Creating an argument worth delivering

A fairly typical classroom current events discussion:

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

            Yes, they should! Football is fun!!

            Denver won the Super Bowl!

            Yes! That was a great game.

            But kids get hurt playing football.

            I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous.

            My cousin broke his knee playing soccer.

And so it goes. Fairly random statements. Kids spouting opinions. How can we improve upon this type of discussion? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

You are probably being asked to give more attention to argumentative and persuasive writing and speaking. Has your school or district provided resources and/or training to help you with this? When I ask that question at workshops I lead, by far the most common answer is “No.” It is grossly unfair to ask teachers to teach something without giving them resources and training to do so, but unfortunately, it is quite common. How can we help students with argumentative assignments? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

Let’s start with the most fundamental piece of good thinking, the argument. What is an argument?

That seems like a pretty easy question, but do an experiment. Ask the teachers at your school to write down an answer without using a dictionary or searching online. You won’t get the same answer twice. We all sort of know what an argument is and it seems like a common term, but we don’t have an exact, agreed upon definition. You will see claim, warrant, reason, plausible argument, stance, strong reasons, position, conclusion, facts, details, quotes, evidence, backing, premise, correct logic, logical progression of ideas, statement, thesis, and various other related terms. No agreement. Competing ways to say the same thing. Confusing to students and adults. Because all of our students have heard the word before, too, we think they understand when we say, “Analyze the argument…” or “Write an argument supporting…” but they really don’t. Ask students to define argument. You’ll see what I mean.

Don’t think that because words are recognizable, they are understood. Argument, persuasion, evidence, and reasoning are common words (rhetoric less so), but that doesn’t mean students (or teachers) can master them without direct instruction. I wrote Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning to give teachers an understandable, practical way to teach students these important skills. There are some core principles in the book.

  • A common language is important. Shifting vocabulary from class to class, grade to grade is not OK. “Position with reasons and quotes” in English and “Conclusion with warrants and backing” in social studies and “Opinion with evidence” in health is not optimal for students.
  • Take nothing for granted. Define and teach “argument.” Explicitly explain the steps needed to build an argument. Teach five types of evidence and give students practice finding them. Teach persuasive techniques and give students practice with them. Teach grade appropriate rhetorical techniques and give students practice.
  • Every discussion, every book, every news story, every math problem, every “Can we go outside?” is an opportunity to teach good thinking. You have activities that can be tweaked to make all of the needed teaching possible, workable, and even fun.
  • Teaching students about argument, persuasion, and reasoning will benefit them for their entire lives. Knowing how to evaluate and create these will be important every day in their professional and social lives.

Let’s start building that common language. In Good Thinking, I offer this definition of argument:

An argument is a series of statements leading to a conclusion.

This is an important definition that will ultimately make life much easier. If we get in the habit of using this definition, thinking improves. Some examples:

Example #1:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting argument. What is the reason you said that?

Error #1: That is not an argument, Teacher. That is a conclusion. It is the end product of some line of thinking, the last piece of some argument.

Better:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

Error #2:  Imprecise language can lead to misunderstanding.

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

  Student: Because you asked me to tell you what I thought about football.

Better:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements would lead us to that conclusion.

Example #2:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. Give me two reasons for that.

 Student: My cousin got a concussion. Football is a dumb game.

Error #3: Why two? What if it takes more statements to lead to the conclusion? Never put a number on this.

Error #4: The student gave two statements but how do they add up to “Don’t let kids play football”? Your cousin got a concussion. So? The student hasn’t built an argument yet, but has given random statements. Don’t be satisfied with this.

Better:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements led you to that conclusion?

Student: Football has a lot of violent contact. Sometimes that contact causes kids to get concussions. Concussions can cause big problems. So we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

With consistent, precise language, students know what is required, and quickly get the idea of how to build an argument.

There are some simple steps we can take to teach students to build a good argument. First, of course, give them the precise definition: statements leading to a conclusion. Then, offer the same sort of little lessons you use for all other subjects. Before we ask students to write a paragraph, we have been clear about the pieces needed, and we (or someone before us) taught specific lessons on each of those pieces. We taught sentence structure and gave students practice activities with fragments and run-ons. We taught topic sentences, supporting sentences, word choice, punctuation, capitalization, and so on. Let’s do the same with argument.

