In defense of speaking and listening strategies

It has been a while since I’ve posted. Life has been busy with grades and the beginning of summer.

Last night I ran across an old movie where students had to stand by their desks and answer questions, almost as if they were at attention. It was pretty cool. I didn’t go to school during those times. I’m not even sure how far back those times were. Regardless, it brought me back to my classroom.

I don’t do enough speaking and listening exercises in my classroom. I don’t know that anyone does. How can you? There are invariably the wallflowers who never say anything as well as the air horns who never shut up. That is all a part of speaking and listening as well– students need to learn how much of themselves to give to the conversation. No one likes the person who dominates the conversation, just like they could care less about the person who never gets involved.

For my next post, I’m going to write up more about why S&L strategies are so important, but for now I’m going to write more about how to tone down the air horns and bring out the wallflowers.

My favorite discussion of the year with my seniors is the big Hamlet discussion. This year’s discussion was a little flat, but in general, it goes well– possibly because there is so much to talk about when it comes to Hamlet.

The format I’ve found most useful is a team-based situation. It can be formulated as a competition. Before the discussion, I brainstorm topics with my students, usually trying to pick topics which align with their essay topics. They then get the weekend to prep and research.
On the day of the discussion, I divide the class into three or four teams. I try to get a good range of abilities in each group.

Each group is promised at least a 50% for the exercise. I then grade their entire team on the S&L rubric. Their goal is to make sure that everyone talks. Everyone. This often gets the air horns to push wallflowers to say something. If I’ve been doing my job and have actually been promoting a safe environment and been getting wallflowers to do mini interviews, only the most hardened wallflowers fail to hold up some portion of their conversation.

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Speaking and Listening and the Common Core


Even back when California was working with the standards we adopted back in 1997, very few teachers were actually teaching the Speaking and Listening standards. We might do a small perfunctory project, but even that was a rather small component of the grade and usually not a very important part of the curriculum.

Several teachers completely skip giving any kind of speaking and listening instruction at all, while most assign one informational or persuasive speech. This really doesn’t feel like it is in accordance with what is asked of us in the Common Core. Consider the following:

Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and a range of formal and informal tasks.
Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.
Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating a command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.
Do we really do this? Why not? Part of it is caused by our culture of high-stakes testing. We know that these standards are rarely assessed, so there is no point in covering them in some ways. We struggle with reading, writing, and language, so investing instructional time in speaking and listening hardly seems worth it. In addition, look at how much time it takes to do anything with speaking and listening. If you figure thirty students to a class (sometimes more), the time it takes to have students give even a three minute presentation (plus two minutes of setup time, the teacher getting ready to take notes, etc.) is 150 minutes. That’s a half a week if you have 60 minute periods. We all know that it takes even longer than that.
Even worse, though we cover speaking, we rarely cover listening.
According to my students, the only way they can see their listening skills ever assessed (and never taught) is in the form of note taking during teacher lectures.
My plan for next year is to do a lot more teaching of speaking and listening strategies. I’m not 100% sure what that will look like, but part of it will involve discussions and part of it will involve students being responsible for listening to each other.
If you do something special in regards to speaking and listening in your classroom, please let us know by leaving a comment.

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Aren’t We Students, Too?

I’ve already posted twice today, so I have no problem not writing out a fully thought-out post at this point… but this thought keeps bouncing around my brain today.

Aren’t we students, too?

I don’t know if this is true in other states, but it seems that in California, most professional development is given by other teachers. We should be the best presenters out there, but we just… throw all of our skills out the window when it comes to teaching each other. I see this in myself, incidentally.

All the things we say we should be doing with students… why don’t we ever do that with professional development? Things like engaging all three modalities, engaging the audience, proper wait times, etc.

At this point, we’ve abused our fellow teachers so much, I can only think of one thing we’ve truly taught well- that we can (and perhaps should) ignore professional development and presentations in general. This is a great shame, since other teachers really are the greatest resources. The research apparently tells us that this is so.

It will take a long time to overcome that negative reinforcement.

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How do you stop from being nervous during a presentation?


Over the past 14 years that I’ve been watching students give presentations on literature, social issues, and a variety of other subjects, I’ve seen a lot of odd reactions on the parts of students. I remember a really intelligent student who finished a presentation, seemed fine, then sat down and just started shaking and weeping.

Worse is the student who passed out. She finished her presentation as the bell rang. As the class was filing out the door, she looked at me from the front of the room where she had been presenting, turned white, said, “I don’t feel very good,” and keeled over like a felled tree. She smashed her two front teeth in and had to leave in a wheel chair. She was gone for two full weeks.

