Remember How Important You Are

When teachers at Mission Viejo Elementary School came back from summer break, I was there. They wanted me to present on the morning of the first day. I have worked with hundreds of schools and districts across North America, and my presentation went along well until one slide came up. I got all choked up. Yes, I am prone to that, and at my children’s big events, they will tell you that I often have to stop to collect myself. But this is the first time I got choked up during this presentation. You see, my grandson will be attending Mission Viejo kindergarten this year.

Here’s what happened: I put up a picture of my grandson and was suddenly hit by the enormity of the teacher’s task. These children aren’t data points. They aren’t 104’s or IEPs. They aren’t ADHDs or special eds or GTs or minorities or any other labels. They aren’t vessels to be filled, and they aren’t future test-takers to be groomed for the Big Test. They are someone’s child, someone’s grandchild.

Grandson Brayden is raw, innocent, vulnerable, and wonderful.   I don’t know if he’ll be a great reader or writer or artist or mathematician or athlete or anything. All I know is that he is walking into school expecting great things. His mother is one of the sweetest people on the planet, and my son-in-law is a great father. They are watching their child walk into Mission Viejo fully expecting that he will be well cared for and well educated. Their level of trust is amazing: Here. You can have our child every day. He is precious. He is unique. We love him. We believe in you and want you to help him become even more amazing.

As teachers, we easily lose sight of the enormity of the task we have chosen. We get caught up with the minutiae of education, the forms, the meetings, the day-to-day problems, the new directives, and the new initiatives. In my case, I was telling the teachers that we were going to undertake some important work this year, transforming the way all students speak. We tend to overlook the fact that students don’t speak well as we go on about our other businesses. I said that I want all students to become better at life’s most important language art, oral communication. I want Brayden and all of his classmates to leave Mission Viejo able to speak well in every situation. I want them to be comfortable and confident communicators. That is important work. I think speaking well will be worth more to them than many other things we teach in school. But I don’t want any teacher to think, “I have to teach speaking.” I want all of us to remember that we have to improve the lives of the children entrusted to us. That is an incredible undertaking.

I had a principal who was good at spouting, “All of my decisions are based on the best interests of the children.” She used the phrase as a way of taking out other opinions: My decision is in the best interest of students whereas your opinion is selfish. She wasn’t concerned about kids as much as she was about being right, getting us to fall in line, and/or selling the new district mandate. I remember when the district decided that my 8th graders had to take a test that predicted how well they would do when the took the test in 10th grade that predicted how well they would do when they took the test in 11th grade that some colleges required for admissions. It was in the best interest of students, we were told. The test was dropped after a few years. Were we lied to? Why drop something that was so good for students, right? That is the topic for another blog. But even so, my principal was paying lip service to the wrong idea. I don’t want what’s in the best interests of students. I want what’s in the best interest of young human beings.

There is a subtle difference there. Brayden is not just a student. He is so much more, and he is someone’s very special child. It is an awesome responsibility to realize that every being in your class has been sent to you by loving, hopeful, sometimes inept, concerned parents who believe you are worthy of crucial years of their child’s life. Every once in a while, step back and remember how important you are to children. Think about how noble and wonderful your job is. I bet you’ll get choked up, too.

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Four Ways to Prepare Students for the Future

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To make students’ futures better, we need to consider what skills they will need—and teach them.

If we really want to prepare students for life beyond school, we could begin by asking ourselves what pieces of our own education we are using now as adults. That is an edgy question, and many teachers will take offense if anyone suggests that, in spite of their personal, deep love of haiku/Shakespeare/geodes/the Articles of Confederation/cosine, most adults have never needed deep knowledge of any of those to succeed. The truth is, many highly successful people gain success without remembering large amounts of material that they learned in school.

When the Colorado Student Assessment Program was introduced, Bill Owens, the governor at the time, refused to take the test, despite being a proponent of standards and testing. The legislators who did take a version of the test did not do well. This can be read as criticism of the politicians behind big tests, but it is possibly more of a criticism of our curricula. All of us would fail most of the tests we took in school. The information we were tested on has not been relevant to our lives and has been forgotten.

Does that mean we’ve been teaching the wrong things? Is it possible that TheScarlet Letter and the dates of the Hundred Years War are not crucial to life after school? Heresy, right?

