100 English Teachers Walk Into a Bar

Originally published in California English         

One hundred English teachers walk into a bar. One by one, the bartender asks them why they became English teachers. The first one says, “I love poetry! I write poetry and I want students to love poetry, too.” The second one says, “When I was in 4th grade, I had a teacher that encouraged me to write. I love writing and I want to encourage others.” The third one says, “Reading opens up a world of ideas and journeys. I love reading. I want to share that passion with others.” The 4th person says, “The classics! Shakespeare! The Scarlet Letter! To Kill a Mockingbird!” From the 5th person to the 100th, the bartender gets very similar answers. Finally, he asks the group, “How come not one of you mentioned speaking? Not one of you said, ‘I love speaking, and I want my students to love speaking.’ Not one of you said, ‘I had a teacher in 9th grade who spoke so well, and I wanted to be like her.’ Not one of you said, ‘I have seen speeches that changed the world. I want my students to have that kind of ability.’ How come no one talked about the language art we use most often?”

Okay, so it’s not a joke. It is also not funny to notice that language arts teachers almost always fail to mention the most important language art, speaking. Adults spend twice as much communication time speaking as reading; four times as much speaking as writing. Given that importance, you might think direct instruction of oral communication skills would get two to four times as much direct instruction time as reading and writing. Yet no one seems to value it as highly as other language arts.

It is not what you know that counts, but rather whether you can communicate what you know, and oral communication is by far the number one way of communicating. That has always been true, but oral communication is actually becoming even more important. Think of all the digital communication tools. Skype, video calling and video recording on smart phones, video conferences, webinars, and podcasts put speaking skills on display like never before. Those devices demand effective oral language. We should not ignore technological realities and the ways technology increases the demand to be well spoken.

Teaching Speaking

Here’s what I’ve noticed: for reading instruction, we have lessons on letter sounds, vowel and consonant combinations, decoding words, root words, vocabulary, sentence structure, plot lines, fluency, and so on. There are many programs designed to help struggling readers. We have spent a great deal of time analyzing reading and the skills needed to become successful at it. For writing instruction, we have lessons on capitalization, punctuation, fragments, run-ons, topic sentences, paragraphs. There are books and programs designed to improve student writing, to teach us how to confer about student writing, to teach us how get boys to write more, and so on. There are many classes in teacher preparation programs about how to teach reading and writing; many sessions at conferences on the subjects of reading and writing strategies; many books about how to improve reading and writing instruction. Indeed, language arts teachers say “reading and writing” as if they were one word, readinganwriting. It is astounding to me that the number one language art, speaking, is almost never part of the conversation.

Unfortunately, very little time has been devoted to analyzing speaking and the skills needed to become a successful speaker. Do you own a book that is about how to teach speaking skills? A reading book that has some oral language activities does not count. The NCTE catalog includes over 200 books but not one is about teaching oral communication. Have you had workshops in your district about how to teach speaking? (I know you have, Sanger Unified and Sutter County!) You have had several experts come in to help with readinganwriting, haven’t you? Have you been to conference sessions devoted solely to improving students’ oral communication? Many conferences do not even have an oral language strand. The most important language art seems to be horribly shortchanged. Yes, every teacher has in-class student speaking activities, but most teachers do not have lessons that lead students to being successful with those activities. Very few teachers have specific lessons on how to use emphatic hand gestures for emphasis or descriptive hand gestures to enhance understanding, or lessons about adjusting pacing for impact. After a book share, a rubric is handed back and students are scored in eye contact and a few other things, but that is about all there is for speaking “instruction.”

None of this would matter if students spoke well. If we saw great book reports, wonderful poetry recitations, terrific explanations, brilliant discussion comments, and so on, we could say that all students have mastered oral communication and teaching specific skills is not necessary. That isn’t the case, is it? Look at students speaking with new eyes. How many impress you? One or two per class? A teacher at a recent workshop commented that summative presentations in her class are PowerPoint presentations that “are often boring recitations of what they read.” Pretty typical of what we all see, right? If one or two students use commas correctly, you are the one who failed, not them. You obviously didn’t teach needed skills. You will go back and offer another lesson about commas after introductory phrases and commas to separate items in a series, and you’ll give some practice activities. You will reteach commas to join independent clauses and have them do some practicing. Yet if only one or two students do well with the presentation after the biography research, you say, “Oh well, that’s just how kids speak.” Why do we sell them short? Why do we fail to help them?

