’t believe anything. But is it dangerous to destroy belief in the media?

MISUSING THE WORD “FAKE”

Fake means false. Didn’t happen. Reporting that a poll that says 32% of the people trust the media is not fake if in fact such a poll existed. That some other poll might have different percentages does not mean that the first story was fake. CNN, ABC, NBC accurately reported the polls in the election. That the election turned out differently does not mean the stories were made up.

Not covering a story or only covering part of a story does not equal fake news. If there were big crowds on one side of the street supporting Black Lives Matter and counter protestors on the other side of the street, showing only one side of the street is misleading. Ignoring the other side of the street may be evidence of bias, but bias does not mean fake. The people shown were actually there. There is a huge difference between choosing one view over another (bias) and reporting something that never happened (fake). Pointing out bias is fair. Denying the truth is sinister.

THE PROBLEM IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK IT IS

Our first response to “fake news” as educators was to teach students how to sniff out fake news. We pointed out that some stories were totally false. Made up. Never happened. No truth. We wanted to give kids tools for figuring out which stories were fabricated. But teaching students how to find lies has turned out to be a much smaller problem than the frightening issue with “fake news”:

I am a little worried that students will believe something that is false.

I am terrified that students will not believe something that is true.

While we emphasized the small amount of stuff that is nonsense, we missed the incredibly serious risk of creating cynics who feel comfortable disregarding truths. One of the most important pieces of civil society was undermined while we were watching. Millions of us do not believe that which is true.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PRESS

A little history. Within minutes of creating a new country, our Founding Fathers decided to make ten changes to the Constitution. The very first change they proposed?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment 1 protects freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. The Founders were worried that these freedoms, not specifically mentioned in the articles setting up the government, could be attacked. Before anything else, they wanted to guarantee these freedoms.

…the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable. James Madison

Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost. Thomas Jefferson

The Founding Fathers realized that a free and respected press would help hold government leaders accountable, publicize important issues, and educate citizens so they can make informed decisions. Attacking the press, then, is a very dicey proposition. If the press is demeaned, those three things don’t happen. Who will perform those functions? This is not a liberal or a conservative issue. Both ideologies agree that a free press is critical to a well-functioning democracy.

Yet if our right to a free and independent press is infringed, all other rights fall. Our ability to be informed and the free flow of information, regardless of how damaging it is to elected officials, is one of the most essential safeguards to our liberty. The fight for a free press is one that we absolutely cannot afford to lose. http://www.freedomworks.org/content/flashback-founders-necessity-free-press

The press, which is essential to the preservation of liberty, has also come under attack from the government. One of the principles that ensures a free press is that journalists are not required to reveal their sources. This is one way government whistleblowers can feel free to come forward and reveal information that is of public importance, such as governmental corruption and abuse, without fearing exposure. If journalists were required to reveal their sources, scandals involving government corruption and wrongdoing such as Watergate might never be brought to the attention of the media and, thus, the American people. https://www.rutherford.org/constitutional_corner/amendment_i_freedom_of_religion_speech_press_and_assembly

DESTROYING FAITH IN A CRITICAL INSTITUTION

The non-stop barrage of “fake news” had an effect. Distrust in the media is increasing. From Gallup analyst Art Swift:

Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/296003-poll-trust-in-media-at-all-time-low

The numbers are radically different based on party affiliation: 14% of Republicans, 30% of independents, and 51% of Democrats trust the media. According to an Emerson College poll, 91% of Republicans think the news media is untruthful (47% of independents, 31% of Democrats). http://thehill.com/homenews/media/318514-trump-admin-seen-as-more-truthful-than-news-media-poll At the extreme, Trump supporters shouted “luegenpresse” at a rally (see the article here).

In other words, the President’s strategy has worked. That many Americans do not believe that the 2020 election results are real and that COVID is a hoax proves it. It’s all fake news and there are no longer accepted facts.

EDUCATORS MUST RESPOND

It is not enough, then, to teach students how to ferret out falsehoods. It is critical, yes, but more is needed. We must set the context. We must explain the importance of a free press. We must explain the core principles of our Founding Fathers. We must point out how rulers around the world and throughout history have attacked the press in order to subjugate the citizenry. We must make clear that a free press is never the enemy of the people. And yes, we have to risk upsetting some people by making clear that the President is frighteningly wrong.

Posted in Media Literacy | 1 Comment

Listen to the Rough Draft of the Speech. Yes, LISTEN…

Do you ever ask to hear the rough draft?