What parts of your education have been critical to your adult success? What do you wish you had been taught? Many adults say they wish they were better at public speaking, so let’s teach more oral communication. What else? These are tough questions that, answered truthfully, could radically change what we teach.

The relevant, long-lasting lessons from our own education will likely be relevant and long-lasting for our current students. But the world our students graduate into will not look exactly like the world of 2019. We want to prepare students for their futures, which leads us to make predictions. This is a tricky business and not one with which educators have had a lot of success. I remember learning to make computer punch cards because it was the skill of the future. I was also taught BASIC programming because that would be the key to getting jobs. There was a “Golly, kids, look at the new-fangled gadgets!” mentality behind these efforts, which, unfortunately, still exists.

When we are asked to think of the future, our minds go to hovering cars, 4D printers, teleportation, and knowledge chips implanted into the brain. I don’t want to make guesses about the likelihood of these technologies coming to fruition. I can’t tell you what the classroom of the future will look like or whether there will even be classrooms. I’m not going to bet one way or the other on the maker movement or flipped instruction or coding or anything else. But I will make four bold predictions.

Prediction 1. There will still be an Internet.

It will still be possible to pick up a device, ask a question, and get several million results in less than one second. Although I may not be going out on a limb here, the implications of this prediction are profound. Students will need to be able to make sense of the massive amounts of information they will find. These are just a few of the skills an Internet-literate student needs:

  • An understanding of what the Internet is. “I found it on the Internet” is not an accurate statement. You found it on a computer connected to the World Wide Web.
  • Ways to formulate queries. Typing “childhood obesity” into a search engine is not the best way to discover what health problems are associated with being overweight. Students need to know about Boolean searches, adding prefixes such as SITE and FILETYPE, and more. For example, “site:.edu childhood obesity” will yield search results from educational sites only and eliminate the massive amount of results from .com sites and others.
  • An awareness of various types of search engines. Google is not the only option. Specialized search engines can be much more fruitful. Kidrexis excellent for young students; Google Scholar only retrieves information from research articles, professional journals, university websites, and other scholarly resources.
  • An awareness of how search engine results are ranked. Teach students that being at the top of the list does not mean a result is the best source and that results are rigged to be most pleasing to your tastes.
  • An understanding of domain types. Teach the meanings of .com, .gov, .guru, .hr, and .org.
  • Tools to evaluate the people behind the website. Teach students how to find the credentials of content creators and evaluate their expertise.
  • An ability to analyze a website’s purpose. Teach students ways to discover whether the site is designed to inform, amuse, persuade, or sell.
  • An awareness of bias. How is foxnews.comdifferent from www.huffingtonpost.com? Teach students to look for slanted information.

These skills will continue to be important for evaluating the information the Internet provides, yet many teachers still send students online to research without direct instruction in these skills. The problems of information overload will get worse, and many students are leaving school without the critical-thinking skills needed to make sense of this information tsunami. 

Prediction 2. Salespeople will still exist.

Whether selling standardized tests to the board of education (yes, there will still be Big Tests), holodecks to homeowners, new-generation “geniusphones,” candidates for the Interplanetary Council, or virtual reality glasses, the sales profession will remain. Commercials will bombard us from everywhere. The arts of argument, persuasion, and rhetoric will be in high demand.

To evaluate these sales pitches, students will need an understanding of logic, reasoning, argument, and persuasive techniques. We have to teach students the definition of argument (statements leading to a conclusion); how to evaluate arguments (Do the statements force us to accept the conclusion? Are the statements true?); and how to support statements (the five types of evidence: facts, numbers, quotes, examples, and analogies). We have to teach them how to recognize and avoid reasoning errors, such as confusing causality and correlation, generalizing, making ad hominem attacks, derailing the train of thought, and stereotyping. We have to make students aware of persuasive tricks such as transference, bandwagon appeals, and loaded words, as well as rhetorical tricks such as hyperbole, allusion, and euphemism.

We ask students to do argumentative writing, but do we teach the skills involved? Teachers I’ve surveyed say they’ve never been trained to teach argument, reasoning, persuasion, and rhetoric, but students will need to understand these techniques as adults.

Prediction 3. Listening will still be important.

