Discussion is one of the mainstays of the Language Arts classroom. In a great learning environment, teachers and students do not view talking as a distraction, but use it as a tool for learning. Some of the best discussions I’ve had in my life have happened in high school, college, and my own English classrooms. It’s a great and expected part of what we do. We talk: about literature, about writing, about philosophy. But I think talking stops there too often, retiring within that comfortable Student Comment-Teacher Response script.
I love to hear students talk when it ties in with what we’re learning. I never tire of hearing Shakespeare’s words emerging from a mouth that’s reading them for the first time. Saying it aloud creates a full experience—the character comes alive, the rhythmic, folding, flowing sound of the words is freed from the codex into the air. We pay attention. We hear it, share it, say it. It’s no longer foreign; it’s ours.
For some reason, the kinesthetic experience of speaking is so crucial for making connections to other human beings. It’s our responsibility as English teachers to target speaking as a method of forming and demonstrating knowledge. We need to expect them to express themselves as fluently out loud as they do on paper. This semester I’ve really been trying to incorporate verbal communication alongside reading and writing. I’d like to share two of these instances that have been successful for me this semester.
Sophomore Independent Reading Interview
My tenth graders are required to read one independent novel per quarter. This time around, my teaching partner and I required that our students have a personal interview with us about their chosen reading. It intimidated the heck out of our kids, but in the end it held them to very high standards and created a fulfilling personal interaction.
Students were told to prepare by placing at least five post-it annotations throughout their book, noting spots that were particularly memorable, beautiful, strange, or incendiary. They were told to know their books backwards and forwards and to be prepared with answers for questions like “What is the theme of the story and why?” or “What is the main character’s biggest flaw and how does it manifest itself?” On the days that were set aside for interviews, students would come up to my desk one at a time, and we’d have a conversation about what they read.
When interview day came, I was very impressed by their level of preparation. Pages were riddled with post-its, notes had been taken, books had been re-read multiple times. Man, they took it seriously! I was blown away by the quality of our conversations. I really felt like I was mentally transported to a coffee shop, discussing a book with a friend. Rather than sticking to the standard questions, I found myself genuinely invested and curious about the points that they brought up. They were ready and animated, speaking in a more mature tone than I’d ever seen. It worked. And I think what made it work so well was the personal speaking element. Even kids who are willing to hand in shoddy paperwork were not willing to lose face when they sat down with me, awaiting the question, “So, what did you think of your book?” They wanted to do well, and they certainly did. Oral assessment in English class—it works!
Senior Speech Unit
While it’s nothing particularly innovative, I’m also beaming with pride over the speech unit that I just completed with my seniors. I had initially dreaded this portion of the year, as most of my grade 12 students have been fighting me all semester long when it comes to speaking in front of a group—they were petrified. Speaking in front of an audience with finesse and power is a complex skill, but an essential one. I felt the need to get these kids to take the floor, and own it, at least once before graduation. I just didn’t know how I would get there.
Since fear was a tangible element to my students’ resistance, I decided to organize my unit around the psychological process of overcoming anxiety—something I’m unfortunately/fortunately well acquainted with. We started by talking about our fear, how it’s normal and natural, and how public speaking is rated higher than death on the list of American phobias. I had them take a survey about public speaking anxiety, and then display their responses by moving to specific spots in the room for each response. This way, they visually observed that they were not alone in their anxiety. I mentioned how I’ve had to overcome social anxiety in order to do my job well. We were in this thing together.
We then discussed the “jump right in” philosophy of extinguishing fear, and stayed true to it. On day two, my students had to stand and give an impromptu speech of a few sentences. We observed one another and identified body language and vocal inflection. Then, we learned about using the body for communication—posture, gesturing, movement, tone and volume of voice, how to look confident. The next day, they had to do more impromptu speaking. At this point, I focused completely on the look of the body and the sound of the voice. As I told them, “What you say doesn’t matter yet.” I waited until I saw and heard true confidence before moving on to things like rhetoric and organization.
More and more speaking, watching videos of pros, playing improvisation games, and complex reverse outlining of famous speeches eventually turned these scared students into speakers who oozed confidence. In their final 10-minute speeches, informative talks on a topic within their expertise, they were enlightening, engaging, and witty. It’s amazing how successful speaking in front of a group gives a person such a sense of authority. As with my sophomores, I saw these seniors transform into adults before my eyes the second they opened their mouths.
Students have things to say. When we encourage them to say these things, out loud, with high expectations, they blossom as thinkers and as people all at the same time.