Yes, you read that correctly. I want to hear my students’ rough drafts. Every day, students are speaking in class. Often, teachers assign some talks with higher stakes than the daily discussions, answers of questions, and the like. We assign the quarterly book report in front of the entire class, the biography project final where students dress up as some historical figure, the report on smoking’s effects in health class, the presentation of the science project, the participation in a mock Congressional hearing, the talk at the DECA competition, and many more. At all grade levels in all subjects, at some point students will be giving a talk to a group. Before we expose the audience of students and/or parents and/or judges to these talks, we need to make sure that the talk is ready for prime time. I tell students to practice several times before presentation day, but, not surprisingly, some students do not practice. I am sure this is just an issue I face, and you never have this problem. To avoid that problem, though, I ask to hear the rough draft before my students give the final talk. I ask students to send me the rough draft recording of their talk so I can listen to it and offer advice. I don’t want to read the words they wrote, I want to hear them speaking. Do you ever do that?

Checking the rough draft is common for many writing assignments. The cynical among us may suggest checking the rough draft as a way to make sure students are doing the work they are supposed to be doing. The fear that the paper may not be started until the evening before the six-week assignment is due is real. Less cynical teachers may look at the rough draft as a formative assessment. Discovering mistakes and giving feedback before the final paper is due is more valuable than writing comments on the finished paper. For both reasons, I always asked students to do a rough draft before they handed in a major writing assignment. I collected and commented on the drafts and warned students that I would get quite miffed if those comments were ignored. I want the same thinking to apply to oral assignments—but with a twist. Don’t have students hand in a paper with the words they are planning on saying; require a recording of the talk instead.

There are many ways to record the rough draft. All of them contribute to preparation for your state’s speaking standards, by the way. While the Common Core Standards have fallen upon hard times, they left a mark. Speaking standards in most states have modeled ideas from the CCSS. For example, standards usually require students to use multimedia in presentations. In my state, beginning in second grade, students are expected to make audio recordings of talks; by fifth grade, students should be including multimedia components in presentations. This requirement is probably more daunting to teachers than to students. More of our students than you realize are already quite adept at various ways of recording and posting audio and video. Today, I want to share some of the simpler ways we can record, and show you how to use digital tools to practice talks. Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology is a source for those wanting more ideas and it is free for all teachers. Just contact me through pvlegs.com to get a copy.

Every computer/netbook/tablet has built-in audio and video recording. Every device has recording capability and your students will have no trouble finding it. In the distance learning world, students are becoming masters at using these tools. Have students  record themselves and attach the recording to an e-mail to send to you. Use Google Voice and have students call your number and leave a message: a couple minutes of their speech. Tell students to visit www.vocaroo.com. There’s no sign-up, no password, no cost—the home page has a big red button that starts the audio recording. When students finish, they can “Listen” to the recording. If the recording is not good enough, they can hit “Retry”; if they like it, they can copy the URL address to send to other listeners or hit a button that lets them e-mail the recording to someone . . . a teacher, for instance.

Try voki.com. Students can create presentations using an avatar and share it with you. See an example here.

Think of the possibilities. Students can watch/listen to the recordings, critique themselves using a PVLEGS rubric, make adjustments, and improve. Audio and video can be shared in a group: each group member shows his or her rough draft and gets feedback from other group members. Recordings can be viewed by a teacher who can give important tips to improve a presentation before the due date. A Reader’s Theater team could record parts and send them to teammates as a way to improve before performing the book selection in class. The Poetry Café presenters can listen to themselves before getting up in front of classmates and parents. The recordings of a “This I Believe” speech could be useful formative assessments on the way to the final talk. And, of course, you have your own great ideas.

Why wouldn’t you want to do this? Improving speaking skills, avoiding dull presentations, updating instruction, and meeting Common Core State Standards can all be accomplished by asking to hear the rough drafts.

Erik is the author of Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology and Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students.

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Don’t hit record! Don’t turn on the Zoom mic! Don’t Flipgrid! First…

Fourth graders are learning about the Reconstruction. The teacher wants to test out his new green screen tools. He has students speak and posts the video on YouTube. A huge problem: he is so focused on the tech tool that he fails to notice that the students do not know how to speak well. Check out what he posted for the world to see (I removed his identifying information because posting a rough draft is not kind to students): 4th graders Do you really believe that that is the best these kids can do?