Some students are almost neurotic about presenting. There’s that conversation that I have to have with some of them. “If you cannot do the presentation, you’ll have to prove it to me. I need a note from a parent or something. Is it in your 504 or IEP? We’ll have to figure something out.”

Technically, there is an alternative to giving a speech for students who are so freaked out that they can never give a presentation. You have them develop the visual aid, then they have to sit in front of you, take out some blank sheets of paper, and then write out the entire speech… but let’s be honest… these are “speaking and listening strategies,” not “writing strategies.”

Students, staff… anyone can get nervous when delivering a presentation. The question is… how do you get it under control? Or rather how do you get students to get it under control.

I will admit that I get a bit nervous when presenting in front of my peers. I think it’s fairly natural. Before I talk about how to talk students off the ledge, let’s look at the value of being nervous. If you’re nervous, it shows that you’re taking your job seriously. Nervousness probably reminds you that you need to plan. It makes you your own worse critic… which is the best kind of critic to be. It hopefully even reminds you that you don’t want to be on stage that long. To bastardize the words of Thomas Jefferson:

“That presenter is best who presents least.”

So… at long last (and thanks for bearing with me),  some strategies:

1. The only substitute for experience is experience. Students need a chance to get up there and say something. The first time I have my seniors stand up in front of the class is when they introduce themselves as a part of a “mock interview.” This is just after they’ve gone out and gotten together an application packet for a job. The questions I give them:

  • What is your complete name?
  • What is your favorite class? Why?
  • What is your least favorite class? Why?
  • Who is your best friend?
  • If your best friend had to describe you in one word, what would it be?
  • Then I give them two randomized interview questions based upon their resume, cover letter, and application.

The important thing here is that they know exactly what they are going to be asked. They are able to control things to a much larger degree. They can even bring up the answers to the questions and read them off (some students, believe it or not, get so agitated that they cannot even remember their name during this exercise). This is somewhat similar to exposure therapy, I suppose.

2. I give students the chance to come to me outside of classroom time and try out their speeches and look at their visual aids. Being in the venue often helps… unless you find out that your venue is ten times larger than you expected.

3. I don’t tell students that it is there turn to “go.” Instead, I tell them that they volunteer whenever they are ready. In order to keep things going, I tell them that they need to fill the presenting time with presentations. If they cannot field an entire session of presentations, I ask “Is anyone ready to go? Going once… going twice… going thrice… SOLD FOR 10% OFF!” That means that anyone going the next day loses 10% credit. The next time I cannot fill the session, they drop another 10%. How does this help them? They are taking control of the situation by grabbing it by the throat.


A few things I say to get students into the right frame of mind:

1. “So… think back to when you gave a presentation last year… or whenever… can you remember any of those presentations? Do you even remember your presentation? If you do your presentation, no one will remember it next year. No one will remember it tomorrow. They might not even remember it seconds later. What are you worried about?”

2.  Remember that if you have properly prepared, no one in this room is smarter about this topic than you are.

3.  Breath. If you breath well, it will cut down on the shaking.

Remember that 1 and 2 are not necessarily true once they leave the classroom. I often run into people who know more about what I presented than I do. Also, after I present, I sure as heck do expect that people understood what I was saying and remember it later!

Thanks for tuning in. More later!


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Upgrading your Google Presentations… with PowerPoint?

I like my students to use Google Docs for creating visual aids. Why?

  • That they cannot claim that their computer crashed (Docs is cloud-based).
  • They cannot claim to have been working on something but didn’t get to finish (“Let’s look at the document history!”).
  • They can share their work with me so that when giving multiple student presentations in a day, I can just bring up their presentation instead of having a lot of “down time” looking for files on USB data sticks, signing out of my email and into theirs, etc.
  • That I can see how much work each student put into the visual aid (again, “Let’s look at the document history!”).
  • It doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles other visual aid programs have going for them, like animated content flying in, sound effects, etc. which distract and annoy. Who wants to see text type itself for a full minute while the presenter reads to you? That is a pet peeve on top of another pet peeve.

Google Docs has a lot going for it. What it doesn’t have going for it is its collection of “themes.” The term “themes” is largely comparative to PowerPoint’s “Designs.” Unfortunately, the pickings are a bit slim. It’s hard to believe that they have an LCARS template, you know? Below is a pic of their gallery. The Western one is pretty atrocious… and “Friendly” is anything but friendly.


On the other hand, any version of PowerPoint has a TON of design possibilities, along with the ability to customize the color scheme (a feature which may exist on Google, but one which I have yet to locate). Here is a small sampling from Office 2010 (I think):



Wouldn’t it be nice to have the best of both worlds? The portability and history of Google Docs and the better look of MS Office? It’s easy:

  1. Create a new PowerPoint.
  2. Find a template you really like.
  3. Adjust the color template or make a custom color template.
  4. Save the document to your desktop.
  5. Once you’re in your Docs area, don’t start a new presentation. Instead, use the “upload” function:Image
  6. Once you’ve located and uploaded your PowerPoint file, open the file and go to work.


