Saturday, October 22, 2016

Not Rocket Science: Teaching the Skills by Which We Assess

Are you teaching your students a skill? A life skill? A skill that adults want to hone in order to be successful in real life? A skill like learning, thinking critically, collaborating, communicating, creating, or problem solving? Then do 2 things: 
  1. Actually teach it. Don't just assign and assess it. Don’t know how? Introduce students to the resources adults use. (Motto: “Just Google It.”)
  2. Scaffold practice. Show students the value of practice by giving time to do it—and I don’t just mean homework time. 
Let's use presentation for an example. This week, my students gave a presentation on background information to the South African novel Cry, the Beloved Country. Now we all know in our gut that presentation is an important skill. We all spend portions of our lives presenting—whether it is to one person, five, ten, or thousands—whether it is a job interview, a sales pitch, a halftime pep-talk, a Sunday school class, or a state of the nation address. Shoot, as teachers, we spend our entire working lives trying to sell kids on the importance of learning what we have on offer. 

The problem is, no one ever taught us how to do it—the selling, the speaking, the presentation, that is. Except for, possibly, a one-credit elective in high school or college that mostly reinforced our fears. So most of us know we aren’t great presenters; the minority who are, aren’t really sure how it is they do what they do.

It’s okay. It isn’t rocket science. (Even rocket science today isn’t rocket science: all you have to do is Google it. [See the P.S. for a fun tangent on that one!])

I spent a lot of my teaching career assessing student knowledge via skills I hadn’t taught. We’d read fiction, and they'd write an expository essay about the fiction we'd read. Or make a presentation. Or, if I was really creative, make a poster. But did we ever study an expository model? Learn what makes an effective presentation? Or analyze the essentials of layout and design? Of course not! This was World Literature class, after all! I was supposed to teach Gilgamesh, Antigone, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez!

Sorry—but no one ever lost their job because they didn’t know what magical realism was. They might if they can’t nail the presentation. 

We know communication is a 21st century skill. So if up-to-date teachers, we have students do science projects, speeches, debates, and presentations. We even evaluate them. Sometimes pretty rigorously. But do we teach students how to speak, and do we coach them on the skill?

So this week I spent one class period on teaching presentation. I sent my students to > Resources > Public Speaking Tips. That is a real resource that real adults use because they have a real-life reason to improve in public speaking. Whether or not it is helpful now, maybe sometime in the future they will have an important presentation coming up and will gratefully Google this resource.

I told them to read three articles: “Preparing a Speech,” “Successful Speeches,” and “Gestures and Body Language.” Each article is only one screen long. And out of the three articles, I asked them choose a total of three goals that they wanted to work on for this presentation, and to record those goals on the back of their presentation rubric.

Then I asked them to pair up, deliver their presentation to a partner, and give feedback. 

And I waved under their noses the piece of cream cheese pound cake that was waiting for them when they were done. (A great general knows that an army marches on its stomach!)

And if you don’t know how to make cream cheese pound cake, you can also Google that.

P.S. Major tangent: I Googled “rocket science” and was intrigued by the option “rocket science ice cream.” Apparently, there is an Amish owned ice cream shop in Nappanee, Indiana, where your order is mixed and frozen before your eyes using liquid nitrogen! Gotta love Google!

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