Let students practice with three-step arguments (syllogisms, if you want to use the language of logicians). These little exercises [See the Stenhouse blog to see the exercises: http://blog.stenhouse.com/archives/2016/07/07/blogstitute-2016-elements-of-a-good-argument/ ] get students thinking about how to make statements that lead us to some conclusion. The first one is a completed example. Students can fill in the others. Note: there is no one answer. One student could say, “Students can’t think well when they are fidgety. Recess gets rid of fidgety. So we need more recess.” Another might suggest, “Childhood obesity is a problem. Recess provides calorie burning activity. So we need more recess.” In some cases, a statement is offered and students need to come up with another statement and a conclusion. Again, there is no one answer. “The U.S. spends billions on defense. We have never been invaded. Therefore, we should keep spending.” Or, alternatively, “The U.S. spends billions on defense. Lots of that money is wasted. Therefore, we don’t need to spend that much.”

Some arguments need more than two statements to get us where we want to be. I use this example in the book:

            Schools should model healthy lifestyles for children.

            The French fries the cafeteria serves are full of fat and calories.

            Fat and calories contribute to overweight kids.

            Childhood obesity is a problem.

            Therefore, we should stop selling fries in our cafeteria.

 We can use a graphic organizer such as the one below. [See the Stenhouse blog for the organizer: http://blog.stenhouse.com/archives/2016/07/07/blogstitute-2016-elements-of-a-good-argument/ ] Statements leading to a conclusion are represented by steps for us to get across the bridge. Put up some conclusions and let students practice building the bridge:

           The United States should ban handguns.

            Homework should be abolished.

            Plants are good for people.

            All squares are rectangles.

How many boards do you need?

The trick is to be sure that each board is needed. An example:

           The United States leads the world in handgun deaths.

            There are many kinds of hand guns.

            The high number of deaths is the result of how easy it is to get a handgun.

            If people couldn’t get handguns, they couldn’t kill someone with a handgun.

            The United States should ban handguns.

Which one of those statements does not help us get to the conclusion? Make sure you have students critique each other’s arguments checking to see if statements are missing and if all the statements are needed.

Arguments should be supported so we are tasked with teaching how to evaluate and use evidence. I ask teachers how they teach evidence and this is a typical response: “I tell students to add facts, evidence, etc.” Actually, facts are one type of evidence and I’m pretty sure “etc.” means “I don’t know anything else.” Do all of your students understand that there are types of evidence? How do you teach those? Let me guess: you have been given no materials and had no training about this, either.

Let’s go back to the football argument. We left off here:

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

Here’s how that discussion should continue:

Teacher: Now we have an argument. But it seems some of your statements need support. “…causes kids to get concussions?” Do you have any evidence for that? “Concussions can cause big problems?” Do you have evidence for that?

I fear that most often when teachers ask for “evidence,” they mean “find me the place in the reading where it said that.” That is asking for the source, not for “evidence.” Another fear is that teachers give the impression that “quote” equals “evidence.” Too often, we say, “You need some evidence for that. Can you find the quote in the book where that was said?” I get really picky about imprecise language. Muddied vocabulary leads to muddied thinking. Students can get confused or, worse, misled.

I talk much more about evidence in the book, but alert readers will get a pretty good sense of the five types of evidence from the question the teacher asks:

Teacher: Can you give us a number of how many concussions occur? Do you have any facts about how concussions affect the brain? Can you tell us more about the example of your cousin and how he was affected? Is there a quote from some doctor who agrees with you? Can you make an analogy perhaps about how concussions are like hitting a car windshield in a car wreck?

That wasn’t so hard, was it? We change our language to be consistent and specific, and we teach a couple of mini-lessons just as we do with every other subject. We are well on the way to having arguments supported with evidence. A little upfront investment in teaching these skills will make so many things better in your class and beyond. Look back at the discussion that opened this article. With lessons about argument and evidence, discussions such as that are transformed.

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

Why would you say that? [Student version of “what statements lead to that conclusion?”]

 Kids get hurt playing football. [Nice! Student gives a statement of the argument!]

I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous. [Direct challenge of the statement.]

You are one example only. Lots of articles talk about the number of concussions kids get.

