Instead of an essay

“What does democracy mean to you?”

That was the writing prompt I gave to my class. I was expecting a three-paragraph essay about the rights, duties, and responsibilities of citizens. Ryan asked if he could make a video. Of course, video creation is not on the Big Test. We do lots of writing so I was not worried about test prep, and I’m open to letting kids make choices. I don’t know much about how to make a video, though, so I asked, “Do I have to teach how to make a video?”

“No, I already know how.”

I said OK.

Here’s what I knew about Ryan. He was an odd duck. He was tired of writing. Often as teachers, we focus on what we love, and English teachers love reading and writing. In fact, if you look at NCTE materials, conferences, and blogs, you’ll see “reading and writing” so many times that you’ll begin to think we should just make them one word, readinganwriting. You never see “reading, writing, and speaking” though speaking is by far the number one language art. This is an enormous blind spot. We pretend that we “cover” speaking skills because we have students talk during writing and reading activities, but we never focus on teaching speaking skills.

We all know that the fear of public speaking exists. What we miss is that some kids hate writing but love speaking.

Ryan was one of those. He would much rather say what he thinks than write what he thinks. Had I forced him to write, he would have dutifully and quickly slapped some words on a page and turned them in. As it turned out, he spent hours crafting an animated video showcasing his spoken words. His take on democracy was wildly different than I expected, but brilliant. I never would have gotten his perspective without letting him speak his response. He would have turned in a “template” writing, fulfilling the requirements without any heart. Only through oral communication could he express himself fully. You can see his video here:

I realized that I had many students like Ryan, students that had wonderful things to say. And I also realized that many tools exist to showcase oral communication via podcast, video, and audio recording. I opened the door to speaking by giving digital oral communication options for activities, and many kids came charging through that door. This also opened the door to teaching speaking rather than assigning verbal activities. But that is a post for another day.

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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