A high school teacher has her class interested in school reform. She has students generate ideas about how to improve schools. She creates a video and puts it on YouTube. The intention is great; the message may be provocative and needed; and the students use appropriate digital tools available to create a message for a real audience.  One huge problem: no one taught the students how to speak well. Watch the students in the YouTube video she posted.  Again, I took clips of the students from the video and took out all identifying information. Another high school teacher has students record podcasts about historical events. I love the idea. Podcasts showcase oral communication for a real audience. But you need to have something worth showcasing. Do you want to listen to all of this podcast: https://youtu.be/Ouic59Gv0x0? This is the best that students can do after 11 years of speaking in our classes? All of the speaking that happens in all of those years of speaking leads to this? Yes, because we made kids talk but we never taught them how to talk well.

I feel bad about criticizing these students, but the truth is that not one of them is close to impressive. I apologize for being rough but you know it is true. This is tragic. Here is the part that is hard to hear: it is our fault as teachers that students have such poor speaking skills.

I guarantee you that each of these students has spoken often in the years of schooling they have had. Many talks were informal: answering and asking questions, solving problems at the board, commenting in discussions, and such. Many were formal. How many book reports do you suppose a child has given? How many research reports presented? How many poetry recitations? How many lab results explained? How many times explaining a travel brochure on the Central American country they were assigned? Would you guess that at least ten times, each child had to get up in front of a class at some point and speak for 3 to 5 minutes? Would you believe twenty times? More? In other words, it isn’t that they have never done this. It is that no one ever taught them to do it well. And you know that while you have lessons and worksheets on capital letters, for example, you never had a lesson or practice phrases to help students understand descriptive hand gestures. Lessons on topic sentences? Common. Lessons on adjusting speed for effect? Extremely uncommon. Without specific instruction, they will just make more un-listenable recordings.

In remote learning where all talk is online, the problem increases. Zoom. Podcasts. Flipgrids. Videos. Digital presentations with various tools. How many impressive speakers do you see?

Here is the reality: speaking well matters in life. No matter what profession someone enters, the person who speaks well will be more successful than the person who speaks less well. As 21st century communication tools put oral communication on display, verbal skills are critical. Podcasts, Skype (now being used by employers for intake interviews), videos (like the one I am critiquing here), digital stories, and video conferences demand strong oral communication skill. Look at skills employers want.

Verbal communication is at the top of the list of skills most desired for prospective employees. Which of those speakers do you think would impress the HR committee?

Some kids get pretty good on their own. In my experience, about 10% of students speak pretty well. But if only 10% of your students pass your test, I am going to blame you.  You didn’t teach well. So I have to suggest that teachers have failed these students. (This will no doubt be a very unpopular blog: criticizing well-meaning kids and blaming teachers?)  We have a great excuse: we have been focused on big tests and have been forced to ignore the most important language art. But with the communication tools available today, that omission is becoming more serious.

One more video. These fourth graders were given specific instruction about how to speak well in the weeks leading up to the book reports. Watch them here. You notice the difference right away, don’t you?  You, too, can give students help. If you use digital communication tools in your class, this enhanced e-book explains how create effective podcasts and videos. It’s full of tutorials, audio and video examples of students, lessons, and rubrics. I’ll send it to you for free. Contact me at www.pvlegs.com.

Look here for a book that explains generally how to teach students to build a powerful message and how to deliver that message well.

I believe in these kids. I know that each one of them is capable of impressing us given proper instruction. I know that we have accepted too little for too long. Don’t hit record until you teach them to be well spoken.

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Fake Quotes: A lesson in how easily we can be duped

We all see the news: trolls are posting fake stories. We all think, “That’s terrible!” We worry that our students will be duped. Why do these falsehoods spread? Why do fake posts work? The answer to that can be found by taking a look at a very common practice on social media, posting/liking/retweeting nicely decorated quotes from famous people. You’ve seen this quote:

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.  Albert Einstein

Einstein never said any such thing. There are hundreds of nicely decorated versions of this available with a simple web search and even some classroom posters. All lies.

On Twitter I saw:

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.  Ben Franklin

Ben Franklin never said that. Total falsehood.

Here are four fun ones:

Which version is correct? None of them. They are all lies.

This drives me crazy. Intelligent people. Educators. Folks with degrees. All of these people get upset when they hear that Facebook is being used by troll farms putting out falsehoods that end up being widely shared, yet they are guilty of forwarding falsehoods themselves.

I think I know how these fakes get created. Someone somewhere thought, “These are nice words, but no one will read them unless I say a famous person said them. How about Steve Jobs? Ben Franklin? Wait, no! This has the word ‘genius’ in it, and when I hear the word genius, I think of Einstein! I’ll say that Einstein said it!” And I understand why re-posting and retweeting happen: the post includes some nice sentiments or an inspirational message, and we want to share them. We end up spreading lies.

