We all want our kids to be college or career ready right? So why do so many of us—parents and teachers—actively support a practice that diminishes this outcome? I’m not talking about standardized tests or education policy being dictated by a billionaire software engineer (at least not this time). I’m talking about something we have absolute control over in our classrooms—something that is practical, marketable, and learnable: communication skills. More specifically, I mean, public speaking.
Sara Holbrook and I believe that communication is a three-legged stool: Reading, Writing, and Speaking.
The Part of Literacy That Doesn’t get Tested
Educators are all over the reading and writing. There are conferences, programs, and strategies galore. Writer’s Workshop – Reader’s Workshop – writing and reading across the curriculum, comprehension and collaboration – literature circles – six traits – the list goes on and on. We do not give our students the choice as to whether or not they are going to learn to read and write. We understand illiteracy is a detriment to their future success and to our society as a whole; we are pretty much agreed on this. So why do we give kids a pass when it comes to speaking out loud in the classroom?
I’ve seen it over and over – “You don’t have to share if you don’t want to.” How is this helping? How would that go over in a job interview or a meeting of any kind? Why do we give in to the idea of public speaking being too scary to be expected and nurtured in our classroom as an integral part of a holistic literacy?
I know, I know, according to many surveys, public speaking is the number one fear of mankind—number three is death. Thus, Jerry Seinfeld opines that given a choice we’d rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy at a wake. So it is scary.
Opting Out is Not an Option
Where better to learn to speak out loud with conviction therefor than in the safety of the classroom? It’s a space where we have already worked on building trust and an environment of empathy, a space where we are among friends who want us to succeed. What better place to confront this fear? When we let students opt out of speaking we enable them to become used to being silent. There are a whole slew of people out in the real world who count on others being inaudible, and a lot of them do not have the most altruistic motivations.
I’m not saying we badger our kids into standing up and delivering Hamlet’s soliloquy in front of the entire student body. We need to ease the majority of our students into this. Sara and I believe that creating an environment where the regular reading out of their writing and reading assignments – especially those of the quick write type (pieces and selections that take no more than thirty seconds or so to perform) is a way to make public speaking the norm in a classroom. This also means no opting out.
Opting out from speaking in class does double harm. First, it rewards anti-social behavior. What is more social than discourse, than speaking, than saying one’s mind out loud with conviction? Secondly, it stops a lesson in its tracks, giving control of the classroom to the one opting out. It is a mirror reflection of the disruptive outburst. The biggest difference though is that it is silent and once used the teacher becomes conditioned to skip over the student who doesn’t wish to speak in order to avoid conflict and to keep things on track. Opting out of speaking aloud becomes a quiet form of bullying.
So what do we do?
Scaffolding into Public Speaking
Make reading one’s work aloud an expected part of the classroom culture. Instruct students to read their work out loud—everyone at the same time. We call this a seat symphony. If everyone is reading a different text together it becomes a cacophony of sound—a safe wall of noise behind which students learn how it feels to speak up. Reading out loud also provides the opportunity to catch any typos in the work. Have students read their work out to an individual near them and then listen to the others piece. (No fair handing one’s paper over—read it out loud.) Have students read a line from something they are working on out to you (and the rest of the class) —this allows the teacher to comment and/or make suggestions as everyone is still composing. Short and sweet. Opting out is not an option.
Explicit instruction in public speaking is a good idea, too, and we have some strategies for this that I would be happy to share with anyone who e-mails and asks.
Have you ever asked a question of your class and received blank stares back, or perhaps just the raised hand of the one student who always raises their hand? A technique I like to employ when this happens is to ask the kids to turn and talk about the question for six seconds. As soon as I see and hear someone chatting about the subject with another, I give him or her time to finish their thought and then immediately call on them to share. Sometimes all it takes is that little bit of rehearsal.
Do these tactics make for a noisier classroom? They sure do – but a noisier classroom that is also engaged. It doesn’t take long for this change to take hold in a classroom – and it is for the student’s benefit after all.
Making public speaking an expected part of your classroom culture will ensure that your students have a firm base with all three legs supporting their communication talents. Reading, writing, and speaking with conviction – and isn’t that what we really want from our future citizens – active participants?