Being nice is mean.

 

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I had a problem with being too nice. Because I once had a job that involved phone sales, I knew how hard the job is and I had a soft spot for those trying to make it work. So when someone would call, I’d be nice. I had no intention of ever buying the product or going on the cruise or signing up for the club, but I’d listen and I’d say I was interested and I’d agree to talk again. I didn’t want to seem mean. After three or four calls, it became apparent that I was in fact NOT nice. I had wasted the time of callers and led them on. If I had been honest at the first call, it would have been better for them. So in a way, being “mean” would have been nice.

This came to mind as I watched some 3rd graders do a presentation. Students had completed projects, and as a culminating event, parents were invited to come see the projects and listen to each child’s three-minute talk. Students were told that one child would be given a prize for being the best speaker. One child really stood out. He was poised, had a clear voice, had lots of feeling, looked at every audience member, gestured well, had a nice pace—he was good. I talked to his dad afterward, and his dad told me all that he done to work with his son teaching him specific skills and showing him how to be a more effective speaker. The other children ranged from mediocre to poor. They shuffled and fidgeted. Some were mumbling, others too quiet. Most spoke in a monotone, some with an odd sing-song lilt that went up in the middle of a sentence and down at the end. Few had gestures. Some were too fast. Bottom line—they weren’t good.

Mean, right? Criticizing eight-year-old children? They all gave their best, didn’t they? Well, it turns out that the teacher wanted to be nice. While it was abundantly clear to everyone in the audience that one speaker stood out, the teacher wrapped up the evening by saying, “I know we said that we would select one speaker as the best, but I think all of the children were winners. All of them did a great job, didn’t they?” Aww, that’s nice. Except it isn’t.

Short term, the teacher was nice. Long term, damage was done. An opportunity was missed. The teacher effectively said something like “All speaking is equal” or “It doesn’t matter if one speaker is better than another” or, even worse, “Who cares how well you speak?” In other words, she missed a chance to say, “Wow. Did you notice how well Victor spoke? Did you see what 3rd graders can do? Let’s learn how to speak better!” She short-changed every student by accepting far less than what they are capable of and giving them the impression that poor speaking isn’t a problem.

The truth is that speaking is the number one language art. Professional and social success is more dependent on effective oral communication than on any other skill. It doesn’t matter what you know, it matters if you can communicate what you know, and the main form of adult communication? Verbal communication. Robbing students of the chance to become better speakers is definitely not nice. Failing to give them help to improve is flat out mean.

Look at a video clip of 4th graders. The first part is from a video a teacher posted on YouTube; the second part is from a school that taught specific lessons about speaking using ideas from Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students (see the book here). The video is here: https://youtu.be/dbYTc9ZZQNc

Did you notice a difference in the speaking skill? The book report students aren’t perfect, but they are better. A lot better. So which teacher was nicer, the one who said, “Oh, that’s fine. I don’t expect more from you. Let’s put this up on YouTube for the world to see” or the teacher who said, “You aren’t ready to record yet. Let’s have some lessons on speaking first”?

We aren’t nice when we pretend that all results are equal, something we would never do with any other subject. (“Well, Erik, that answer is wrong because 1/4 plus 1/2 doesn’t equal 1/6, but so what? Everyone wins here!”) We don’t do students any favors by being nice when nice means failing to give them needed help. And we aren’t nice when we ignore a language art that has huge long-term value.

I don’t rudely hang up on callers now, but I do tell them the truth. We can let students know the truth, too. Not doing so is harmful.

 

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Don’t hit record yet!

Some high school teachers are interested in school reform. They get students involved and have the students generate ideas about how to improve schools.  They create a video and put it on YouTube.  Great idea, right? The intention is great; the message may be provocative and needed; and they use appropriate digital tools available to create a message for a real audience.  One huge problem: no one taught the students how to speak.

Watch the students in the video I added to my ASCD video library.  I took clips of the students from the video and took out all identifying information.  Even so, I feel bad about criticizing them 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 high school students can have such poor speaking skill.

I guarantee you that each of these students has spoken often in the ten years or so of schooling they have had.  Many 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 by high school?  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.  And so on. (See lesson ideas at http://pvlegs.com/activities/)

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.  The National Association of Colleges and Employers survey for 2013 once again put verbal communication 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.