That’s not an exciting, sci-fi, high-tech prediction. But listening in the future will be high-tech. When we think of listening, we tend to think of verbal messages. If you pay attention to what I’m saying, that completes the listening task, right? Actually, listening is more complex than that, and it’s getting even more complex. Messages are not merely oral communications but rather an elaborate mix of words, sounds, music, and images. This means that all students will need to be media literate so they can listen well to different kinds of media.

I guarantee that a team of students with a camera can make your school look terrible today. They will find garbage that missed the trash can, a student upset about something that happened at recess, a torn poster on the wall. Another team can make your school look great today. They will photograph a teacher and student engaged in conversation, a well-organized classroom, and a trophy case. Both teams told the “truth,” but they made a point by selecting one image over another. Teach students about the power of images.

Good videos are carefully constructed. Have you seen “A Pep Talk from Kid President to You?” In the video, YouTube personality Kid President offers some words of inspiration and encouragement. Why is Kid President in a locker room? On a football field? In front of a board covered with Xs and Os? Each scene is chosen for a reason. Are students aware of this? And why are there so many scene changes? How does that affect viewers? Teach students about the construction of videos.

Sound and music are selected for a reason. Teach students how to alter a message with sound. You can find several fun examples on YouTube of movie scenes that have been given alternate soundtracks. Find the video that makes the movie Frozen seem like a horror film or the silly video of a snail, in which different types of music make the same scene scary, funny, and even somber. All of us are susceptible to manipulation by music, and every day we experience it. Teach students specific lessons about sound and its powers.

Prediction 4. People will still be speaking.

The last several years have seen an explosion of ways to display verbal messages: Facetime, Skype, Periscope for Twitter, and cell phone apps, plus tools for video conferences, webinars, podcasts, narrated slideshows, and many more. Unfortunately, schools have often ignored speaking skills. My son works for a company that connects people who have ideas for high-tech financial innovations with potential investors and users. He reports that there is no shortage of brilliant people with brilliant ideas but a serious shortage of people who can verbally communicate those ideas. Turning ideas into reality involves collaboration and communication. Prerequisites for collaboration and communication? Listening and speaking skills.

For students to thrive in a world of oral communication, we have to teach students how to build and present a message. Teaching students to create a valuable message means teaching them

  • How to analyze an audience and craft a message for that audience.
  • How to include interesting and important information that connects with the audience.
  • How to organize the talk with a grabber opening, clear transitions, and a powerful closing.
  • How to create effective visual aids.
  • How to adjust their personal appearance for the audience and occasion.
  • Teaching students how to present the message means teaching them
  • How to appear poised and avoid distracting behaviors.
  • How to make sure every word is clearly heard.
  • How to add life to the voice so listeners can hear passion and emotion.
  • How to make eye contact.
  • How to use hand, face, and body gestures effectively.
  • How to adjust speed for effect.

Just as we teach lessons about capitalization before asking students to write an essay, we need lessons about use of pacing when speaking. Just as we have lessons about finding common denominators before asking students to add fractions, we need lessons about designing slides for visual aids. In a future with oral communication on display to an even greater extent than it is today, students’ shortcomings in these areas will hurt them. Teach students to be well spoken.

Classic Skills for a New Age

Not very sci-fi. No new devices offered. No massive restructuring of schools. No wildly new areas of instruction. Indeed, two of my predictions lead to an increased emphasis on classic arts: Argument, rhetoric, and oral communication have been important since ancient Greece. Still, I feel confident that if you ask students 40 years after graduation what they needed to know and be able to do, many would verify my choices. Internet literacy, media literacy, good thinking, and good speaking will be valued every day of their lives. Let’s do more teaching about them.

 

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Evaluating Speaking

Look around your building. You will see students speaking, sometimes informally, sometimes formally. Sometimes teachers grade those speaking assignments. Now look closely at the rubrics and score sheets that are being used. Each one is unique. No two teachers have the same idea of what it takes to be an effective speaker. This means that our students will get inconsistent, sometimes contradictory, and often very wrong comments making it very difficult to piece together how to become competent communicators. We don’t really know how to evaluate speaking.

I wrote previously about the two very distinct components of all oral communication: building the speech (all the things you do before you open your mouth) and performing the speech (all the things you do as you are speaking). Understanding that distinction is the beginning point for creating effective rubrics. Too often, teachers hand out rubrics that jump from ‘building” to “performing” elements: Content, 10 points; Volume, 10 pts.; Organization, 10 pts.; Eye contact, 10 pts.; and so on. Worse, many teachers combine disparate elements on their rubrics: Content, volume, and pacing, 20 points.  A student develops content before the day of the talk, but volume and pacing are considerations as he is talking.

