Don’t hit record yet!!!

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Some high school teachers are interested in school reform.  Cool.  They get students involved and have the students generate ideas about how to improve schools.  Nice.  They create a video and put it on YouTube.  Great. 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 a teacher posted.  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.

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?

OK, let’s be fair.  Listen to the speaker at the end of the montage.  You notice the difference right away, don’t you?  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 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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