public speaking

Conference feedback — public speaking


I'll continue to post about the wonderful feedback I got from participants at the IERG Conference this last week. (Note: If you're interested in our school, you'll want to consider coming to next summer's conference — held in Vancouver, B.C., the first few days of July, 2016.) The following are written comments I got after presenting our ideas about cultivating public speaking superpowers in our kids.

Public speaking

It might be interesting to have another perspective to public speaking… read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. There's a TED talk, too.

Ah, I've been wanting to read this book for years, and am now one step much closer! Thanks, anonymous wise commenter!

I'll say this for now: I think that getting all students skilled at public speaking would be even more useful for introverts than for extroverts. The typical extrovert can pick up public speaking abilities — and might even be prone to, just in the normal course of her life. The typical introvert, however, might rather be eaten by eels than stand in front of a crowd. And yet (as Susan Cain found out, once she rocked the TED stage) the benefits for being able to do so can be tremendous.

I should still, however do what our commenter suggested: re-think the whole question of public performance from the perspective of an introvert. (By the way, we endeavor to build our school on neurodiversity — extroverts and introverts; calm people and ADHD wall-crawlers; empaths and people on the autism spectrum. And there are a lot of anti-neurodiversity assumptions built even into progressive, "whole-child" education — such as that kids should always be working in teams.) We need to pursue this carefully.)

One-minute speeches on pre-determined topics & working up to impromptu speeches (pick out of a hat).

Yes! Let me re-state that more generally: we should work from a pre-designed speaking curriculum that starts easy (and fun), and only gradually builds in difficulty. Toastmasters has a children's division — Gavel Clubs. They start with games. I've been meaning to snoop around their curriculum — Lee, count on me to report back to you soon on what I find!

(Oh, by the way — it actually can be easier to work up to pre-planned speeches — the opposite of what our wonderful commenter suggested. Planning is stressful, and imagining yourself on the stage, even moreso. That's the way it works for most adults, anyhoo — I'll check to see if the same is true of kids.)

Will it include debate? drama? great speeches of the past? (e.g. Martin Luther King's "I Had a Dream")

See, this is why it was so worthwhile to float these ideas in front of clever people — yes, we should totally design debate and drama into this! And great historical speeches! (In fact, I think savoring great historical/literary speeches could be a good way for us to cultivate a culture of good speaking.)

Right now, I have no idea how to do this, but it's tucked away in the back of my mind. Lee?

Does helping each child become a good public speaker select against 'introvert' qualities (which can be very important) or would there not be any direct conflict… hmm...

Wow — wow. I'll take this question into my reading of Cain's book (and, what the heck, my re-watching of her TED talk, later today.)

How to resist powerful "beautiful" public speakers (e.g. Hitler and his future heirs).

Yeah — I like this! Arming oneself with rhetorical abilities helps us see through others' rhetorical abilities. "Defensive public speaking".

This next one was written in response to the last:

Should the world be run by people who can move a crowd...

Ah! If someone changes the world to make this no longer true, then I vow to consider taking public speaking out of the curriculum!

Dale Carnegie's program on public speaking might be a useful resource. Also Toastmasters for activity ideas?

I've just added Carnegie's book (Stand and Deliver) to my library queue! Thanks! And, as a proud Toastmaster (really, I believe in the power of anyone to become an amazing speaker because I'm in a Toastmasters group who routinely pulls this trick off), I'm excited to bring what we do to kids.

Love the idea of giving students life skills — this will definitely set them up for success.

Agreed! And "success" as defined a whole lotta different ways, way beyond the workplace. (I've become a much more confident person in the last few years, and I suspect that's due in large part to Toastmasters.)

No matter how many times you perform on a stage, there always seems to be a little fear when you step onto that stage...

This commenter is right — for most people, at least. (A few people really do seem to entirely lose their fear, but they're in the minority.) I overspoke when I presented, saying something like "students can lose all their fear". I'll try to stop saying things like that. The general idea, however, really is true, and powerfully so: we can make the horror of speaking (so bad it detracts from the speaking, even when it doesn't debilitate the speaker entirely) extinct, once and for all. — excellent unit with TED talks on public speaking.

I think the commenter is referring to this unit (I've just e-mailed the person I believe wrote that to make sure). I'll look into it!

In any case, this comment suggests two things to me —

  1. We can learn a lot about public speaking from TED talks — both speeches that are about public speaking, and all the other speeches. We can even learn from speeches that are done poorly — in fact, we might be able to learn more from poorly-done speeches! It suddenly strikes me that we should make a plan to bring lots of TED talks into the school week. I do my daily boring 7-minute workout (the link is to a NYTimes article) while watching a TED talk — we might similarly pair up something dull with that.)
  2. We should consider encouraging our teachers to make their lesson plans public, as this website allows them to do. Eventually I'd like to publish whole giant sets of what we teach in a special site that we give for free to the world — but in the interim, I wonder if we want to encourage teachers to do this for private money. It'd be a way to (1) get these lessons out to the world, and (2) get our teachers to polish their curriculum. If we do this, we'd need to explicitly work out the weird legal situation having to do with the ownership of the curriculum — it partially belongs to the school (because we'll be developing the broad strokes of it) and partially to the teacher (because they'll be refining and personalizing it). Anyhow, that's something to think about.