Multiple items on one scoring line create another problem, as well. If the score sheet says “Speak loudly, clearly, and slowly—10 points,” did I get a 6 because I was loud enough and clear enough but spoke way too fast? Was I a little off on each of the three things? Was I pretty far off on two of the three? A student will have no idea what to work on before the next presentation.

In this case, we could solve the ‘multiple item on one line’ problem by breaking those three apart: Speak loudly 5 pts.; speak clearly 5 pts.; speak slowly 5 pts., for example. But this reveals another problem. Two of those three descriptors are wrong. It is not necessary to always speak loudly. Sometimes a quiet voice is very powerful. When my father said softly, “Erik, come here,” I knew something big was about to happen. Yes, every word needs to be heard but speaking loudly is often inappropriate. Speaking slowly is equally wrong.  Recounting the exciting play when the winning goal was scored demands a quick pace.  Don’t read this slowly:

The defender slipped slightly. I quickly pushed the ball past him and raced to the goal.  Two other defenders came rushing at me. The keeper’s eyes lit up. I fired off a shot just as the defenders converged on where the ball had been. Too late!

It is wrong to suggest to students that they need to speak slowly. They should pay attention to speed, for sure, and they should be taught how to adjust it for effect.

In my work with teachers around the country, I have seen many different words used to evaluate just the performing part of speaking:

Intonation, elocution, articulation, inflection, expression, enthusiasm, loudly, pitch, rhythm, clearly, slowly, volume, hold head up, body language, posture, tone, eye contact, poise, look at audience, stand up straight, gestures, projection, body movement, enunciation, presence, fluid expression, confidence, interesting voice…

You may find more at your school. Some of these are misguided and some are confusing words for students. In any case, imagine the difficulty we give our students when we bury them with different descriptors and bad advice. Let me offer some solutions.

  • Develop a consistent, school-wide language. When a student moves from grade to grade or from class to class, she should be able to expect the same grading system.  Don’t have one teacher score “articulation and posture,” another “elocution and loudness,” another “hold head up and enunciation,” and so on.
  • Make sure teachers separate “building a speech” elements from “performing a speech” elements on your rubric. On the top half of the score sheet, score content, organization, and visual aids; on the bottom half, score poise, voice, life, eye contact, gestures, and speed. Give both parts equal weight. Don’t make the performance unimportant; don’t make the performance outweigh lack of content.
  • Use simple language. “Elocution,” “presence,” “fluid body language,” are not student friendly words. “Speak each word clearly,” “be poised,” and “use hand, face, and body gestures” are more accessible terms.
  • Don’t use misleading words. Think hard about each word as I demonstrated with “loudly” and “slowly.” “Enthusiasm” is inappropriate in the speech about your grandmother’s death.
  • A speech is for an audience.  The audience opinion must be part of the grade. Every listener must have some form to score as he or she listens to the speech. No, it doesn’t become a popularity contest. Students are very good evaluators and they know poise when they see it, they know if the speech covered the required content. Additionally, involving the students makes them attentive and critical listeners—something necessary to address the listening part of your state’s standards.

I created a framework for building a talk and performing a talk which you can see at pvlegs.com. Look at the Rubrics and Organizers tab for lots of help. A sample of what you’ll find:

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Teaching Speaking, the Forgotten Language Art

Nobody exactly knows. This is what I find out when I ask teachers, “What are the skills involved in effective oral communication?” I mean, we all have some ideas, but no one knows for sure what is really involved.

It’s an important question. In every classroom at every grade level in every subject, students are asked to speak: book reports, discussions, showing solutions, debates, reading aloud, presenting lab results, research reports…. And as digital tools enter the classroom and students engage in digital storytelling, podcasting, and video production, speaking skills are on display like never before. By this point in the year, the odds are excellent that you have already had some kind of student presentation.

And in life beyond the classroom, oral communication is the most important language art. I am, as you may have guessed from other posts I’ve written, obsessed with skills that will be important for our students in their lives after school. With the tools out there today, oral communication is more important than ever. It is always at or near the top of skills employers are looking for.