It is likely that most teachers don’t know how to teach speaking. To begin then, let’s establish a framework for understanding what it takes to be a competent speaker so we can impart the necessary skills to our students.

Build and Perform

There are two distinct parts to all effective oral communication. The first part is building the oral communication.  Building refers to all of the things we have to do before we ever open our mouths. For example, consider the teacher who has her students perform an oral presentation on historical fiction. The students have to include certain content (main character, historical events, rising action, etc.), organize that content, make a visual aid (plot line, map, etc.), and dress in a costume from the historical era. All of these things are done before presentation day and all of these are quite distinct from performance skills. These building elements should always be scored separately from presentation elements, just as punctuation should be scored separately from content in writing.

The second part of oral communication is delivering the message. I prefer calling this “performing” because the word performing has connotations that the word delivering lacks but that more accurately describe the task. No two teachers at your school use the same language to assess speaking. Articulation, intonation, vocal modulation, loudly, slowly, clearly, eye contact, presence, expression, pitch, enthusiasm, gestures, body motion, elocution, charisma, hold head up, and many more such terms are used to confuse students. Interestingly, you don’t go into one class and get scored on “Cases appropriately used,” the next on “Large and small letters,” and the next on “Proper uppercasing.” We agree on the key term, capitalization. To help students succeed at performing a speech, we need to agree on the key terms for speaking, as well. Here is what necessary and sufficient to speak well: students need to appear calm and confident; make sure every word is heard clearly; have feeling/emotion/passion; look at audience members; gesture with hands, faces, and body; and speak at an appropriate and varying pace. If students do those things, they will be good speakers. In a shorter form, students need to think about

Poise

Voice

Life

Eye contact

Gestures

Speed.

Simple. Understandable. Teachable. Absolutely guaranteed to improve oral language in your class. Years ago, when I wrote those six traits of speaking on the board for students to see, one student called out, “Pee Vee LEGS!” as she made a mnemonic of the capital letters I had written. I have been surprised at how useful that acronym has been for students (and adults) of all ages. ROY G. BIV is odd, too, but it has been very successful, and almost all of us remember the colors of the rainbow because of that mnemonic device. If you master PVLEGS, you will be a successful speaker, and many, many students have told me that they think of the acronym every time they have to speak. Each part of PVLEGS should be scored individually on the rubric. Some students excel at adding life to the presentation but are a bit wiggly; some are totally poised but never look up from their notes; and so on.

The skills described here apply in all speaking situations, not just on the occasions we think of as “speech-making.” In an interview with a prospective employer, a successful candidate will think beforehand about what she is going to say and will build responses to likely questions. Then, being poised, having an appropriate voice, expressing passion and interest, making eye contact, gesturing, and speaking at an appropriate pace will set her ahead of other job seekers. In a committee, a member who comes prepared and has given forethought to what he is going to present will be more valuable to the group. If he pays attention to the elements of delivering his oral communication, he will be an even more effective member of the group. One on one, small group, large group, informal presentation, formal presentation—all require building what you are going to say and then delivering that message with PVLEGS. If we used this common framework and language for teaching and evaluating speaking, our students would be much more likely to meet the standards in Colorado where “readinganwriting” became “reading, writing, and communicating” and nationally where the Common Core State Standards have given emphasis to speaking.

Putting the concepts into play

As I mentioned, every teacher at every grade level in every subject has students speaking in class. Do you ever have students give book reports? After listening to 29 of them, are students inspired and filled with a desire to rush out and buy the 29 books presented?  Probably not. If you are going to take class time for oral presentation, take time to teach them the speaking skills to do it well. Then perhaps the presentations will inspire students to read the books presented. Additionally, there is a fairness issue here: Don’t assign an oral presentation unless you are prepared to teach students how to succeed at orally presenting. Grading oral performance without specifically teaching speaking skills is patently unfair.

