Last year I had a student I’ll call Anthony. Anthony was a delightful member of the class, engaged in our work and in our community as a whole. Until I assigned a speech.
After I outlined the project – STEM-based design task in which students would show and tell at the end – we trooped down the library. As I walked around checking in with students exploring resources for ideas, my interactions with Anthony confused me. He complained, griped, avoided eye contact and was otherwise surly. In short, he wasn’t Anthony. At the end of class, I pulled him aside and asked if there was something I needed to know someway I missed supporting him. Keeping his head down and shaking it, he only answered a quick “nope” and then nodded when I asked if we could start fresh the next day.
The next day, we were in the classroom yet it was more of yesterday’s altered Anthony. After he snapped at a few of his friends in the class, I asked him to step into the hall for a conversation. After receiving a shrug to my asking how I could be of help, and as I was sharing my observations, my confusion, and my quest to get things sorted out, it hit me.
He didn’t want to talk. Aloud. In front of the class. Ever.
The minute I paused my teacher spiel and directly asked if fear was the heart of our issue, it seemed like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders and he nodded profusely, looking me in the eye for the first time.
As someone who’s spent the majority of my working days over the last 10 years in front of an audience, let alone my lifelong love of theater, I can forget that this isn’t commonplace. Many of my students, and many people we know, are terrified of public speaking.
That said, public speaking is a worthwhile skill. Though our chatter is increasingly digital, face-to-face communication enables strengthening relationships, trust, and leadership in way that cannot be replicated. According to these authors, charismatic leaders increase their efficacy in a way that those without charisma cannot. Further, speaking and listening are threaded throughout grade levels in the Common Core State Standards. Students progressively build upon their ability to communicate intentionally, appropriately, and with reflection in multiple situations with their peers.
As soon as Anthony and I had our moment of understanding, we cleared the way to focus on learning. I first assured Anthony he didn’t have to do anything he wasn’t ready to do, and that my goal was to help him take steps forward, whatever that meant for him. Next, we focused on his research and resulting project, during which time he became an expert. Two weeks later Anthony was the star of the share out, proudly sharing his work with the class after having asked me if he could go first.
Considering that many of our surrounding colleges require students to take a public speaking course and after reviewing the standards, I decided to provide students with a gradual means to improving their skills as part of our class. It starts with building trust and community, and we end the year as a collective of cheerleaders. Here are some instructional moves that might translate to your classroom:
Let students act the part.
One of my favorite speech activities took part in an open space at a high school in which an entire history class gathered for an assessment. Rather than take out paper and pencil, these students had assumed the identities of historical figures during a specific time period and debated the balance of church and state. Students eagerly took the microphone in this very public venue, most in costume, and shared “their” perspective in the matter. Their teacher highlighted the need to give students ample time to research, a chance to try mini debates with two or three other students while in character, and building a classroom environment in which learning comes from speaking and listening to peers.
Work up to it.
The aforementioned activity worked largely because the students’ teacher, identifying their preparation needs, created a scaffold for achievement that enabled all students to be ready to join in. Whether this is a full year plan of gaining confidence and ability, or a daily practice session ahead of a performance, working “ahead” provides opportunity for readiness.
Follow the standards.
The Common Core State Standards require students to comprehend and collaborate in communication as well as provide structure to their means for presenting knowledge and ideas. K-12 grades have standards for speaking and listening that engage students in work that asks them to intentionally monitor their communications as well as those of others. Students experiencing a continuum of speaking and listening are more likely to be ready for interpersonal communication as adults.
If you haven’t tried Socratic Seminars, it very well might be time. Often taken for granted as a tool of the Humanities, I’ve used them to discuss the ethics of science, analyze funding sources, peer review studies, and otherwise ask students to use evidence in thinking critically about our world. Fish bowls and debates, among other discussion formats, are additional tools that will help get students talking – and better yet, talking with resources in hand. These strategies can become largely-student driven, especially after a few practice rounds, freeing the teacher to facilitate feedback, reflection, and high-fives for the collective.
Anthony rocked it, and more so, he helped me up my game in supporting students at various levels of comfort with public speaking. After all, Jerry Seinfeld once quipped that most people would rather be in the casket than have to deliver a eulogy. All humor aside, I’m in the business of helping students feel more secure in delivering their awesome ideas, not panic to the point where they can’t find their own voice. I’m also thankful for the chance to support a skill that has a side effect of creating more empathetic ears for the voices of others.
Thinking about adding public speaking aspects to your class? Here are a few resources I found helpful in my own quest:
What moves do you make to support face-to-face communication in the classroom and beyond?
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