Enjoy the power of Docs and the aesthetics of PowerPoint.

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Are you reading or presenting?

Story time. I remember those days. Just before nap time, Mrs. Johnson would pull out a book and start reading to us. She would then display the text and accompanying pictures.



Over the years, I became more interested in reading to myself as opposed to having someone read to me. At this point, I cannot stand hearing people read to me. I might blame students for this. Students, even when fluent, are not necessarily the most fluid of readers. That makes listening to them a bit less enjoyable.

It is perhaps because of this dislike for having students read to me that I first noticed how often my fellow staff members read to me. When another staff member stands in front of our staff and begins reading directly from the slideshow, I have to wonder at the purpose. My thinking runs roughly like this:

1. Why is this person reading to me? I can read just fine myself. What am I, a child?

2. Does this person believe me to be illiterate? Did I give them cause to believe that I am illiterate?

3. If everything I need to know is on the slide (why else would the presenter be reading to me), why bother presenting like this? What a waste of time. I could have read the whole thing ten times faster in my own head and not been as bored.

4. Why is the presenter turned away from me? Oh… must be because the presenter doesn’t really know the material. A bit of practice might have helped.

I do have a theory. The reason why we read from slideshows is because there is so much text on the screen, we just cannot help ourselves. Reading is safe. Reading leaves our brain free to think about other things.

The cure?

  • Get rid of all of that junk.
  • Short, simple bullet points.
  • Note cards or some other device for staying on track.

My favorite cure for reading off of a slideshow is to eliminate as much of the text on the slide as possible and then go a little further. Remember that YOU are the presentation, not the visual aid. More on that later.

Are you a reader or a presenter? If you are really burning and yearning to read to people, volunteer in an old folks’ home or a public library. Those of us who can read would rather get your presentation as an email. Alternatively, you can do what we all wanted you to do in the first place: let the visual aid be an aid and be the presentation yourself.


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One Project Idea. Active Listening and Presenting.

Not every state has adopted Common Core. I don’t know if that will ever happen. I do know that most teachers are now under their sway. One area in which we often fail as teachers is in teaching Speaking and Listening Strategies.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and a range of formal and informal tasks.
Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.
Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating a command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

What does that mean? Students might make up a presentation, but does it really “enhance understanding?”
One solution I found is my Canterbury Pilgrims Presentations Project or CPPP. OK… I’ve never actually called it that, but I might in the future. The project is a bit in-depth.
Once my students have learned a little about the late 14th century, we read the very beginning of the prologue for the Canterbury Tales. I explain that it is a frame narrative with 30 pilgrims and 24 tales. Once they understand this, I pair the students up and assign each pair of students a pair of pilgrims (or more). The students are required to go through and get as much information about these pilgrims as possible. They must explain the tale the pilgrim tells (sometimes effectively retelling the tale). Once they are all done researching, they have to put a presentation together, organizing the information gleaned about each of the pilgrims. Their personalities, job descriptions, clothing, interactions with other characters, possessions, personal histories, etc. Once they’ve done all of that, they have to deliver the presentation.
Big deal, right? It’s just another presentation.
Here’s the kicker: once they’ve all delivered their presentations (15 or more presentations later), they get a weekend to study, and then they take the biggest, nastiest, pickiest test I can muster. They become a community, each depending upon the whole. It isn’t enough just to know the facts at that point, they have to be able to consider each fact in the context of all the other facts. The classroom is actively watching, note-taking, processing, and considering the content delivered by their peers.
My point is… listening. It’s half of the strategy- the half few like to teach.