Let’s work with another typical reading assignment. Listen closely as students do readers’ theater. It is often painful and monotonous, and often kills a good story. When you put a new lens on the task, however, students read much differently. After teaching PVLEGS, ask students to think about reading in a new way. They are not “readers” but rather “speakers.” That causes them to look at the text differently. Consider the following passage:

Life is too crazy. We are always busy. We rush to get up, wolf down breakfast, run to school, race to practice, hustle through homework, do our chores… we are always in a hurry. What if one day we just stopped? I mean stopped. Dead halt. Catch your breath. Relax. Take a break. It will improve your life. 

Sometimes a “reader” will read a passage like this word by word, parsing the text with no regard to phrasing and no sense of reading for meaning or expression.

If you ask them to read like a speaker, a change occurs.  A “speaker” will perform the words in the passage. This leads to an interesting discussion with students as well.  Where does the text call for life? Where should pace be adjusted? What did the author do to suggest these things? It is much easier to grasp the concept of prosody when students think like speakers. Orthographic conventions (e.g., commas, exclamation points, italics) are not reading cues but are prosody cues, and thinking of speaking the text makes those cues more meaningful for many students. “Speak” readers’ theater, don’t “read” readers’ theater.

Let’s go one step further. We require rough drafts for writing assignments, right? If you value speaking as you should, require a rough draft for speaking assignments. A rough draft for readers’ theater? Use digital tools. Every computer can record audio and video; every smart phone can do the same. Google Voice will generate a phone number for free so students with low tech phones can call and leave “rough drafts” for you to listen to and use for real examples to aid in teaching key skills. Several tools and Web sites can be used as well. Vocaroo is a free, easy-to-use site that records student voices (http://www.vocaroo.com). Students can visit the site and will find the “Record” button on the first page that opens. No sign-in or registering is required—just click the button and record. When they are finished, the site enables them to email the recording. All of these are ways students can practice and ways students can send you rough drafts before readers’ theater in class. All of these encourage practice and rereading. All of these make it clear to students that we value speaking skills.

One hundred English teachers walk into a bar. All of them notice that the only language art used there is speaking. All of them have an Aha! Moment and realize the importance of speaking in life. They realize that their classrooms are oral language dependent, too. They agree to increase emphasis on oral communication skills. Okay, so it’s still not a joke, but I would smile broadly if it happened. Visit pvlegs.com.

 

Erik Palmer is an educational consultant from Denver, Colorado.  Prior to becoming a consultant, he had a career in business as a commodity trader and a career in the classroom as a teacher of English and civics. As a consultant, Palmer is a frequent presenter at national, regional, and state conferences. He has given keynotes and led workshops for schools and districts across the US and internationally. Palmer focuses on improving students’ listening and speaking skills, making argument and persuasion teachable. Palmer is the author of Well-Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students (Stenhouse Publishers, 2011), Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology, Teaching the Core Skills of Listening & Speaking (ASCD, 2014), Researching in a Digital World (ASCD, 2015), Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016), and Own Any Occasion (ATD Press, 2017). He is a program consultant and author of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s into Reading and into Literature language arts programs.

Erik’s educational background includes Oberlin College, University of Denver Law School, and the University of Colorado.

 

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But what about the introverts?

I get this question a lot when I do workshops. In my presentations, I point out that speaking well will benefit all students for their entire lives; I share a framework that makes the complex art of oral communication simple and understandable; I show specific lessons to teach all students how to be better verbal communicators; and I make it practical and easy to teach every child to speak well. But there are non-believers, and the questions come up:

What about introverts?

 What about students who hate public speaking?

 What about kids who refuse to do it?

  What about kids who can’t speak in front of classmates?

   What about…

Let me answer all of these questions. I’ll look at five different ways.

  1. Do not sell students short.

How many times do you normally quit on children? Do you fail to teach math to a child for whom you think math is difficult? Do you tell some child, “Nah, don’t do this writing assignment. I don’t think you can do it.”? Do you fail to expect good outcomes and therefore stop helping some children? If you do, please quit teaching. Let’s not be naïve: some kids are better at some things than others. Some kids have an easier time reading or doing math or drawing or singing or coding or whatever than other kids do. But our job is help every child make progress. It is no different with speaking. Some kids love to talk, some are good at talking (those two do not always go together!), and some kids do not love to talk. Oh well. I will help all of them master the number one language art, speaking.

