Climb the mountain of public speaking
By Dr. Glen Coleman
I believe that central to meaningful teaching is asking students, “What do you think? – and listen to their answers. When teachers and students seek and question, we embark on a sacred journey. When we use course content to better understand our world, we step out of our comfort zone and grow personally and professionally.
I try to achieve this goal with an end-of-unit assessment that I call Two Minutes to Mastery. Students give two-minute speeches without notes. In the best sense, this scares students away; it leads them to come together, hear differing points of view, learn from each other and work as a team. The goal is for students to complete this challenging task in a workshop setting and use the course content to deepen their knowledge of societal issues. We climb the mountain together.
The task begins with students responding to challenging prompts. I call them Shangri-la prompts because they lead us to good places. Prompts require synthesizing course content with our world today. As a social studies teacher, I asked these kinds of questions:
- Which Enlightenment ideal (eg democracy, trial by jury, rule of law, election) needs updating in order to avoid another January 6 raid on the capital?
- According to your understanding of the French Revolution, what is the next step for Venezuela? Predict or suggest a solution. What lesson should Venezuelans or their government learn from the French Revolution to avoid further calamities?
- Should Andrew Jackson stay on the twenty dollar bill?
- How imperialist is China’s presence in Angola?
- How did African-American music help end segregation in the South?
These questions ask students to demonstrate their mastery of the course content. Equally important, they use this knowledge to better understand their world. It is not easy: students need to know what happened on January 6, 2021, need to know what is happening in Venezuela today, need to understand current events in Africa regarding the presence of China there, must wrestle with the legacy of Andrew Jackson, or appreciate the historic impact of African-American music that continues into the present.
I believe good questions can arise from any subject: math, science, music, language arts, and so on. Through Well, I mean questions that arouse interest. It begins with silence on the other side of the question mark. If I ask, “What do you think?” allowing perfect silence, and caring enough to listen, is where the learning begins. This is the opportunity.
I want to give you courage. Don’t think your subject is calcified. Your topic is dynamic, new and now.
If our intention is to grow, we need to ask inspired questions. Do it with this North Star: “I don’t know, but I’ll find out with you.” Yes, math also evolves. Take, for example, geometry, with its bimillennial proofs. When we insert the world into the curriculum, the statue descends from its pedestal. It breathes. It is no longer an inanimate object confined to a museum.
Two Minutes to Mastery should get students thinking, pushing their limits, communicating, failing, and feeling excited to participate. In short, I want it to catalyze the creation of a community, one that inspires growth. At the beginning of my teaching career, one of my students cried because I told her to redo her speech. The girl was bright and a perfectionist, but she was confused by my request. The room became very tense very quickly, but a hint of humor defused the emotion. Soon everyone, including the girl, was laughing hysterically and happily. We were learning that we could do better than “one and done”, only getting one hit on a project or performance. “One and done” is a lot of weight to bear, a lot of stress that negates the effort of the heart.
Instead, we run workshops, get critical feedback from our peers, improve, and ultimately create something really good in every way, for college and beyond. The student who was moved by her grade later gave an amazing and powerful speech because she felt empowered by not being bound by a single performance. Ultimately, retakes allow a class to improve when the bar is set high and the intention to improve is genuine, when the opportunities to try again are real, and the subject matter is engaged.
Give the speeches
Many adults cannot speak for two minutes in an organized, persuasive, and informed way about the complexity of current events. It takes practice, failures, overcoming stage fright and a supportive audience/team. But when we do the work, a sense of empowerment emerges.
Speeches are usually delivered from the back of the room, a space not usually associated with where speeches are traditionally delivered. All the desks are pushed to the front of the room, except one. I push him against the wall at the back of the room. The speaker sits on this desk to deliver his speech. It reduces stress.
I position myself between 1.80 and 3 meters, seated to their right at a desk near the wall, taking notes as each student speaks. If invited, I can offer suggestions. The students do the same. We create a large U-shape around the enclosure. In chairs only, we sit close to the speaker, creating an intimate atmosphere. Of course, this had to be changed during the pandemic. Each student only has a notebook, a pen, and maybe a printed copy of what I distributed earlier regarding expectations for the speech. We are now ready to help you.
By the time students present their speeches, they have already researched for at least a day, brainstormed with me for another day, researched with the librarian to learn more about the topic, and spent a day at write their scripts.
Typically, a student volunteers to go first. (There’s usually someone who wants to get this over with.) Within a minute, the speaker will realize that it’s a lot less stressful than she imagined, even if expectations remain high.
When someone volunteers, I comment on one of the four expectations described:
- Mastery of content (showing a balanced understanding of course content and societal issue).
- Thematic coherence (when an idea, outline or suggestion integrates the different elements discussed)
- Organized presentation (talking about each topic in detail, without back and forth, in thoughtful, organized and well-developed paragraphs)
- Unique insight and search (no duplication of other students’ answers).
The goal is to make students organized, lucid and familiar with the material. Together they develop an informal and confident mastery of the material as each student sits on this desk and tells us what they think. This requires students to become comfortable talking to the class. They receive feedback and try again. If a student is mute, no worries. We can discuss alternative approaches. If the theme does not work, students suggest ideas or facts to elevate the game.
In other words, in the first round, we do a workshop. We dissect and get a collective idea of what sounds good, while keeping in mind that each student must present a unique point of view. No parrot. If someone speaks impressively, we recognize it. If a speaker sounds lifeless, as if a speech had been memorized, we will say, “Say what you think. Do not recite script.
The point of speaking without a script – or with just 20 words of notes – is to put students at ease. It may sound counter-intuitive, but a script kills engagement. The notecard with just 20 words raises the bar and requires focus and creating something meaningful. Sense drives the bus. Students present speeches that are impressive in a variety of ways: serious, witty, gentle, dramatic, or authoritative. There are many ways to climb the mountain, but to reach the top we must show mastery of the subject, argue coherently, be organized and present our unique point of view.
When we give students the opportunity to speak their minds, do in-depth research, use course content to promote divergent thinking, and learn in community with multiple attempts at mastery, the classroom becomes a powerful place.
What made Two-Minutes to Mastery so successful?
- The high bar that might have seemed intimidating at first.
- The teacher who cares and appreciates the difficulty of the task
- The common goal that inspires students to work together.
- The format of the workshop that helps make the goal achievable.
- Most importantly, real opportunities to “fail gloriously,” try again, and learn with feedback from classmates and the teacher.
Dr. Glen Coleman teaches social studies at River Dell High School, is an HP Teaching Fellow for Using Technology for Powerful Learning, and hosts a podcast, Teacher Breathe. Coleman is the author of 100 or Nothing: Reimagining Success in the Classroom. He can be contacted at [email protected].