We spend much of our lives speaking to an audience. Job interviews, discussions with friends, and asking for directions all require speaking publicly with a certain level of proficiency. So why do we limit the practice of this skill within our classrooms? I admit that in the past I shied away from requiring students to make presentations in front of their classmates. I recognized that the fear of public speaking is a genuine one, and I didn’t want to subject my students to a possibly traumatic experience. But in an attempt to protect my students, I limited opportunities to facilitate public speaking projects. I eventually realized that speaking in front of an audience is a vital skill needed for success in the real world, and I decided to tackle the infamous class presentation and make it an integral part of my program.
Since diving in head first last fall, I have been refining the way students speak in my class. I devised a plan to create lessons around presentations that could highlight what students were learning in the classroom. I wanted to help students see that speaking in front of an audience is a skill they can obtain with practice. Above all, I wanted the speaking activities to be authentic and truly provide the students with the opportunity to be good at something that often noted as a fear among students and adults alike. These original thoughts evolved into a weekly “communication task”.
The initial goal of the weekly communication task was simple: I wanted my students to speak in front of an audience. The first month was rough. There were tears. There was frustration, and even an outburst of anger at having to do something “so ridiculous.” But we stayed the course, and what evolved has become one of my favorite components of our one-classroom, diploma program. Over the course of the past year, my students participated in a lip sync battle, recited monologues, presented research, shared personal memories about their lives, and debated topics of social injustice. We laughed together, and we learned to pay attention to what makes us uncomfortable and embrace those moments as opportunities for growth.
My exploration through this process has led me to five steps that will help you make public speaking a regular part of your classroom. These steps allowed me to create a supportive classroom environment and, within weeks, there was 100 percent student participation in these activities.
1. Calendar It
Designate a predictable time — weekly if possible — to hold your communication tasks. By keeping a predictable schedule for presentations, the concept of public speaking becomes as familiar as music class or math. It takes away the mystery and makes presentations part of the regular schedule.
2. Set the Tone
Classroom culture is a key component of a successful public speaking program.. Make sure to create ground rules and discuss how students can support one another through moments of uncertainty. As the teacher, model patience and compassion while holding students accountable for tasks. But remember, being compassionate does not mean that a reluctant student never speaks in your class. Be creative about how cautious students can participate. (See “Culture of Opts In” below.)
3. Start Small
In the beginning, the objective is to break down student barriers around public speaking. Our first communication task was reading favorite song lyrics to the class. Students were not required to memorize their pieces, which allowed them to get over the biggest hurdle — the act of speaking publicly. More robust subject content and thoughtful analysis comes with time as you create tasks that highlight key learning objectives.
4. Culture of “Opts In”
Some students will be reluctant to speak in public, and it is important to honor their concerns. When I first began this venture, some students relied on a tried-and-true strategy: the opt out. I knew if I allowed this as an option, the power of the communication tasks would be diminished. Above all else, I wanted my students to communicate their ideas and analysis of important topics to their audience. If having a buddy stand alongside gave a student the confidence needed to present in front of the class, then I allowed this support as a viable scaffold. You can provide feedback and encouragement that will eventually make it possible for that student to stand on his own two feet.
5. Celebrate! Celebrate! Celebrate!
The feedback you give students should be constructive and authentic. But above all else, the feedback should be supportive. Celebrate every chance you get. Asking students to go in front of their peers and speak is no small feat. It takes an amount of courage that should always be celebrated. In addition to the feedback I give at the end of each presentation, I also use a two-column rubric sheet that has space to highlight the skills that students are working on and their areas of strength. This simple rubric cuts to the chase and allows students to see what they did well and where they can improve.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that we owe it to our students to help them become skilled at speaking publicly on topics they are passionate about. Critical thinking skills and deep analysis will mean little if they are not able to communicate their discoveries and thoughts with others.