  1. Introversion is not a disabling condition.

Have you read Quiet by Susan Cain? You should. It will cause you to rethink some of the things you do. If Cain is correct, at least one-third of us are introverts. She is, and I know I am. And yet I now speak for a living. Huh? Lacking a propensity for something is not the same lacking the ability to do that thing. And introversion is not the same as social anxiety, a highly curable condition. Cain wrote about that here.

I taught for 21 years. I had about 3,000 students during that time. Using Cain’s number, about 1,000 of my students were introverts. Of that 1,000, how many failed to do the speaking I asked of them? Zero. None. Nada. Zip. How many of them failed to improve as speakers? Zero. Did I have students that needed extra encouragement? Yep. Students who needed a little hand-holding? Yep. Students who needed a little extra help and practice? Yep. The math teacher on my team had extra sessions to help struggling students. Shouldn’t a teacher asking kids to speak do the same sort of thing? Of course. What kind of teacher doesn’t give extra help to kids who need it?

  1. Don’t believe the hype.

I really wanted to label this section “Don’t believe the bull#@*^.” I know the story: “Public speaking is the number one fear of adults.” It isn’t. Fear of public speaking showed up often when folks were asked to make a list of the ten things they feared, but not one of you would say, “Burn me badly! I’d prefer that to speaking in front of a group!” But the bad rap remains, so when a child says, “I fear speaking!” many teachers are tempted to say, “You poor baby! Me, too! We all hate speaking!! Don’t worry, I’ll protect you! I won’t make you do that horrible thing!”

Nonsense.

As I mentioned, some kids hate math. Many adults say, “I was never good at math!” So do you excuse students from math? Don’t let a child’s professed fear/dislike become an excuse for non-participation. Part of the problem is the phrase “public speaking.” Don’t teach “public speaking,” teach speaking. I teach kids how to speak well in any situation. I want good discussion comments. I want well-spoken questions. I want good peer-editing conversations. If you make speaking a valued part of your class, speaking loses its scariness. It’s just another version of what we always do.

  1. Don’t cheat any child out of an important life skill.

Like it or not, verbal communication is the number one language art. We speak far more often than we read or write. Professionally and socially, speaking well increases odds of success. Students will have to interview for a job, explain the app to an investor, talk about the graphic design portfolio, talk to a client about the landscaping proposal or investment plan, and on and on. Why wouldn’t you want to help children in a low-stakes, we-are-all-just-learning-here environment like your classroom? Yep, you hate this, but you’ll hate it much more if you don’t have the skills you want when it really counts.

  1. We fear what we don’t know.

Years ago, I was asked by a friend if I wanted to go for a ride in his plane, a two-seater, single-propeller Piper Cub. I said, “Sure,” but we were just off the ground when I had a small panic attack. What if something happened to him? A heart attack, for instance. Panic! Why? Because I don’t know how to fly a plane. If I knew, I wouldn’t have panicked: something happened to Steve but I can get this thing down.

The largest part of students’ fear is because they don’t know how to fly. Every year, teachers have made them talk, but never has a teacher taught them how to do it. You know it’s true: you have a haiku unit, but you do not have a speaking unit. Students get lessons about comma usage before being asked to write an essay, but never get a lesson about how to add life to their voices. Students get lessons about parts of a cell, but never get lessons about parts of a well-built visual aid. I wrote Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students (goo.gl/dgoSS7) to solve this problem. It has a simple, practical framework for understanding and teaching speaking. You will find that once students know exactly what they are supposed to do, they can do it. Visit pvlegs.com.

Bonus—Give students a digital voice first.

We live in an era with many, many digital tools for oral communication. That means that mastering oral communication is even more important than ever. It also means there are many ways to practice, get feedback, and develop confidence for eventual in-person talks. I love using Vocaroo (https://vocaroo.com/). Students can record, re-record, and re-record until they get something they like. I’ll tell the students that didn’t participate in discussion live today to think about what they want to say and record their comment to be played tomorrow. I love Flipgrid. See a sample here. Again, students can re-record as needed and the fun of the digital tool and the fun of seeing others can inspire participation. https://erikpalmerconsulting.com/

Bonus two–Mike Rowe has a great story about someone afraid to speak:

http://mikerowe.com/2016/05/twihi-breakingsilence/ 

 

 

 

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Spotting a Fake Post

Spotting a Fake Post: Teaching About Media Literacy on Social Platforms

This blog post is part of a series focusing on media literacy.

