Monday, October 3, 2011

The only thing we have to fear of public speaking.

Jerry Seinfeld said, “According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Now I don’t know about all of you, but public speaking scares the bejeezus out of me. Maybe not as much as death, but it’s still frightening. So then why do I teach? Well, for some reason, speaking in front of a group of kids is less scary to me, at least after the first week or so. But put me in front of a group of adults, whether it’s a speech or just my thoughts during a faculty meeting, and I can actually feel my heart trying to escape my chest.

Despite this fear, I have forced myself to speak in public on some occasions. After all, facing your fears can make you feel more powerful and confident, and most of us could certainly use a little dose of that. I also had practice when I was growing up—I attended a charter school where public speaking was a requirement. Each year, students had to complete and present an “exhibition of mastery”—a project on a particular subject for which we wrote a paper and created some sort of a visual aid, then presented to our classmates and a couple of teachers. As much as I may not have been such a fan of this at the time, I do recognize and appreciate the goal—to make public speaking more of a habit in order to make us more skilled and comfortable in this area.

Last year, I observed that the public speaking skills of my students were, overall, quite lacking. At our school, there is a speech requirement for junior year English, but no other public speaking requirements in the rest of the curriculum. This year, I have vowed to make public speaking a little more common in my classes. Some of the presentations will be for large grades, while others will just be part of class routines. There are lots of opportunities that I need to exploit. For example, what I’ve done a couple of times already and will continue to do is have students teach each other important information. When I need to discuss some historical background for a book, how many students are going to want to listen to me lecture about it? Yeah, I’m hearing the crickets too. It’s a lot better to have them look at the information, decide what’s important about it, and create posters that they then use to teach their classmates about a particular subject. Another opportunity is when students create little character posters or something of the sort, they will need to present them to their classmates. When a couple of my classes recently presented propaganda posters they created, I made the presentation worth 5 points out of 15 on the rubric. Not only did they have to make their presentations informative, but they also had to speak and present themselves well—stand up straight, hands out of pockets, make eye contact, and speak up. When I handed back the grades, I heard a couple of students expressing their outrage that they had been docked a point or half a point for failing to do one of those things. How could something so small matter?! Well, I want to teach them that how you present information is almost as important as the information itself. After all, when they go to interview for colleges or jobs someday, no one will take them seriously if they are slouching, looking down, or mumbling. This is about more than just a little grade.

Throughout the year, I will continue to look for ways to get students to face their fear of standing in front of their peers and speaking. I’ll also make them participate more during class discussions, whether they want to or not. Yes, some of them will despise me for all of this, but like I said, it’s an important life skill. So many of them have such wonderful ideas, but if they can’t express them, then those thoughts will never be able to be appreciated like they deserve to be, and that would truly be a shame. I want my students to feel confident in themselves and to have a voice.

 And if any of you have suggestions or thoughts on incorporating public speaking into the classroom, please feel free to share!

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