(Article appeared in MiddleWeb SmartBrief 3/26/13)
Recently, I walked into a middle school and saw a bunch of students talking at lockers. I found the teacher and asked her what was going on. She told me the students were practicing their book reports. Seems that in a week, the students would be talking at classmates and this was her way of preparing them. I felt like I had gone back in time fifty years. I had to give a book report to classmates and I practiced at lockers when I was in middle school a half century ago. Has nothing changed? Is this still the best way to practice? Is this still the best way to share a book? No, no, and no.
For one thing, there are many ways for students to record and watch themselves and others. Digital tools can provide more feedback than a locker can, and I may write about those one day. Today, though, I’d like to point out that the internet came along, and someone had the bright idea of creating a site where anyone could create an online, live radio show with talk, sound effects, and music. (If you don’t want to go live, use the site to make a podcast to play later.) Now, a teacher can send students to Spreaker (http://www.spreaker.com/ ) instead of to the hallway to give them a much more engaging assignment with a much more worthwhile product.
I love to use Spreaker for a few reasons. For starters, it is free. It is also fairly intuitive and easy to use. And perhaps most importantly, it kills several birds with one stone. The Common Core State Standards include speaking and listening, though those have been largely ignored to this point. Those standards require students to speak well and to add multimedia to presentations—Spreaker can help students learn how to do both of those.
When folks discuss 21st century skills, creativity and innovation come up along with communication and Spreaker addresses those as well. You can give students an engaging assignment that addresses speaking, technology, creativity, and innovation by updating the old book reports you already do. Yep, several birds with one stone.
To help you get started, I have created a video tutorial that shows you the basics. You can find many other tools and sites with tutorials and student examples in the book Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology (Stenhouse Publishers, 2012), but this will get you started. Watch my Spreaker tutorial here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKa-P8OyIgs
Obviously, instead of a three-to-five minute talk given to one class in one school, students are able to create something long-lasting and for a potentially huge audience. Student motivation increases. By replacing the report that only classmates hear, a show is created that can be heard by classmates, parents, other classes around the country, and even grandparents in Florida. If we want to meet our students where they are, Spreaker probably accomplishes this better than the old book talks do.
Teachers do not have to work with Spreaker very long before they get quite comfortable manipulating the site. More importantly, students quickly become adept at adding music and sound effects (they can watch the tutorial, too). In a fourth grade class I was working with, before I could get to a student who had a question, another student would often solve the issue. Think about it: we never taught our students how to play Angry Birds. They figured it out on their own.
The same will be true about Spreaker. Even the tech phobic teachers will be surprised at how quickly students master recording, adding sounds, and producing a show. A teacher does not need to be a pro before incorporating Spreaker in class. Spreaker fits into any curricular area at any age. But let me give you this warning: Don’t hit record until the students are ready!
I favor sites that showcase speaking because oral communication is by far the number one language art. Now, with podcasts, Skype, Facetime, video conferences, video cameras everywhere, and YouTube accounts for everyone, how well we speak is critically important. Unfortunately, I see teachers encouraging students to use tools such as Spreaker before teaching the students to speak well. Time after time, I watch a video created as the culmination to a great project only to be embarrassed for the students because of the poor quality of the speaking. I listen to podcasts of strange vocal patterns and monotonously delivered content. I watch slide shows where the narration detracts from the message.
If you watch critically, you’ll agree. We notice how cool the tool is and/or how cool the project was, and we ignore the fact that we are listening to verbal rough drafts. I don’t accept, “Hey, they’re just kids so whatever. Isn’t the technology awesome, though?” I don’t think we should publish poor writing and I don’t think we should post poor speaking on the web.
I teach six-trait speaking to my students, and let me share one of traits here. A live show at Spreaker will be heard through small speakers. The most important point for a speaker to remember is to add life to the voice. Something okay in person is dreadfully dull through the laptop/tablet/smartphone speaker. (Something dull in person is too painful to listen to and will be turned off.)
Teach students to add life to their voices with small phrases:
Don’t ever use my toothbrush on the dog’s teeth again!
That was the best concert ever!
You found it? Way to go!
Then work to add life to the show. Don’t go live (or save and post), “PoohwasskippingtoEyeorzwithabloonbutitpopped.” Insist upon, “Pooh was skipping to Eyeore’s house with a balloon. [happy voice] Unfortunately, the balloon popped. Oh bother. [sad voice]” Students will soon understand how to make what they say sound interesting. When the voices have life, you can broadcast.
You have some assignment you currently give to students that could turn into a Spreaker assignment. Perhaps you offer it as an option: “Talk to the class in two weeks, or create a radio show at this web address if you prefer.” No matter which way you go, adding radio shows to your repertoire will benefit all students.