Don’t be so harsh, right? The message was super nice so don’t be picky. So Franklin or Roosevelt didn’t say it. Big deal. The point is that the words are inspiring! With that kind of thinking, you can see how troll farms succeed. Put out a message people like, and it will be shared whether true or false. Maybe the post includes something Donald Trump never said or Joe Biden never said, but so what? I like the post! It reinforces what I already believe so I’ll re-post it. Be aware that it is very easy to create attractive but fake messages. Rather than take non-famous words and attribute them to famous people, I used Canva (https://www.canva.com/) to create a poster taking famous words and attributing them to me. The message is wonderful, right? Feel free to share it!

We need to model the behavior we want our students to emulate. We can’t mindlessly accept and perpetuate what we like online. Be suspicious. Think critically. Sometimes the red flags are obvious.

Sometimes it is trickier to detect fakes. You have to know about Ben Franklin’s writing to know the words above are not his style. You have to think that while the world thinks Einstein is a genius, he didn’t hold himself out to be a genius or a commentator on genius. Verify. Use Snopes, a fact-checking site (https://www.snopes.com/). Use Google. On the search line I typed, “Did Einstein ever say everyone is a genius” and got many results verifying that he didn’t including this one: https://www.history.com/news/here-are-6-things-albert-einstein-never-said.

This is all effortful, but necessary. Make it part of your behavior to think critically and never mindlessly accept or repost anything. Then share your skill with your students. To stop the spread of falsehoods online, we need to cure ourselves first. https://erikpalmerconsulting.com/

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Listening skills: Way More Than “What’s the main idea?”

HMH listening

I sometimes get emails from an organization about improving student listening skills. They point out that speaking and listening are not being addressed in schools and claim that listening is a key piece of the “literacy puzzle.”

Kudos to educators who focus on these forgotten language arts! For years, English teachers have been focused only on “reading and writing.” If you look at conferences, Twitter feeds, and educators’ blogs, you will see “reading and writing” so many times that it will seem as if we ought to just adopt a new word: readinganwriting. You never see “reading, writing, and speaking” or “reading, writing, speaking, and listening.” This reveals an enormous blind spot.

The most critical language arts—the ones upon which almost all learning depend—are ignored. Are all students competent listeners? Isn’t it apparent to all educators that students generally do not speak particularly well? Yet no one seems to think that we ought to start paying attention to these language arts. We seem to not realize that speaking and listening are teachable, too.

The organization suggests playing audio clips of interesting news stories for your students and then asking comprehension questions about the stories. If I use a story I heard on National Public Radio about how China is no longer buying plastic waste from the U.S., for example, and ask online comprehension questions, I wonder if that is sufficient. Does listening to the news teach listening skills? What do my questions really measure? Is this a test of comprehension skills, checking to see if students understand what a main idea is? While the main idea may be “China has stopped buying our discarded plastic,” a child may report that container ships arrived in the United States from China with goods made in China and, instead of going back empty, were being filled with plastic. The student listened well but had difficulty with the concept of main idea. Is this a memory test? A question such as, “What reasons did they give for why China doesn’t buy plastic anymore?” may assess remembering more than listening.

Putting those issues aside for a moment, notice all the elements of listening that were never asked about:

  • The story had a little music at the start as the reporter introduced himself. Did you notice it? Is the music important? Why do you think the music was added? What does music contribute to a story?
  • At one point, some sound effect was playing as the speaker was talking. What was that noise? Did you realize it was noise from a recycling plant? Did you hear glass tinkling? Did you hear the conveyor belt running? Why do you think they added that sound? Does it help you understand the story?
  • How well does the reporter speak? Was his voice clear? Did he have feeling and emotion in his voice? Is there a certain style of talking that news people have? Is that the way you speak?
  • Sometimes the reporter played a clip of other people speaking. Did hearing the voice of the recycling plant manager add to the story? Did hearing the voice of the environmental scientist affect your understanding of the problem? If the reporter had just told you what they said instead of playing a recording of their voices, would it have made any difference?
  • How well did the plant manager and the scientist speak? Did they have different styles from each other and from the reporter? Who was your favorite to listen to? Why? What makes someone fun to listen to?

