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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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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Blame the messenger

teemu-paananen-376238-unsplashPhoto by Teemu Paananen on Unsplash

You have heard the phrase before. Someone brings you some bad news, and, as you begin to get upset, he says, “Hey, don’t blame the messenger!” In a school I worked at, our team leader said it often. He went to all the meetings and came back with reports of all the new things we had to do: new initiatives we had to implement, new tech tools the school purchased that we were supposed to put into play, new [math/science/bullyproofing/grammar/insert your own idea] program we had to use. As we got agitated and began to complain, he always used the phrase on us. It certainly seemed fair. Why vent at him when it was the new things we hated? Don’t blame the messenger.

Lately, I have come to think a bit differently. There are cases where we should blame the messenger. Let me give an example. I attended a talk about making more effective use of technology in instruction. I think the message is an important one. Many teachers put their students in the position of being time travelers: the students are in 2019 outside of school, but when they come into the classroom, it looks like 1980. Few have expertise in the effectively using digital tools, and many are still hesitant or resistant. We can kid ourselves, but change is difficult, and teachers are generally buried. Planning, grading, parent meetings, school meetings, and shifting requirements are all-consuming. The tech teacher may have the time and interest to explore all the new tools, but the average teacher doesn’t, so someone has to be the messenger to bring the new information to the teachers. And that messenger had better be good.

Which brings me back to the talk at the conference. What was really needed there was a high-powered communicator with excellent oral communication skills. First, the speaker had to make sure the presentation was designed for the audience: teachers giving up their time and paying for a couple days of sessions who are not really looking for complicated jargon or some glitzy new tool. I was stunned that the presenter seemed to have no idea what the audience was thinking. The speaker should have well designed visual aids that engage the audience, but instead we saw the typical PowerPoint slides with bullet points and a massive list of “apps you must have.” Who wants to see that?  The speaker should have content that is understandable, but instead we were buried with a quick explanation of the 25 tools we should be using. Way too much, way too fast, way inappropriate for those who aren’t tech savvy. Before the speaker ever opened his mouth, the presentation was doomed. It was poorly constructed. (A collection of bad slides to use as examples of what NOT to do.)

Of course, after a presentation is created, it has to be delivered. Speakers presenting new ideas need to be really good. Selling change requires exceptional skills. A speaker has to be lively, engaging, animated, powerful, and maybe humorous. These are necessary to sell any new idea. Unfortunately, the conference speaker was none of those. Most attendees left the session before it was over. Blame the messenger. He ruined the presentation and poisoned the idea of using valuable tech tools.

The cost of ineffective oral communication is high. I was at Curtis School in Los Angeles because they know that. They realized that an effective school requires great verbal skills for all adults: teachers in class, in parent conferences, and at back to school nights; leaders presenting new initiatives to teachers and parents; support staff (the first people parents see when they enter the school); staff members who present at workshops and conferences. Education is a verbal business, but not all educators are comfortable or competent speakers. They realized that all of their staff needed to be better communicators. Is that true at your school, too?

Most adults would benefit by improving their speaking skills. We are the messengers. How many great ideas in your school died because they were presented poorly?  How many teachers got upset because an administrator communicated poorly?  How many times have you looked around at a staff meeting and seen glazed eyes and clear disinterest?  If these have happened, blame the messenger. Or better yet, get them some help. Check out Own Any Occasion. (Find it here: https://www.td.org/books/own-any-occasion) I’ll buy it back from you if it doesn’t help.

 

 

 

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Mind the Gap: How We Make Kids Hate Speaking

“How do you teach speaking?”

I ask that questions when I do workshops about the #1 language art. Inevitably, teachers respond by telling me about an assignment they give.

We do biography presentations. Students spend three weeks reading about some historical figure and, at the end, they dress up like the character and give a three- to five-minute talk.

Students make an About Me podcast. They use GarageBand to make a four-minute podcast about themselves with sound and music included.

I assign Brown Bag speeches. Students bring in a grocery bag with items inside that represent who they are. A child might have a small soccer ball and talk about her soccer team, and so on.

All of these are nice assignments. All of them force kids to speak. None of them explain how they teach speaking. MAKING STUDENTS TALK IS NOT THE SAME AS TEACHING THEM HOW TO TALK WELL. That’s where the gap is. More like a chasm, actually. Assigning kids the job of getting in front of people and speaking is cruel if we don’t teach them how to pull it off.

Imagine I told you that you were going to be graded on making an elaborate origami swan. One or two of you may know how to do that, but the vast majority would be quite upset. “Are you going to show me how to make a swan?” “Nope. Oh, and next Tuesday is when I will grade you.” You’d hate that assignment, right? How horribly unfair to expect you to do something that you were never shown how to do. But we put students in that position all the time. We make them recite poems, give book reports, read aloud, share research projects, and so much more without even one lesson about the pieces of effective speaking. Students fear of public speaking comes from being made time and time again to do something they don’t know how to do. And being made to demonstrate that lack of skill in front of an audience or on camera? Horribly rude.

Teachers grade students on skills they were never taught. It is so common to see scoresheets like this piece of one from ReadWriteThink. (Side note: Hey, ReadWriteThink, why did you forget the most important language art? Why not ReadWriteSpeakThink?)

Did you have lessons about how to change volume to improve effectiveness? Any activities where kids could practice that? Any lessons about pace? Any practice activities and assignments that let students work on adjusting speed? Any exercises to work on effective pausing? And how did you teach “appropriate” facial expressions? Were there lessons about what is appropriate and what isn’t? Practice activities and perhaps video recording tools so they could see themselves and work on the skills you taught? You’ll see many other skills in there that are being assessed, and you know as well as I do that none of them are specifically taught. It would be so very rude to score students on something not taught, wouldn’t it? (Another side note: avoiding the use of slang is a terrible idea. Slang may well be exactly what is needed in many situations.)

To say that all kids already know how to talk is a cheap dodge. All people already know how to fold paper, too. But there is big gap between talking and talking well just as there is a big gap between folding paper and creating a swan. Just as all students can improve as writers with specific lessons, all students—yes, all students—can improve as speakers with specific lessons. You can get some ideas here: https://pvlegs.com/activities/ .

Teachers often say that they are helping students get more comfortable as speakers by giving them lots of opportunities to present. Nonsense. We help students get comfortable as speakers by breaking the art of effective oral communication into teachable pieces and giving lessons about and practice with each piece. (I’ve written about some of the pieces of good speaking here: https://pvlegs.wordpress.com/2018/12/16/100-english-teachers-walk-into-a-bar/.

We have to mind the gap. The space between what we do in making them present and teaching the skills needed to be well spoken is enormous. It’s time to quit making kids hate speaking. Give all students the gift of effective oral communication skills and all of them will become more confident, competent speakers.

 

 

 

 

 

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