Denver won the Super Bowl!

Where did that come from? What does that statement have to do with this argument?

Notice the improvement? The lessons we teach will spill over into every part of your class. I hope the lessons spill over into every part of our lives. I don’t know about you, but the election season drives me crazy.  Seems lots of candidates count on us not being able to recognize good thinking. Make sure your students don’t end up in that group!

[Originally published at Stenhouse Publishers: http://blog.stenhouse.com/archives/2016/07/07/blogstitute-2016-elements-of-a-good-argument/ ]

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Don’t hit record yet!

Top 10 skills

Fourth graders are learning about the Reconstruction. The teacher wants to test out his new green screen tools. He has students speak and posts the video on YouTube. A huge problem: he is so focused on the tech tool that he fails to notice that the students do not know how to speak well. Check out what he 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?

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. 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 YouTube video they posted.  Again, I took clips of the students from the video and took out all identifying information.

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 can have such poor speaking skill.

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.  And so on.

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 look here, too, 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.

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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.

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. But that is the topic of a different post.

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

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

 

 

 

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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.

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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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Don’t Follow Your Dreams

A dream is a regular idea with a fancy name. That’s all it is. It’s an idea that popped into the head. Understanding that is very important. Why? Have you ever had a bad idea? Ever looked back at something and thought, “Whoa. I shouldn’t have done that. That was a bad idea.” Be realistic: Lots of people have bad ideas. And if a dream is an idea with a fancy name, lots of people have bad dreams, so to speak. If lots of people have bad dreams, lots of students do, too. How do we deal with students who have “stupid” dreams?

It becomes important because we treat “dreams” so differently than “ideas.” Let me give you an example. I was playing golf at a municipal golf course. My playing partner was 46 years old and announced that he had just quit his job to focus on golf. There is a Senior Tour for professional golfers, and he figured he could make lots of money there. Except he wasn’t that good. If he had said, “My idea is to try out for the Tour and become rich,” I would have said, “That’s a really bad idea. Every year, many touring pros with years of experience turn 50. These guys regularly shoot in the 60’s which is something you have never done. They have years of experience playing under extreme pressure and you have none. You have no chance at surviving the qualifying process to join the tour. Get your job back now!”

But he said, “My dream is to try out for the Tour” instead. Dream? No one can step on another person’s dream, right? So I said, “Oh. Go for it.” Which is really bad advice.

You have seen the “Famous Failures” poster, haven’t you? There are a few versions of it. Michael Jordan didn’t make varsity as a high school sophomore; one person said Walt Disney wasn’t any good; The Beatles were rejected by a recording company; Steve Jobs was fired once… AND THEY DIDN’T LET THOSE THINGS STOP THEM FROM THEIR DREAMS!!   Follow your dreams, too!!

Should we point out that of the hundreds of millions of Americans who lived in the 20th century, they picked out six? Should we point out the arrogance of comparing yourself to one of these people? Should we point out that for every wrong statement such as “you will never make it as an author/musician/cartoonist/athlete/whatever” literally millions of similar statements were true? Edgy stuff, right?

Do we have a responsibility as educators to teach realistic expectations? The default is “Hey, go for it! Follow your dreams.” Who would dare to challenge that? But are we sending students down the wrong path and shutting down their possibility of developing their true talents? I know some readers are thinking, “Who are you to make such determinations?!” I also know that every reader can think of students (and adults) who had very bad ideas and you knew they were bad. When should we stop parroting the cliché?

Does age matter? Let little kids believe in Santa but tell older kids the truth? When do we share important realistic information? Do the math. There is one president, and he/she holds office for four years. It is not the case that anyone can be president. Only one of 333,000,000 can. Do the math. There are five big name pop stars/movie actors/filmmakers/Internet company developers/baseball players/etc. The planet has 7 billion people. Do we have a responsibility to share this? Should we ever say, “You draw well and it will be a great hobby for you, but what else should you be doing?”

The odds are overwhelming that leading students to realistic expectations will be better advice than “Go for it!” Do you want to play the odds? Do you want to educate about reality or encourage fantasizing about what will never be? I struggle with that. I fear I do a disservice by blindly saying, “Follow your dreams.” I wish the kids just said, “My idea is to…”

 

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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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