We don’t have to be media literacy experts to think of these questions. We simply need to realize that good listeners should be able to do much more than repeat what someone said. Because messages come with sounds and music attached, listeners should be asked to think about the audio elements of messages. Because speaking skills can dramatically affect the way we receive messages, listeners should be able to identify the skills needed to be an effective speaker and to critique the speakers they hear. If we fail to teach students how to listen to all the elements of what they hear, we risk creating passive consumers of media instead of astute, active thinkers about media.

Bottom line: It’s time to broaden our ideas of listening. If we really want to improve listening skills, we need to listen to much more than words. https://erikpalmerconsulting.com/

 

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Can Numbers Be Biased?

We love statistics. Specifically, we love raw number statistics: number of students proficient or advanced, number of babies named Emma, number of hot dogs eaten in 10 minutes, and more. We also love percentage statistics: grades; batting averages in baseball, women’s pay as a percentage of men’s pay, and so on. There is a certainty to these. Statistics are made of numbers, and numbers don’t lie.

But while numbers don’t lie, it is easy to use the statistics compiled from them in a biased way. The media literate person needs to understand how statistics can be manipulated—and that’s where statistics literacy comes in. Let me offer a hypothetical example—followed by tips for educators and parents to teach students about statistics literacy in either the classroom or at home.

Hypothetical Example: I want my students to turn off all devices for one day—24 hours with no cellphone, no computer, no e-reader, no Xbox, no anything. I want them to see how addicted they are and how life can still continue without screen time. Let’s say I try this experiment with 100 students in three of my middle school classes. I toss out the idea on Monday and ask students on Tuesday how many succeeded. The answer? Only one. I spend some time Tuesday sharing some numbers with students about the average amount of screen time spent daily and the possible negative effects that may have. I repeat the challenge. On Wednesday, five students report that they turned off all devices for a day.

Bias in Selection

Let’s look at two reports using statistics from Tuesday and Wednesday:

The No Device Challenge is gaining traction. In only one day, five times as many students as the day before accepted the challenge. At this rate, in just two more days no students will have devices on.

The No Device Challenge is not gaining traction. After two days, 95% of students have failed to change their behavior.

Both reports are true. Both accurately report the numbers, and the statistics are correct. Yet they lead to opposite conclusions about how the project is going. The reporters selected different numbers to analyze. If you are biased in favor of this project, you will likely use the first report. If you are biased against this project, you will likely use the second.

Sneaking in Biased Words

Beware of descriptive adjectives added to statistical reports. Numbers are embedded in sentences and paragraphs, and the words used to introduce the numbers suggest bias:

The No Device Challenge is gaining traction. In only one day, an impressive five times as many students as the day before accepted the challenge.

The No Device Challenge is not gaining traction. After two days, a disappointing 95% of students have failed to change their behavior.

It is extremely common to see opinions such as these slipped into statistical reporting. Just one or two words can totally influence the way you read the numbers. Did the number of students surge up to five, or did the number of students barely budge from Day 1?

Bias in Graphs

Graphs are used in biased ways, too. Here’s a graph that makes the No Device project look great:

But if you change the graph to include all of the students, the project is going nowhere:

Again, both charts are accurate. They use the same numbers, but somehow, they leave different impressions. Changing the scale is a very common way to make the mundane seem dramatic.

Selecting only a piece of a graph can change the impression, too. I made up these numbers, but let’s say this is a graph of students who need free lunches. This looks scary, right? Our community is falling apart!

How about looking at the entire graph?

The numbers didn’t change, but somehow the community doesn’t look as bad, does it? It looks like lots of progress has been made.

Bias in Percentages

There was a 200% increase in snow days last year in my district. If I had said, “Last year we had one snow day and this year we had two,” you wouldn’t have been impressed, but it is another way of describing what happened. What if I said that last year, about 1% of the days during the school year were snow days? Again, it comes down to which numbers you select to compare. Do you want to be dramatic and shock readers? Make a percentage with one snow day and two snow days. 200%! Do you want to keep things calm? Make a percentage with two snow days and 185 days in the school calendar. 1%. Both are true. Both are biased.

The Bottom Line: Statistics don’t lie. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be manipulated. The perceived certainty of numbers can make us less critical than we need to be when reading the barrage of figures that come our way daily.