Give students help.  Look here: https://www.stenhouse.com/content/well-spoken  If you use digital communication tools in your class look here, too: https://www.stenhouse.com/content/digitally-speaking-e-book

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.  www.pvlegs.com

 

 

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C’mon, people. Think about it.

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Why do fake posts work? We all see the news: trolls are posting fake stories. We all think, “That’s terrible!” We worry that our students will be duped. This is a serious problem. But we need to cure ourselves first.

A friend shared a Facebook post: “Steve Jobs last words.” The claim was that on his deathbed, Jobs imparted these wonderful words of wisdom. Jobs never said the words. On Twitter I saw “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn” attributed to Ben Franklin. Ben never said that. And then came Einstein’s quote, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Einstein never said any such thing. This drives me crazy. Intelligent people. Educators. Folks with degrees. All of these people get upset when they hear that Facebook is being used by troll farms putting out falsehoods that end up being widely shared, yet they are guilty of forwarding falsehoods themselves.

I think I know how these fakes get created. Someone somewhere thought, “These are nice words, but no one will read them unless I say a famous person said them. How about Jobs? Franklin? Wait, no! This has the word ‘genius’ in it, and when I hear the word genius, I think of Einstein! I’ll say that Einstein said it!” And I understand why reposting and retweeting happen: the post includes some nice sentiments or pleasant platitudes or inspirational message, and we want to share them. We end up spreading lies.

Don’t be so harsh, right? The message was super nice so don’t be picky. So Steve Jobs didn’t say it. Big deal. The point is that the words are inspiring! With that kind of thinking, you can see how troll farms succeed. Put out a message people like, and it will be shared whether true or false. Maybe the post includes something Trump never said or Clinton never did or no one from Black Lives Matter ever said, but so what? I like the post! It reinforces what I already believe so I’ll repost it. Be aware that it is very easy to create attractive but fake messages. Rather than take non-famous words and attribute them to famous people, I used Canva (https://www.canva.com/) to create a poster taking famous words and attributing them to me. The message is wonderful, right? Feel free to share it!

We need to model the behavior we want our students to emulate. We can’t mindlessly accept and perpetuate what we like online. Be suspicious. Think critically. Sometimes the red flags are obvious. The words attributed to Jobs in the post I got included the phrase, “Best awarded words in London.” Californian Steve Jobs is dying and says something bizarre about London? Sometimes it is trickier to detect fakes. You have to know about Ben Franklin’s writing to know the words above are not his style. You have to think that while the world thinks Einstein is a genius, he didn’t hold himself out to be a genius or a commentator on genius. Verify. Use Snopes, a fact-checking site (https://www.snopes.com/). I queried “Jobs last words” and got the answer “FALSE” (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/steve-jobs-deathbed-speech/). Use Google. On the search line I typed, “Did Einstein ever say everyone is a genius” and got many results verifying that he didn’t including this one: https://www.history.com/news/here-are-6-things-albert-einstein-never-said.

 

This is all effortful, but necessary. Make it part of your behavior to think critically and never mindlessly accept or repost anything. Then share your skill with your students.

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Shortchanging Speaking

A student turns in this paper:

many people think that we should not have ginetticly modifyed foods we could be having health problems in the future if we eat them, Some studys say that they cause cancer. we should pass laws to stop this.

What do you do?

Options:

  1. A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids write.
  2. B)    Nothing. I want authentic writing, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.
  3. C)    I teach some lessons to help improve the writing.

Most of us will choose option C. We won’t do everything at once. We might teach a lesson about capitalization and give practice with capitalizing the first word of a sentence. We might then teach a lesson about “changing the y to i” before adding an ending and give some practice activities. We might reteach sentence structure with lessons about run-ons and then give some practice activities to help students identify run-ons.

A student turns in this work:

1/4 + 1/5  =  2/9    and   2/3 + 2/7 = 4/10

What do you do?

  1. A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids do math.
  2. B)    Nothing. I want authentic work, and I don’t want to devalue student work.
  3. C)    I teach some lessons to help improve adding fractions with unlike denominators.

Most of us will choose option C again. We will teach finding common multiples and give students lots of practice activities.

One more example. A student turns in this talk: Composting

What do you do?

  1. A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids speak.
  2. B)    Nothing. I want authentic speaking, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.
  3. C)    I teach some lessons to help improve speaking.

