Regardless of how brilliant they may be, gifted students still need coaching and practice to develop strong presentation skills. By analyzing and then creating their own Spoken Word poems, students can learn how the nonverbal aspects of speech can better help them to understand and communicate important course concepts. This activity can apply to multiple disciplines and provide an exciting entree into a range of subjects.
What are some methods you use to teach students how to speak and listen effectively? Share with us below!
Why Teach Presentation Skills?
Although the Common Core includes standards for Speaking and Listening, they are often pushed to the side to make room for other tested skills like reading and writing. Rather than taking the time to overtly teach or practice speaking and listening skills, it can be easy to tack a presentation requirement onto a reading- or writing-focused assessment and think: “Speaking and Listening standards: Check!” (I know because I did this many times in my early teaching years).
But if you’ve ever sat through an hour of student presentations (let alone a full day), you know how grueling the experience can be. Without sufficient coaching and preparation, student presentations can often devolve into painfully long (or overly brief) ramblings. For shy students, a looming presentation can induce undue anxiety. What’s worse is the policing that is required by the teacher in order to keep the audience members quiet, focused, and respectful as their peers present. These presentation days can leave teachers feeling as if they’ve unnecessarily exacerbated students’ presentation fears and wasted precious instructional time.
It doesn’t have to be this way! Addressing the Speaking and Listening standards doesn’t have to mean that other (tested) standards are edged out of the curriculum. Presentation days don’t have to make you feel like a glorified babysitter. And students can actually use presentations to deepen their understandings of course content and gain confidence in front of their peers.
What Role Can Poetry Play?
The analysis and performance of Spoken Word poetry is one way to support the development of students’ speaking and listening skills. Although it is often relegated to English Language Arts classes, poetry, as author Keith Schoch points out has a lot to offer other disciplines! By writing poetry, students can activate prior knowledge, explore language, breath life into facts, and consider alternative perspectives. Poetry has inspired musicians, it has provided an outlet for scientists to consider the depths of their discoveries, and it can be a creative space to think about numbers, equations, and mathematics.
After students have written poetry for your course, it’s time to shift their attention to the performance.
Step 1: Share Good Models
Providing models of good presentations is key to developing students’ speaking and listening skills. Before sharing any models with students, it’s important to teach students about the nonverbal elements of speech, including kinesics (movement and gestures), vocalics (volume, pitch, and tone), proxemics (space and distance), and chronemics (time). In particular, students should begin thinking about the ways that speakers use eye contact, volume, space, posture, and tone to add another layer of meaning to and improve the quality of their speech. You can begin by providing students with a rubric that clearly explains each of these elements (see this rubric by Kellie Hayden and this rubric from ReadWriteThink).
Now, it’s time for students to use their rubrics as they analyze models of good presentations. Spoken Word is an umbrella term that encompasses many different forms of poetry meant for presentation. Finding examples of Spoken Word poetry that are relevant and interesting to your particular students will make this activity even more engaging. Some of my favorite poems (and some that my middle school and college students have loved over the years) include Sarah Kay’s If I Should Have a Daughter, Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye’s An Origin Story, Pages Matam, Elizabeth Acevedo, and G. Yamazawa’s Unforgettable, and Megan Falley’s Fat Girl. Project VOICE also offers a wealth of information about and examples of Spoken Word poetry that could be appropriate to share with students.
As students watch videos of Spoken Word poems they should listen closely. Using their rubrics as a guide, students should analyze the ways that poets use eye contact, volume, space, posture, and tone to add meaning to their poems and to engage the audience. Students should also begin considering what aspects of the Spoken Word videos they want to use in their own presentations.
Step 2: Practice, Practice, Practice
Disregard Allen Iverson’s commentary about practice (but for their own edification, ask how Iverson uses elements of speech effectively to keep our attention–and to make this a long-running joke), and teach students the importance of practice by providing class time for students to develop their presentation skills.
The Essential Question to pose to students is, How do we make the words come alive? This work is about mastering the art of getting and keeping attention in a powerful way.
To begin, students should work alone to identify the most important aspects of their poems. Students might consider the following:
- What words, phrases, or concepts should be highlighted?
- What aspects of the poem will be the most challenging for the audience to grasp?
- What aspects of the poem are the most exciting or serious?
Next, students should consider how they might draw attention to these various parts of their poems through eye contact, volume, space, posture, and tone. In a table, students can indicate the specific choices they will make for nonverbal elements of speech, including kinesics (movement and gestures), vocalics (volume, pitch, and tone), proxemics (space and distance), and chronemics (time). Students should be reminded about the ways that the poets in the Spoken Word videos manipulated all of these elements to draw the audience in and to clearly communicate their message.
After analyzing their own poems and mapping out some ideas for their presentation, students should practice with a partner. The opportunity to practice with a peer can help shy students to gain confidence and histrionic students to refine their presentation skills. As one partner practices presenting their poem, the listening partner should use a rubric to provide feedback about the presenter’s use of eye contact, volume, space, posture, and tone. Partners should have the chance to revise their presentations according to the feedback they receive, and then continue practicing before the final presentations in front of the entire class.
Step 3: Critically Analyze Presentations
On presentation day, you aren’t the only teacher in the room. Instead, each student plays the part of teacher as they are tasked with using the speaking and listening rubric to give presenters feedback on the ways that they use eye contact, volume, space, posture, and tone. During the presentations, students aren’t only practicing their speaking and listening skills, they’re also reviewing course content and/or learning about new concepts. Perhaps your rubrics get a criterion regarding effective communication of course content? Consider what content areas need to be noted and give them space in the rubric.
Because the audience is also responsible for listening well, lead a reflection with the students pre and post-presentations:
- How do we listen differently in different spaces? Think about how you and your family and friends listen to movies, to plays, to concerts, etc.
- What does “listening well” as an audience look like when we’re in an academic environment? Sound like? Feel like?
- How did our listening environment look, sound, and feel? As a performer? As an audience member? (Students might rate their classroom community on a scale and do this after other presentations.)
It’s certainly not an expectation that students would perform Spoken Word poems for every unit. However, the speaking and listening skills that students have learned and practiced here can (and should!) be applied to future presentations.
What methods do you use to teach students how to speak and listen effectively?