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 have all heard about fake content 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?

As teachers, we have a responsibility to help students become media literate. If we study the anatomy of this Facebook post, we can gather ideas about how to teach students to avoid being duped by similar posts. Let’s look at all the features of this post that made it popular—and what students can learn from it.

The post is about a hot topic: Privacy? Personal photos? Let’s put aside for a moment that Facebook pictures have already been shared and are therefore not private or personal. Good fake posts find an irresistible, hot-button issue to hook us. Teach students to get their guard up immediately upon seeing posts designed to rile us up.

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 clue to help students realize that we aren’t dealing with a top-notch source.

The post lacks specificity: There are two parts to this, with the first issue being that the post 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” type of urgency that overrides our better thinking. The fear response overpowers the calm thinking response. Additionally, no definite timestamp 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. Let students know that 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 suspicion is still warranted.

The second issue is that it has no definite source. It talks about a nonspecific 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 WNYT on Channel 13 in Albany, New York, 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 2 on the 5 p.m. news? June 4 at 10 p.m.? Let students know that vagueness is always a cautionary sign.

The post has bogus legalese: You want specifics? Here’s the exact statute number! I guess that looks like a number a law might have, right? And the Rome Statute? I mean, it came from Rome, so it must be real! But why not check it out? Encourage students to do a web search. In this case, a search reveals that the Rome Statute established the International Criminal Court, which handles crimes such as genocide. Tell students that they always need to double check and verify.

The post offers a simplistic and silly solution: Anytime a post says to copy, paste, or forward, STOP. Don’t do it. Ever. Ask students if it is likely that pasting something on your timeline will override privacy policies in social media agreements. Facebook has staff searching through billions of posts to see who has pasted this and these staff will then change the settings of those accounts? Think about that for a minute. Point out that sites have settings. We can go into the settings and change who sees our posts, what ads we want to see, what notifications we 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”? Help students understand that privacy issues are real in the world of social media, but let them know there is no simple way to solve those issues.

As my friend made clear, intelligent people can be sucked into internet lies. But all fakes have clues that tip us off. Teach students what to look for. If the elements above are in a post, red lights should flash in their brains. If they think critically, they won’t fall for this or similar fakes. After all, according to News@4, sharing bogus posts will cause Von Willebrand Disease, so care full is needed. https://erikpalmerconsulting.com/

***

Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author on the HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature programs. Palmer was a guest on HMH’s new podcast series, Shaping the Future, in November 2019

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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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Why Student Presentations Bore Classmates

cropped-book-cover

“In New Jersey v. TLO, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider the appropriateness of the application of the exclusionary rule.  The Court overturned the lower court ruling in a 7-2 decision and held that the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment.”

What does that mean?  I heard that during a student presentation about landmark Supreme Court cases.  I can’t challenge the accuracy of the statement because that is exactly what the Court did.  I can challenge the appropriateness of the statement for the listeners.  Most eighth graders are probably not familiar with “certiorari” (though if all students are researching Supreme Court cases, the listeners in that situation may be) and probably no eighth graders understand what the exclusionary rule is.  What we have here is an example of a student presenting information without any consideration of the audience.  It happens all the time in our classrooms.

Here is what happened in the situation above: the teacher gave each student a case to research; she gave them a date for an oral presentation; she required certain content (name of the case, decision of the case, law the case was based upon); and she gave them a score sheet that would be used to evaluate the presentation which included eye contact, time limit, and posture. In this case, the student got maximum marks.  He accomplished what was asked.  Unfortunately, the class got nothing from his presentation.  The teacher failed to require that the speech be designed for the audience, a common omission.

All oral communication must be designed for a particular audience.  This is true for one-on-one communication, small group communication, or large group communication.  It amazes me how often speakers miss this point and fail to analyze the audience.  I recall being called to a faculty meeting on Friday afternoon so someone from the district could introduce us to RTI with a PowerPoint presentation full of densely packed text.  Really?  Is that going to work with this audience at this time?   You have been to talks where the speaker failed to understand the audience, too: telling you things you already knew; using insider jargon audience members didn’t know; not noticing the mood of the listeners; and so on.  If adults can be so inept at designing a speech for a specific group, no wonder children fail as well.  Students need specific instruction about how to build a talk for an audience.