Tips for Teachers

  • Make sure students know that it is possible to be biased and true. Reporters don’t have to lie about the numbers; they just choose the ones they want to use.
  • Have students look for adjectives that describe the numbers. We read “a shocking 15% increase” differently than “a modest 15% increase.” Bias shows up in those adjectives.
  • Encourage students to look for the bigger picture. In an era where the dramatic is used to attract eyeballs, perspective is lost. “One million people may be in trouble!” Is one million a big number? There are 7.7 billion people on the planet, so one million is way less than 1% of the population: about one one-hundredth of 1% (0.01%).
  • Have students look for different ways to put numbers together. For example, in my No Device activity, there was a 500% increase (from 1 to 5), there was five-fold increase (from 1 to 5), there was an increase of four percentage points (from 1% of the students to 5% of the students), there was a 95% failure rate, there were 19 times as many students failing as succeeding (95 divided by 5), and so on. Have them discuss how the different versions suggest different meanings.
  • Tell students to analyze all graphs. Is this the right scale to use? Is this a representative selection? What other graphs could be made with the same numbers?

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Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author of the HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature programs. Palmer was also a guest on HMH’s Learning Moments podcast, Shaping the Future: Future Skills for Fact-Checking Online Fakes.

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Blame the messenger–Why Online Instruction Fails

You’ve heard the phrase before. Someone brings you some bad news, and, as you begin to get upset, he says, “Hey, don’t blame the messenger!” In a school I worked at, our team leader said it often. He went to all the meetings and came back with reports of all the new things we had to do: new initiatives we had to implement, new tech tools the school purchased that we were supposed to put into play, new [math/science/bullyproofing/grammar/insert your own idea] program we had to use. As we got agitated and began to complain, he always used the phrase on us. It certainly seemed fair. Why vent at him when it was the new things we hated? Don’t blame the messenger.

Lately, I have come to think differently. There are cases where we should blame the messenger. Now that all of us are online presenters it is more apparent than ever that weak speaking dooms our attempts at instruction. No one wants to listen to hours of mediocre to poor oral communication. Add all the other options available online and we can’t be surprised that students are tuning out. You wouldn’t watch this stuff either.

Let me give an example of how poor oral communication can ruin good intentions. I attended a talk about making more effective use of technology in instruction. I think the message is an important one. Many teachers were putting their students in the position of being time travelers: the students are in 2020 outside of school, but when they come into the classroom, it looks like 1980. Few teachers have expertise in the effectively using digital tools, and many were hesitant or resistant. We can kid ourselves, but change is difficult, and teachers are generally buried. Planning, grading, parent meetings, school meetings, and shifting requirements are all-consuming. The tech teacher may have the time and interest to explore all the new tools, but the average teacher doesn’t, so someone has to be the messenger to bring the new information to the teachers. And that messenger had better be good. Think of how much better prepared we would be for remote learning now if we had had better presentations about it then.

Which brings me back to the talk. What was really needed there was a high-powered communicator with excellent oral communication skills. First, the speaker had to make sure the presentation was well built. To start, it should have been created for the audience: teachers giving up their time and paying for a couple days of sessions who are not really looking for complicated jargon or some glitzy new tool. I was stunned that the presenter seemed to have no idea what the audience was thinking. The speaker should have well designed visual aids that engage the audience, but instead we saw the typical PowerPoint slides with bullet points and a massive list of “apps you must have.” Who wants to see that?  The speaker should have content that is understandable, but instead we were buried with a quick explanation of the 25 tools we should be using. Way too much, way too fast, way inappropriate for those who aren’t tech savvy. Before the speaker ever opened his mouth, the presentation was doomed. It was poorly constructed. (Check out a collection of bad slides to use as examples of what NOT to do.) How well built is the online instruction that you  are seeing out there today?

Of course, after a presentation is created, it has to be delivered. Speakers presenting new ideas need to be really good. Selling change requires exceptional skills. A speaker has to be lively, engaging, animated, powerful, and maybe humorous. These are necessary to sell any new idea. Unfortunately, the speaker was none of those. Most attendees left the session before it was over. Blame the messenger. He ruined the presentation and poisoned the idea of using valuable tech tools. Too bad. We could have used an inspirational message to get us psyched to use the tools we now need to use for remote learning. And when we move from live to online, speakers have to be much much more lively to be engaging. Online speaking is a performance art. Talking at kids doesn’t work. How impressive is the speaking on the videos and screencasts you’ve seen created?

Everyone can benefit by improving their speaking skills. We are the messengers. How many great ideas in your school died because they were presented poorly?  How many teachers got upset because an administrator communicated poorly?  How many times have you looked around at a staff meeting and seen glazed eyes and clear disinterest? How many good lessons have been ignored because no one wanted to continue to listen? If these have happened, blame the messenger. Or better yet, get help. Check out Own Any Occasion. (Find it here)

See also Don’t Hit Record Yet.

 

 

 

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