“Slow down, you move too fast…”

I have that Simon and Garfunkel tune stuck in my head. I’m feeling countercultural in my classroom these days. Not because I’m feelin’ groovy (Google the song.) Actually, the rest of lyrics don’t really work, but I digress.

My sophomores are pursuing answers to research questions they have crafted relating to the Industrial Revolution. My juniors are working their way through online Exhibitions from the Digital Public Library of America. In both cases, I find myself trying to prevent them from taking short cuts. I want them to start wide and then narrow. I expect them to think their way through the process of learning. Many students are impatient.

The sophomores are in an inquiry-based unit, where the goal and the end product are not identical. The end product will be a lesson plan of some sort that teaches others the answer to the research question. The goal is to learn what makes a good research question, how to find a variety of sources (including scholarly ones), when to modify or pivot the research in relation to the evidence or even a found passion, and then how to teach what you have learned to others. This takes time and a willingness to engage with the messiness of research. Not everything that you learn goes into the final product, but that does not mean the time was wasted.

The assignment my juniors are doing is different, but I find a similar dynamic. The final product will be to present a primary source from the exhibition and teach it to their peers. In order to do that well, they need to understand the context, not just the immediate but also the larger context. In other words, they need to read their way through the entire exhibition, not just the few paragraphs relating to the document. I told them that, and still found that their inclination was just to scroll through the documents so that they could pick one.

It has never been more apparent to me that I need to find ways to highlight and honor the process. If I can do more to hold my ground and insist on more thorough process, then the end products cannot help but be better. For the first time (I’m somewhat embarrassed to say) I’m deliberately working with students on the process of creating a strong presentation. So far, we have watched TED talks and listened to a podcast and then discussed what made them more or less effective. Then, students created one slide presentations. The next class, I had them write what they remembered from the presentations and think about why they remembered what they did. We discussed what stuck with people and the reasons. Students thought about themselves as both teachers and learners. It slows us down, but deepens the learning.

I guess I should be grateful that students want to get the work for my class done. The problem is that I don’t want them to sacrifice the best learning along the way.

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Authenticity = Key 2 Presenting

After having my juniors do perfectly acceptable Ignite or Pecha Kucha presentations last quarter, my goal this quarter is for excellence. My experience is that students spend a lot of time researching, some time putting the presentation together and almost no time rehearsing. Then, in order to improve their grades on the next presentation, they spend more time researching and putting the slideshow together and maybe even less time rehearsing. It’s all well and good to know your topic, but if you cannot convey it to someone else effectively, then you have not done a great presentation.

The assignment for today was to take an assigned topic from the first half of the 19th century in the US, create a single slide, and prepare a 1-2 minute presentation. The focus was on the presentation. We had previously looked at TED talks and discussed what made them more or less effective, so when I asked them to provide feedback for each other, the experience was fresh. Overall, I was impressed with the kindness and insight they demonstrated with their comments. Students saw and praised what went well in their peers’ presentations, and also provided some constructive feedback about areas that could be improved. This is always touchy because giving and receiving feedback is challenging. It also became clear that there were differences of opinions. Some students preferred some styles and others thought different ones effective.

In the end, I realized that there is no single formula beyond some of the basics on which we could agree – monotone is bad, organization matters, etc. I left them with the advice that they needed to be their best selves. They should be authentic in their presentation styles rather than imitate someone else. While everyone should seek to connect with an audience in a presentation, not everyone will do that in the same way. I shared the example of teachers – we may teach the same course, but our styles are very different. It took me a long time to learn that. If I can impart that in any way on my students, I think they are ahead of the game.