In my experience, most teachers choose option A. In the case of this recording, the teacher posted it to YouTube for the world to hear even though it is clearly “rough draft” speaking. (I’m guessing it was so poor that you didn’t even listen to the entire one and half minutes.) I have had a few teachers choose option B, claiming that they don’t teach speaking because they value “authentic” speech, as if a child cannot be both well-spoken and authentic. I have found almost no teachers who teach specific lessons with guided practice about speaking skills.

In this case, I would teach a lesson about Life, adding passion/feeling/emotion to make the talk more interesting, and I would offer practice with little phrases and little speeches so students can develop life. Then I would teach some lessons about Speed, adjusting pace to make a talk more interesting and effective. I would offer practice with some little speeches so students can learn to adjust speed well. See some ideas here: http://pvlegs.com/activities/. Do you see those kinds of lessons and practice activities in your school?

We live in an age where speaking well matters. Digital tools showcase speaking: podcasts, videos, Facetime, Skype, webinars, video conferences, and more. How could the teacher that put this up on YouTube (with identifying information that I removed!) not have noticed that the kids in front of the green screen need help with basic speaking skills? https://youtu.be/KmnoAxptUsA How could he/she have thought that this was the best kids can do? Shame on you for selling these kids short and posting a video for the world to see that fails to show how well they are capable of speaking. Unfortunately, many teachers fail to pay attention to poor speaking, fail to give needed lessons, and fail to give teaching oral communication the instruction time it deserves. Many teachers watch students speaking like this and do nothing to help them. We make kids talk after the poetry unit and ignore the fact that most of the recitations are quiet poor. (“That’s just how kids speak.”) We have students do their biography/country presentations and ignore the facts that most listeners were not particularly engaged and two days later would be able to tell you almost nothing about the reports they heard. (“That’s just how kids speak.”) If you listen with new ears, it will be painfully obvious that we have shortchanged our students and failed to give them needed instruction about how to speak well.

Solutions? Speaking skills are an afterthought in most materials out there. There are few materials that specifically show teachers how to help students master oral communication. But there are some:

An online course: http://shop.ascd.org/Default.aspx?TabID=55&ProductId=172581907

A one-hour video: http://www.ascd.org/professional-development/videos/listen-up-speaking-matters-dvd.aspx

A book focused exclusively on explaining listening and speaking standards with lesson ideas and activities: goo.gl/4iJh1G

A book focused exclusively on teaching all students to speak well: goo.gl/dgoSS7

An enhanced ebook with embedded tutorials, audio and video examples of lesson and of students speaking: goo.gl/13vwA4

An article about teaching speaking: goo.gl/engkOt

A website devoted to showing how to teach speaking: www.pvlegs.com

A short video with animated words about how to teach speaking: goo.gl/ven2jp

It is time to quit shortchanging our students. We have expected too little and have failed to give them needed help. Let’s help them with speaking the way we help them with writing, with math, and with all other subjects. They deserve a chance to be well-spoken.

 

 

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Listen to the Rough Draft of the Speech. Yes, LISTEN…

Do you ever ask to hear the rough draft?

Yes, you read that correctly. I want to hear my students’ rough drafts. Every day, students are speaking in class. Often, teachers assign some talks with higher stakes than the daily discussions, answers of questions, and the like. We assign the quarterly book report in front of the entire class, the biography project final where students dress up as some historical figure, the report on smoking’s effects in health class, the presentation of the science project, the participation in a mock Congressional hearing, the talk at the DECA competition, and many more. At all grade levels in all subjects, at some point students will be giving a talk to a group. Before we expose the audience of students and/or parents and/or judges to these talks, we need to make sure that the talk is ready for prime time. I tell students to practice several times before presentation day, but occasionally some students do not in fact practice. I am sure this is just an issue I face, and you never have this problem. To avoid that problem, though, I want to hear the rough draft before my students give the final talk. I ask students to send me the rough draft of their talk so I can listen to it and offer advice. Do you ever do that?

Checking the rough draft is common for many writing assignments. The cynical among us may suggest checking the rough draft as a way to make sure students are doing the work they are supposed to be doing. The fear that the paper may not be started until the evening before the six-week assignment is due is real. Less cynical teachers may look at the rough draft as a formative assessment. Discovering mistakes and giving feedback before the final paper is due is more valuable than writing comments on the finished paper. For both reasons, I always asked students to do a rough draft before they handed in a major writing assignment. I collected and commented on the drafts and warned students that I would get quite miffed if those comments were ignored. I want the same thinking to apply to oral assignments—but with a twist. Don’t have students hand in a paper with the words they are planning on saying; require a recording of the talk instead.