First, whenever an assignment is given that involves talking to an audience (this includes mock interviews, discussions, book chats, digital stories, podcasts—everything!), begin with an explicit caution to students to think about the audience and design the talk for them.

You may have read a book designed for boy readers, but our class has boys and girls.  How can you make the book talk interesting to all of us?

We will have an in-class discussion about whether or not we should ___________.  Come prepared to state your opinion and defend your position on the issue.  Think about what arguments will be persuasive to class members.

You researched your topic and know a lot about it.  We didn’t research it and our class may not know many of the terms you are now familiar with.  How can you explain to our age group the important things we need to know?

Ideally, at some point the audience will change.  Perhaps students will present to another grade level or to parents.  This creates a great opportunity to broaden the discussion and analyze disparate audiences.

Second, make sure students know they will be judged in part based on how well they communicated with the audience.  The audience must be involved in scoring this part.  Way too often, students speak at the teacher only.  They know he or she is the only one whose opinion counts.  This is misguided.  A speech is for an audience and only by asking the audience will we know if the speech was effective.

Let’s score Spencer’s speech.  Did you think he did a good job of designing his talk for you?  Did he make everything understandable?  Did he keep you interested?  We use a 1 to 5 scale, remember, with 5 being perfect.  Raise your hand if you give Spencer a five?  A four?  A three?  Hmm, seems like most people gave you a three, which is good but which could be better.  What did you think he could do better next time, class?  (Discuss)

It does not damage students to have their performance scored if the teacher creates the proper atmosphere. (Of course, we don’t all get perfect marks, we are just beginning to master the difficult job of presenting…)  It does damage students to fail to teach them that what the audience thinks matters.

Third, teach students how to connect with the audience.  A good talk becomes a great talk if specific statements are added that let the audience know the talk was designed just for them.  The speaker must take his topic and connect it to the lives of the listeners.  In the eighth grade class mentioned above, this would be a connector:

How many of you have cell phones?  Would you be OK with the principal taking your phone and looking at your text messages?  My case, New Jersey v. TLO, is about a principal searching a student’s stuff, too, and like you, she wasn’t happy about it.

Now, some old Supreme Court case is much more interesting to the class.

Students (and adults!) need to do a better job of making sure they design their words for their listeners.  That means that we have to do a better job of letting them know how to do so. https://erikpalmerconsulting.com/

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What’s it gonna be this year?

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 an all-comedy radio station in Denver—non-stop clips from various comedians. I missed the name of the comic, but one talked about digging through his closet looking at all the junk he had discarded in there. One of the items was his Rosetta Stone CD set. I spent a couple of minutes researching “what percentage complete Rosetta Stone” but couldn’t find the answer right away so I quit looking. I bet it is a very small number. I’ll wager that a lot of people have the idea of learning a new language but don’t follow through.
Then I started thinking about my health club. Every year it gets crowded during January and part of February, but it gets back to normal after that. Seems many people have the idea that this will be the year they start exercising but almost none of them follow through. Then I saw a New York Times article that said that 90% of people who lose weight gain it all back. Seems like most folks have the intention to change shapes but don’t follow through. Then I thought about an adult education class offered at the “free university” in my town that told writers how to self-publish a book. The instructor said almost none of the people attending will actually do it. They all have the idea that there is book inside of them and this will be the year that they write it, but almost none of them will actually follow through. And no administrator follows through with new initiatives.

I guess my message is settle down.  Don’t get so blinded by the incredible possibilities that you forget who you are dealing with here–humans.  When you finally lose that twenty pounds you have promised yourself you would lose and when you get back to the gym to get in shape and when you finish that Rosetta Stone Spanish CD, then start talking to the staff about following through on the last six great initiatives you introduced.

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. She has students speak and posts the video on YouTube. A huge problem: she is so focused on the tech tool that she fails to notice that the students do not know how to speak well. Check out what she 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 his class interested in school reform. He has the students generate ideas about how to improve schools. He 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 well. Watch the students in the YouTube video he 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 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.

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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