I don’t care what job students ultimately get—people who speak well will be more successful at the job than people who don’t speak well.

But we don’t exactly know the secret to effective speaking. (I am not referring only to “public speaking” which is what we tend to think of: the big presentation to large groups. The interview, the staff meeting, the sales call, the Back to School Night show, the wedding toast, the Socratic Seminar and more all require the exact same skills of oral communication.)  I have collected many rubrics/score sheets over the years and there is nothing close to agreement.

From a 9thgrade “Science in the News” assignment: 5 points each for “make eye contact,” “speak loud enough,” “hold head up,” “use note cards,” “knowledgeable;” 20 points for “five W’s answered.”

From a 4thgrade “Historical Fiction Book Share:” 10 points each for “interesting opening and satisfying conclusion,” “speak loudly & slowly,” “make eye contact,” “preparation and practice are evident;” 15 points for “presentation is organized;” 5 points for “keep audience engaged;” 20 points for “the character is creatively shown.”

From a 10thgrade “Cultures of the Ancient World:” “Oral Presentation: 20 points—Organized; Good eye-contact, loud voice; Dressed in clothes that symbolize the era.”

From a district language arts committee generic rubric: “4) Speaks fluently (i.e. with expression, volume, pace, appropriate gestures, etc.) with varying formality for a variety of purposes using appropriate vocabulary, correct sentences organization, and respect with distinction; 3) Speaks fluently (i.e. with expression, volume, pace, appropriate gestures, etc.) with varying formality for a variety of purposes using appropriate vocabulary, correct sentences organization, and respect; 2) Partially speaks fluently…”

Well, you get the idea. We all seem to think that eye contact and a loud voice are important, but would a student know what it takes to be effective based on these score sheets?  In an educational career from K through 12thgrades, a student will never see the same scoring system more than once. There is no common language, no common understanding. And I love the “etc.” of the generic rubric, the universal way of saying, “I bet there’s more, but I have no idea what.” We are telling students, “You guys know all the secrets to speaking fluently, don’t you? Expression, volume, pace, gestures and all that other stuff.” But they don’t know! And much more importantly, has any teacher taught even one lesson about any of those elements? For example, one lesson about pace and why it’s important and how to adjust it, followed by little practice speeches/activities?

So we are stuck listening to students who say, “I’m like all for like health care and all but I’m like whoa who is gonna pay and stuff, you know what I mean?”  At least we are stuck until we make two changes: one, become clear on what it takes to be an effective speaker; two, commit to teaching oral communication skills more purposefully before you assign the speaking activities you already have.

I can help with the first part. Visit www.pvlegs.com. It provides a structure and a common language that has worked very well for students (and adults) for many years. It makes clear that all speaking involves what you do before you speak and what you do as you speak. You can get a sense of the distinction between them by clicking on the checklists at the bottom of this post.

As for the second part, how many of us have given a score for “gestures” without ever teaching mini-lessons on gestures?  Just as we teach pieces of writing (punctuation, commas after an introductory phrase, commas to separate items in a series, commas to join independent clauses), we must teach the pieces of speaking: “On Tuesday, we will discuss and practice emphatic hand gestures; on Wednesday, we will move to descriptive hand gestures; on Thursday, we will work briefly with body gestures; on Friday, we will have a little lesson on facial gestures and expression so that next week when you give your speeches, I can score you on gestures.” Teachers are always talking about teaching reading and writing. Somehow, we never mention teaching speaking. (I’m looking at you, NCTE! Notice the omission in the Call for Proposals. No speakers?)

You already have them speaking. Let’s make those activities more meaningful. Adopt a simple consistent language. Teach specific lessons to develop each skill. It can be done. Do a web search of PVLEGS and you’ll find many teachers who are improving student speaking (and student lives) by helping kids become well spoken. Visit www.pvlegs.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.

 

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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.

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. Lesson one: to demonstrate the importance of adding inflection, 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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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 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.

In this 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?

We live in an age where speaking well matters. Digital tools showcase speaking: podcasts, videos, Facetime, Skype, webinars, video conferences, and more. 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? https://youtu.be/KmnoAxptUsA 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. 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 like this 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.

Solutions? 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 online course: http://shop.ascd.org/Default.aspx?TabID=55&ProductId=172581907

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.

 

 

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