Anatomy of a Social Media Fake

Fake post

If you have been on social media, you may have seen this or something similar posted. This version was posted on Facebook by a friend of mine—a bright person with advanced degrees, a wonderful teacher, and, sadly, a duped person. We complain about fake stuff on social media, but even the best of us seem to fall for some of it. How does this happen? Why do we suspend disbelief? Why aren’t we more thoughtful and careful? If we study the anatomy of this fake, perhaps we can become less susceptible to similar posts. Let’s look at all the features of this post that made it popular so we can avoid getting fooled in the future.

First, the post is about a hot topic. Privacy? My personal photos? Let’s put aside for a moment that these are pictures already shared and already not private. Good fakes find an irresistible, hot-button issue to hook us.

Second, the post is poorly written. Punctuation errors, capitalization errors, run-ons and fragments, missing parentheses, and disorganized thoughts are obvious. Poor writing should be a tip that we aren’t dealing with a top-notch source.

Third, the post is not specific. There are two parts to this. One, it has no definite timestamp. The use of “tomorrow” is very clever in a couple of ways. It creates an “OMG, I have to do something now” urgency that overrides our better thinking. The fear response overpowers the calm thinking response. Additionally, it creates something that can live forever. Like the sign I saw in a bar recently—Free Beer Tomorrow!—this post never expires. Indeed, versions of this post go back to 2012. All true legal announcements have specific dates. “Effective November 1, 2019, Facebook will change its privacy rules” would at least be somewhat more likely…but I’d still be suspicious. Two, it talks about a non-specific Channel 13. Do you have a Channel 13 in your town? Do you think it is the same as the Channel 13 in my town? No matter. Most of us have a Channel 13 so it is probably talking about my Channel 13! But what’s missing? Specificity. “According to Fox31 News on Channel 13 in Denver, Facebook is changing its privacy policy” would at least be more likely. Notice also that there is no air date given. When was this story aired? May 2nd on the 5 o’clock news? June 4th at 10 p.m.? Vagueness is always a cautionary sign.

Fourth, the has bogus legalese. You want specifics? Here’s the exact statute! I guess that looks like a number a statute might have, right? But why not check it out? Do a web search. And the Rome Statute? We all know that, don’t we? I mean it came from Rome so it must be real! A web search of that reveals that the Rome Statute established the International Criminal Court which handles crimes such as genocide. (https://www.wired.com/story/instagram-copyright-hoax-returns/).

Fifth, the post offers a simplistic and silly solution. Anytime you are told to copy, paste, or forward, stop. Don’t do it. Is it likely that pasting something on your timeline will override privacy policies in social media agreements? We know that sites have settings. You can go into the settings and change who sees your posts, what ads you want to see, what notifications you get, and so on. Perhaps something such as “Go to Settings. Click on Privacy. Uncheck ‘Allow All’” would be reasonable but “Copy, Paste, and Breathe”? Facebook has staff searching through billions of posts to see who has pasted this and then they will change the settings of those accounts? Think about that for a minute.

As my friend made clear, intelligent people can be sucked into Internet lies. But all fakes have clues that tip us off. Know what to look for. If the elements above are in a post, red lights should flash in your brain. Think critically. Don’t fall for it. According to News@4, sharing bogus posts will cause Von willebrand’s Disease so care full is needed.

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What’s it gonna be this year?

Happy new year!

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Inevitably, there is some new initiative, some new program being introduced. If you have taught for a while, you have seen many of these come and go. Maybe last year was the year they introduced the new spelling program that replaced the spelling program introduced two years ago to replace the spelling program introduced the year before. Maybe it will be a new math initiative to replace the “flailing arms” math thing we were all trained in a couple years back. (I forgot the name of it but there were dramatic gestures that all teachers were supposed to use: a certain gesture for addition, a different for division… It died fast and no one uses the gestures now.)

If your career has lasted any length of time you have a list of initiatives that have now gone by the wayside. My list includes Skills for Adolescents, DARE, portfolios, Read On Write On, support groups, equity training, proficiency based report cards, “accordion” paragraphs and “occasion/position statements”, some math program that I can’t remember the name of and I recall as Lucy Liu math but I know that isn’t right, several spelling programs, Harry Wong behavior management methods, some behavior plan that required us to write a name and check marks on the board, C4T (Computers for Teachers), Thinking Maps, and other ideas whose effects were so short that I can’t recall anything about them right now, but I know I have a giant stack of binders when I quit the classroom.

Perhaps salespeople selling educational products are extremely talented. Perhaps administrators are exceedingly gullible. In any event, it seems that a requirement of becoming an administrator is the inability to look back and see the pile of failed initiatives. Administrators bemoan the lack of buy-in from teachers when new ideas are presented, but they fail to take responsibility for creating the conditions that created the cynicism.

What percentage of new year’s resolutions actually last?

We have to change our thinking about how we decide what to try, and we have to change our thinking about how we present and implement ideas. We can’t continue to waste money on the fad of the moment. We have to look at bigger pictures: What will students need for life?  How do you change teacher behaviors?  What makes an idea last?

We all know the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over while somehow expecting different results. We fail to stop the insanity of the “initiative of the year.”

www.erikpalmer.net

 

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Don’t hit record yet!

 

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 the students generate ideas about how to improve schools. She created a video and put 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. Watch the students in the YouTube video they posted.  Again, I took clips of the students from the video and took out all identifying information. Another 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 ? Giving students many chances to make podcasts will not solve the problem. Without specific instruction, they will just make more un-listenable recordings.

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 can have such poor speaking skill.

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.

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 closely at the picture I put at the top of this blog.  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. Look here for a book that explains how to teach students to build a powerful message and how to deliver that message well.

If you use digital communication tools in your class contact me for a book that explains how create effective podcasts and videos.

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. Visit www.pvlegs.com

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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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