There are many ways to record the rough draft. All of them contribute to preparation for the Common Core State Standards, by the way. Speaking standard 5 requires students to use multimedia in presentations. Beginning in second grade, students are expected to make audio recordings of talks; by fifth grade, students should be including multimedia components in presentations. This requirement is probably more daunting to teachers than to students. Far more of them than you realize are already quite adept at various ways of recording and posting audio and video. Today, I want to share some of the simpler ways we can record, and show you how to use digital tools to practice talks. Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology (Stenhouse, 2012) is the source for those wanting to do more.

Every computer/netbook/tablet has built-in audio and video recording. PCs have some version of a webcam—the Dell computer I am using now opens a video recorder by accessing “Dell Webcam Central”— and your students will have no trouble finding it. If students have a computer at home, they can record themselves and attach the movie to an e-mail to send to you. If you have one computer in your class, students can take turns making videos of their rough drafts and leave the files on the desktop of that computer for you to check later. PCs also have Sound Recorder. Windows puts an “Accessories” folder on every PC. It contains a calculator, a snipping tool that allows you take screenshots, and Sound Recorder, among other things. Double-click on Sound Recorder, and a small box appears on the desktop. The red button labeled “Start Recording” couldn’t be more obvious. The blue “Stop Recording” button is impossible to miss, too. As soon as you stop, a screen opens and gives you the option to name and save the recording: “Muffin’s rough draft,” for example. Students who record at home can attach the file to an e-mail to you. Students using the class computer can leave the file on the desktop.

Devices using a Mac operating system have Photo Booth built in. Click on the icon on the dock, and you are ready to record. One option allows you to take a snapshot, but we care about the option that lets you record video. One click and—after a “3-2-1” countdown—you are recording. The recording is automatically saved. More tech-savvy kids may use GarageBand, also on the dock of every Mac device. It is a bit trickier to use, but if they know how, let them use it.

I read that 80% of high school students have smartphones. I downloaded a free app (Easy Voice Recorder) for my phone after a student of mine did a favor for me. I asked him to record something for Digitally Speaking, thinking he would go home to his computer and use a tool I mentioned in the previous paragraphs. Instead, he pulled out his phone, spoke, hit a button, and e-mailed me the recording. It’s in the book. Ask students to send you a spoken rough draft, and they will have ways to do it that we don’t know about. That’s fine with me. I just want to hear the practices.

Can your students get to the Internet at home or at school? Visit www.vocaroo.com. There’s no sign-up, no password, no cost—the home page has a big red button that starts the audio recording. When students finish, they can “Listen” to the recording. If the recording is not good enough, they can hit “Retry”; if they like it, they can copy the URL address to send to other listeners or hit a button that lets them e-mail the recording to someone . . . a teacher, for instance.

Think of the possibilities. Students can watch/listen to the recordings, critique themselves using a PVLEGS rubric, make adjustments, and improve. Audio and video can be shared in a group: each group member shows his or her rough draft and gets feedback from other group members. Recordings can be viewed by a teacher who can give important tips to improve a presentation before the due date. A Reader’s Theater team could record parts and send them to teammates as a way to improve before performing the book selection in class. The Poetry Café presenters can listen to themselves before getting up in front of classmates and parents. The recordings of a “This I Believe” speech could be useful formative assessments on the way to the final talk. And, of course, you have your own great ideas.

Why wouldn’t you want to do this? Improving speaking skills, avoiding dull presentations, updating instruction, and meeting Common Core State Standards can all be accomplished by asking to hear the rough drafts.

Erik is the author of Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology and Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students.

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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.

 

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 (Stenhouse Publishers, 2012), Teaching the Core Skills of Listening & Speaking (ASCD, 2014), Researching in a Digital World (ASCD, 2015), and Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016). He is a program consultant and author of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Collections and Journeys language arts programs.

 

Erik’s educational background includes Oberlin College, University of Denver Law School, and the University of Colorado. You can visit his website at www.pvlegs.com .

 

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Connecting the talk to the audience

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“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.

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