When I was 11, my family took me on an outing to Dunkin’ Doughnuts. My excitement over selecting a special, glazed treat quickly stalled when, as we approached the counter, my father said he would not be ordering for me. If I wanted a doughnut, I would have to place my own request.
After several seconds of awkwardly staring at the young cashier, I ashamedly skulked to a booth and cried quietly into the sleeves of my sweatshirt.
As I grew up, my parents constantly chastised me for my inability to talk to strangers and acquaintances.hey hated the way I would hide behind their legs or, when I was older, answer queries with downcast eyes and mumbled, one-word replies.
Yet, I became a high school teacher–in essence, a public speaker to a combined audience of 150 young (and judgmental) adults each day. Further, my teaching style is not stoic, subdued, or modest. I am vibrant and animated, facilitating activities and discussions with extensive gestures and dramatic expression. Most teachers understand we become actors the minute students enter the room, creating intrigue and excitement in order to facilitate engagement and enhance understanding. For teachers like me, playing the role takes a bit more effort.
The Common Core Anchor Standard for Speaking and Listening states, “To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students must have ample opportunities to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations—as part of a whole class, in small groups, and with a partner.” It makes sense; in order to be successful and reach their full potential in both their professional and personal lives, students need to be able to effectively communicate with others.
students must have ample opportunities to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations”
Unfortunately, the Common Core Standards did not exist when I was a student, so I developed the interpersonal communication and public speaking skills I employ today through my various jobs and experiences in young adulthood. Years in the customer-service sector helped me become an expert in interpersonal professionalism and audience awareness. I learned the art of listening, appropriately responding, and spreading goodwill and trust through my tone and facial expressions. These skills served me well as a group aerobics instructor and when I became a mother advocating for my son. Now, in addition to teaching, I lead professional development opportunities for my own colleagues as well as teachers in other districts. These skills help me support young students in my own classroom.
As teachers, we have students each year whom we all too quickly deem “shy” or “introverted.” We would not recognize their voices because we hear them so rarely, and when they do share, they avert their eyes and speak so quietly we strain to make out their mumbled words. At student presentation time, we receive emails from parents asking that their student be excused from the project or be allowed to present one-on-one to avoid speaking in front of the class. However, to exclude students from opportunities to share their work with others would be remiss.
We do not adequately enable students to meet the speaking and listening standard through forcing students to present to the whole class. This would be like giving a struggling reader a text by Faulkner. Instead, we need to provide opportunities for students to grow in this area through a variety of classroom speaking activities and creating space for reflection and goal setting. We can start the school year by incorporating low-risk skill access such as through ice-breaker introduction games or team-building activities that build student communication confidence from day one. Rather than throwing students into a scary situation wherein they tremble all alone in front of a classroom full of peers, we can also scaffold our communication strategies. I remember my own mortification as a student when teachers called on me, regardless of whether I knew the desired response (though confidence in this area helps). It was less daunting to first be given a chance to explore my idea with a partner and then present it as our rather than my answer. As students begin to feel comfortable working with a partner, they can grow into small-group collaboration.
As a member of my school’s leadership team for the past several years, various administrators have exclaimed at the rarity of my verbal input during these meetings. I apologize, yet do not explain my perception that my meek voice has little place in a room full of big personalities: people who are confident, full of conviction, and who, without a thought, would (and do) speak over me if they are suddenly struck with an idea more valid than mine. Small student groups often operate with the same dynamic—the loudest voices take over. An effective way to combat this is to employ group member roles and rotate them so each person has a chance to lead. This way, there is a formal place for even a reticent speaker’s voice.
One great way to use technology in the classroom is to have students record their presentations (at home or with a peer) and then play the recordings to the class. Some tools for this strategy are Flipgrid, Seesaw, or other apps that allow students to capture their thinking through audiovisual means. This strategy provides students opportunities to view and analyze strengths and areas for growth in public speaking. It also engages them in the process of editing and revising for a specific audience without the stifling pressure of presenting to the class in real time.
Most educators are well aware of the importance of creating a safe classroom environment. Feeling comfortable and included can go a long way with students who struggle with social anxiety. Relationships can be strengthened through connecting with students daily, asking them questions to get to know them, and frequently inviting them to speak and share can encourage students to share their voice with an increasingly broader audience.
I have come a long way since that day at Dunkin’ Doughnuts yet I still struggle with social anxiety. Rather than shirk from all social interactions, I set small goals for myself, such as meeting five new people each day at the training I attended in Phoenix a few weeks ago. I am proud of how far I have come, and am thankful I can utilize my insights to help so many of our students.
Consider the reluctant speakers you have worked with. How do you help them see themselves as valuable members of classroom discourse? How do you support their growth as they Listening and Speaking standards?
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