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Choose Your Weapon… Wisely…

As an English teacher, I have to remember that a huge and largely underdeveloped part of my standards are speaking and listening strategies. This often means presentations. I’ve decided to no longer teach how to use PowerPoint as a part of class. This generation should be able to handle a computer, so the few who cannot need individual instruction. That being said, there is one major problem we face as educators. While a huge percentage of students have home access to computers, few of them have access to Microsoft Office. For some reason though, when I assign a presentation project, they cannot help themselves but click that old, comfortable icon: Image There are so many other choices, though! Each has its own “thing” that it does better than other softwares. I only wish we could link them all together. My go-to choice for a presentation is Google Docs (now called Google Drive, but I cannot seem to drop that habit): Image Google Docs has a lot going for it. First, it’s free. Second, I am able to upload and download files to it in the form of PowerPoints. Best of all, it doesn’t have any bells and whistles. No dissolve, star-fade, etc. You click the show, it moves to the next slide. No problem. Also, because Google Drive has a history function, you can’t lose your work. It saves every few seconds or keystrokes. The downside to Drive is that you need an internet connection to use it. That’s pretty minor, considering how rarely we give presentations somewhere where you don’t have internet access. Even then, you can download the presentation using Microsoft PowerPoint Viewer. While I’m at it, I should also point out that it doesn’t have a great selection of layouts or templates. A great tip… if you have PowerPoint, start making a presentation using one of its templates, then upload it to Google Drive and continue editing it. You get a great template with all the other benefits of Drive. Just remember… you have to upload it first, you cannot “apply it” later. Glogster is an interesting piece of software for a visual aid. Image This software allows students to make an interactive poster or collage, in which they can not only add text and static pictures, but also add animated GIF files, insert YouTube videos, and create links to various websites. I’m not saying that I would use this for a serious presentation meant to teach an in-depth presentation, but I would use this towards the beginning of class in order to get my students interested in giving presentations. Finally, my new favorite, PreziPrezi_Logo[1] I would love to embed a Prezi here, but I cannot seem to get it to work. That’s fine. You should be able to check out my sample here:  Hamlet Prezi. Prezi is very visually appealing to students because of how it transitions. I’m not usually a big fan of transitions, but this software does it well. Also, it isn’t as linear as PowerPoint or Google Docs/Drive.  I do break some of my rules. For instance, I love using a big background for 3D mode and then have text in there as well. Prezi seems to work well, even then. One major problem is that there isn’t a lot of community support as far as embedding it in blogs or school CMSs beyond just serving up a link as I did above. Try them all out. The best thing about breaking away from PowerPoint is that I don’t have to worry about my computer going belly-up and losing everything.

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The Ten Commandments of Visual Aids

The Ten Commandments of Visual Aids:

I. Thou shalt not create a wall of text.

II. Thou shalt not crowd a slide with bullets.

III. Thou shalt not use media which is of poor resolution.

IV. Thou shalt not use a film clip or audio file unless thou hast checked and rechecked that it shall work and even then have a backup plan.

V. Thou shalt not throw in comical non sequiturs for the sake of a laugh.

VI. Thou shalt not forget to practice.

VII. Thou shalt not forget to choose a layout which is easily accessed and visually pleasing.

VII. Thou shalt not forget to look at the visual aid in both light and dark rooms to check for contrast.

VIII. Thou shalt not read directly from the visual aid.

VIII. Thou shalt not place words over images, nor images over pictures.

IX. Thou shalt not forget to proofread everything.

X. Thou shalt be the presentation.

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May 15, 2014 · 9:01 pm

“Why are we doing this?”

I love that question (which I often hear when I assign a new project or start a new unit). I’d like to steal and adapt that question to my own ends. “Why are we doing this?” Why do we give presentations?

Every year, I ask my students the same question: “Why do we write?” They come up with a dozen or so answers. “To explain,” “To remember,” “To entertain,” etc. No student ever gets the answer for which I’m looking: “Because we read.” The purpose of all writing is because somewhere out there, we believe there is an audience. They are writing for me. I am writing for them. Steven King is writing for people who want to scare themselves so silly that they can’t sleep at night for fear of finding out they have a Pet Cemetery next door. Malcolm Gladwell is writing for people who want to learn the about hacking their lives. We all have to have an audience. More important than identifying your audience is considering what their needs, objectives, filters, etc. are.

Look out there. See that sea of desks? See all of those shining faces, ready to be led onto some new adventure of discovery and learning, or do you see a bunch of students who have been bulldozed by up to a dozen years of bad presentations? Why so few of the former and so many of the latter?

Years ago, I realized that I had spent lots of time in staff developments learning about how to use the software for Microsoft’s PowerPoint, but had never actually had anyone explain that slapping a bunch of info, pictures, and other media isn’t actually getting the job done. Alexei Kapterev is one person actively thinking about this topic, at least in the world of business; I would highly recommend that any educator watch his video presentation called Death by PowerPoint.

But business is business and education is education. Our society keeps conflating the two, expecting schools to have measurable achievement like we’re all trying to impress the investors and boost our stock’s scores instead of actually accomplishing our real goal of educating. Instead of simply making this first blog post a preamble to presenting Mr. Kapterev’s fairly famous videos, I wanted to take this moment to actually explain how this all applies to education.

Some teachers roll out of bed in the morning and think, “Oh… I have to give a presentation today.” I don’t really see this as the right attitude. Instead, I would like to think that I roll out of bed and think, “Oh… I have content to deliver or skills to teach today… what is the best way to do that? A presentation would probably work.” In other words, the conversation should not start at “presentation.” Instead, it should start at “curriculum” and then go to “how.”

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