Something’s gotta go.

The situation: a Colorado school where I was going to conduct a workshop;  a class still in session in the room I was going to be using; students with crayons making drawings of dirt. I know you may be thinking: Dirt?  Why would someone have kids draw a picture of dirt?  How is that important?  Those were exactly my thoughts when I found out that a teacher was having kids draw pictures of dirt.

I have been doing some work lately with districts concerned about speaking and listening.  That work involves teaching active listening, media literacy, internet literacy, argument & reasoning, and strategies that can be used to develop effective oral communication in all of its forms.  Part of the training includes how to update instruction with Web 2.0 tools that contribute to developing speaking and listening skills.  Part of the training asks teachers to critically think about the value of some of their old favorite units.

The dirt drawing?  It was part of a unit on Colorado State Symbols.   Seems this teacher spent two weeks a year on the unit and had been doing so for 16 years.  Each student made a drawing of each state symbol and at the end, stapled them all into a “book.”   Colorado has a lot of state symbols: a state rock, a state gem, a state sport, a state mineral, a state grass, a state bird, two state songs, and on and on.  The legislature has thought of everything.  And of course, they have a state dirt.  I am not making that up.  The teacher considered it a great speaking lesson because at the end, they got up and shared their books even though they all contained the exact same things.

I disagreed.  I suggested throwing out the entire unit.  If anyone ever needed to know the state rock, it could be searched on Google and in 0.038 seconds the answer would be revealed.  But no one will ever ask.  And it is not a legitimate speaking activity.  Having kids talk at the end of some unit is not the same as teaching effective communication skills.  This caused some upset.

Have you seen the Common Core Listening & Speaking Standards?


If the CCSS go away and get replaced by some new initiative, none of these will lose their value.

  • Shouldn’t students be able to converse and collaborate?  Do you believe they can do without direct instruction?
  • Shouldn’t students be able to make sense of all the media input they get?  Do you have a unit on persuasive techniques, using images and sound to manipulate, reading and evaluating Internet pages?
  • Do you specifically teach reasoning errors, how to build a logical argument, how to support premises with evidence?
  • Do you have a lesson about how to gesture effectively?  Do you have a lesson about how to adjust speed for effect?  Do you have ANY specific lessons about the speaking skills you score on your rubric?
  • Have you taught students how to build an effective digital presentation?  How to design even something as mundane as a PowerPoint slide so it is more than words being read at the audience?  How to set camera angles for the YouTube video or podcast?
  • What lesson do you have about how to adjust speech to the audience and purpose?

Think like a parent.  Do you want your child copying Colorado symbols or learning how to evaluate a website?  Do you want your child getting yet another haiku unit or getting a unit on effective oral communication? (One of my boys had a haiku unit in six different years of schools but he never had even one unit on speaking in all of his schooling.)

We have to reexamine what we are teaching.  We have to be brutally honest with ourselves and with our teammates.   Certainly many of us are set in our ways, but some of what we teach is junk.  It is difficult to clean house and taking out the trash is a dirty business, but our students deserve more than dirt.

About Erik Palmer

The #1 language art is speaking. By far. I'm committed to promoting the teaching of oral communication in all of its forms.
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