Do all students need to become public speakers?

Oh, a powerful question! I think that the limited answer is "no", and that the expansive answer is "yes".

No, not all students need to become public speakers in the professional sense. "Public speaker" is a particular job that one can put on a business card. There's a limited need for that sort of person.

But everyone can benefit from having the skills that being able to speak publicy brings. Public speaking brings confidence (at least to those who were scared of it before). It brings the power to clarify: to prune down a thicket of thoughts into a single message that anyone can follow. (It actually might do this better than writing, which can afford to be more complex than speaking.) It brings presentation skills: how can you shape your body to express certain emotions? How can you shape your voice? How can you connect, or disconnect, with your eyes? It even brings (or supports) one of the most powerful skills: story-telling.

It strikes me, actually, that all the skills in Egan's Mythic toolkit could be aided with students' ability to communicate verbally to a crowd.

Tomorrow, I'll share and respond to comments on our history curriculum!

Public speaking


A problem:

Being able to speak to groups of people is a superpower.

People, however, are terrified of public speaking. This phobia needn't be — schools can cure it.

Our basic plan:

  1. Public speaking will be built into our curriculum. Our students will have opportunties to regularly plan out talks and share them with groups.
  2. At first, the focus will be on getting comfortable, and having fun. We can do that with speaking games.
  3. Over time, only after public speaking ceases to terrify, the focus will move to improving the quality of speaking.
  4. With a teacher, each student will draw up a personalized list of sub-skills they'd like to play with. (For example, "What should I be doing with my hands?")
  5. Before they speak, students will write out what particular sub-skill they'll be experimenting with for that speech.
  6. After they speak, students will get (and give) limited, specific feedback to help them evaluate how their experiment worked.
  7. Video can also be involved. (Watching yourself perform on video is powerful, but few do it because it's so scary. At some point, we can help normalize that.)

Our goals:

We hope to...

  • Help students stop being scared of public speaking.
  • Help students get really, really good at public speaking.
  • Help students actually enjoy public speaking.
  • Give students opportunities in the community to use public speaking.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

If you walked in on a random day, you might see a student giving an animated, short talk to other students about a question they've been commissioned to answer, or a book they'd like to recommend to the group, or a history story they'd like to imaginatively tell, or something odd that happened in their lives.

You might also see public speaking games being played, acclimating kids to speaking publicly, and getting them to experiment with specific sub-skills.

If you came to our end-of-year Learning in Depth or Independent Project presentations, you might see students, dressed up and on a darkened stage, giving short, practiced talks to a room full of adults from the community.

Some specific questions:

  • Is this too deliberate practice-y? Too hard-core-skills-development? (I'm a deliberate-practice-in-public-speaking nut, so I'm sensitive that what I consider sensible can be far out of the mainstream!) The secret is to make it fun (and not scary) before going so strong on skills — the kids have to crave useful feedback before we give it to them. And that may take a couple years. (It took me about a year and a half of being in Toastmasters to seek that out.)
  • Do we want a list of possible sub-skills in public speaking that students can choose to work on? (Things like vocal variety, coherence of ideas, storytelling, stage movement, hand placement, eye contact, and so on.) Because I know a number of people who could help me plan that out!
  • How can we use video to help kids improve? Video can be wonderful here — especially if we give kids the opportunity to speak for a minute, then instantly review what they looked/sounded like from the audience's perspective. (This is key: I once heard a stand-up comic giving advice to public speakers. He said, "If you're not willing to watch yourself speak, why are you asking us to?") It makes me wonder if we should try to have a sound-proof-ish side-room set up for speaking & music practice, during the independent work time.
  • How can we use video as a reason to do public speaking? I'm thinking that we could make, say, a YouTube channel where kids present some of the cooler parts of our curriculum — a "cooking with kids!" series, a "Big Spiral History" series, a "horrifying math problems that I love" series, and so on.
  • How do we bring in personal storytelling? I've focused here on academic speaking, but I'm thrilled by The Moth, where people tell personal stories. It seems like if we can help kids become good at mining their own lives for meaning, and shaping that meaning to spread to other people… well, we'll go to Heaven when we die!
  • At some point, we'll want to hook individual kids up with professional speakers, to get feedback. Some of that (all of it?) can be done over video. That's a while in the future, but we'll want to be looking for peeps now.
  • How do we create a culture of valuing great public speaking? How can we bring in examples of great speeches? Do we want to have kids reflect on what makes those speeches good? For example, if we bring in TED talks to our curriculum, we can have kids fill out an evaluation form. (I, um, actually do this when I watch TED talks, public speaking geek that I am!)
  • How can we help all our teachers become excellent public speakers? This whole curriculum rests on the ability of teachers to be great public speakers. Happily, public speaking really is a skill that anyone can develop — but our teachers will have to want to. Do we foresee challenges in this?