Friday, December 18, 2015

The Power of Regular, Focused Instruction, Practice, and Feedback

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at
Did you know that more Americans fear public speaking than death? But we have to do it all the time--whether to a job interviewer, a team, a class, a client, or an auditorium full of people. I hope as a teacher to bless kids with less fear and more eagerness to lovingly serve their neighbor-audiences with their presentation skills.
I have this regularly recurring epiphany: Students learn what I focus them on with a purpose, an assessment, and instruction with regular practice and feedback toward the assessment.

The “regular practice and feedback” I almost forgot with the presentation for my Honors English 10 semester 1 exam. It was 3 weeks before the exam when I remembered that they were not skilled presenters (a lesson learned first quarter with their initial presentation), and that they needed some immediate and effective training—more than I had planned for with 2 more weeks needed to finish the research paper and then only 1 week for transforming it into a polished presentation.

What they needed was a lot of practice and feedback. Then I realized this does not mean a huge block of time—just regular time for an extended period. So for the last 3 weeks of the year, I initiated the 1-sentence impromptu speech. (Now, I realize I am lucky enough to have very an embarrassingly small class of only 8 this year, but even with a large class, I could get through the entire class every 3 days.) 

What did this look like? Either at the beginning or the end of the period, each student stood up and answered a question of the day. It could be reporting to the class (What is your research question?) or process analysis (What is one problem you’ve encountered in your research?). It could be goal-setting (What are you going to accomplish today?) or an exit ticket (What is something you’ve learned about writing a research paper?). Or sometimes just community building in the holiday spirit (What’s a favorite Christmas memory?).

We started with a 1-minute mini-lesson reviewing non-verbal and verbal presentation skills from the rubric, especially the first week or so: 

Non-verbal--posture (stand on 2 feet, don’t hide or lean), gestures (avoid nervous gestures like hair-flipping, cuff-fiddling, or pocket-jingling; do choose one big, significant gesture), eye contact (3-5 seconds per person, or about the length of one sentence). 

Verbal--volume (If your audience can’t hear you, the best presentation in the world will have no effect), speed (neither too fast nor too slow, but just right), expression (use pauses, vary pitch and speed, and avoid filler words such as um and like).

As students sat down, I could give a quick bit of feedback—only positive at first (“Great—I could hear you” or “Nice gesture toward yourself and then the audience”). The first couple of days they were clearly nervous and awkward, but by day 3 most were relaxing and I could say, “Good posture. Remember to not tug on your hair.” Or ask, “Who had really eye contact?” The day they recounted a Christmas memory, we discussed how when telling a story that had an emotional connection, expression naturally came alive.

When we finished the research paper and got to the 1-week I had scheduled for the presentation preparation, we spent a little longer on the difference between a paper and a presentation, watching bits of TED talks as examples. And I gave extra credit points for students who would video-record and assess themselves on the rubric I’d given them.

When it came to the final exam, the presentations were vastly better than the last time. In fact, I think the students even enjoyed watching each other’s presentations. They complimented each other on an engaging demonstration or story or slide, for involving the audience and for referencing a previous presentation. They asked for feedback on how something they tried had worked. 

Makes me wonder—what is the skill that confounds both me and students that I’m going to really focus instruction, practice, and feedback on next semester? Maybe sentence variety—a couple mentioned that in the reflections on their research papers. Well, I have some time over Christmas vacation to plan!

Is there a skill you and your students feel stuck on? Where you say, “I taught it, but they just didn't get it!? Are you giving students regular, focused instruction, practice, and feedback? What’s worked for you or what do you want to try next year?

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