Thursday, August 18, 2016

Why Words Matter

As my almost two-year-old embarks upon her first meaningful conversations with us, I am reminded how important language and words are to each of us. Harper has only recently begun to announce her name as proudly she enters a room, counting to four, and identifying shapes in board books. Anything that is green is a frog, and anything that is furry is, of course, a dog. Her enthusiasm and delightful squeals when she has discovered a new word are mesmeric. Her brow furls as she processes and realizes that she, in fact, understands a new concept that did not exist in her world until 0.25 seconds prior. An explosive acquisition of language is allowing her to embrace the world in ways that had previously been inaccessible to her.

Being almost two also seems overwhelming. When my sweet yet determined little lady does not have the words to communicate her thoughts or her present needs at a given moment, she immediately becomes frustrated, distraught, or downright upset. Again, her brow crinkles up in a desperate attempt to make sense of her surroundings. This level of frustration often results in tears and necessitates a hug, which I secretly slightly enjoy (She'll only cuddle for so long). Her tears, however, also remind me to pause and consider the feelings of all those who feel as if they do not have a voice.

In her struggles, I am reminded of my students who claim to hate writing papers because they're boring, but privately know that structuring and developing their ideas in a written format is challenging. I am reminded of the students who have home or personal struggles that they hide behind smiles and socializing in class. Being able to communicate and articulate ideas is not a concept that any of us should take for granted.

This fall, I hope to reiterate the importance of communication with my students. In a world that often leaves us at a loss of words and without the opportunity to share our thoughts, I hope that I can empower my new students with an ability to use words responsibility - to share ideas, promote positivity, and seek out their aspirations. In this final week of summer, my daughter has inadvertently reminded me how much words matter.

Why Words Matter: 

1. Words allow us to communicate.

At the beginning of August, I spent an entire week working with 49 high school students on communication skills that will not only improve their skills for the competitive speech season this fall, but also skills that will enhance their ability to speak, write, listen, and read in both academic and social forums. These literacy skills are essential to engaging in and contributing to the communities in which we reside. Throughout the week of camp, I found myself inspired by young people who embraced new experiences and worked to hone their skills.

2.  Words allow us to convey ideas.

In addition to practicing their communication skills, speech camp is a time in which students are challenged to share their thoughts and ideas in a variety of formats. Being consumers of media, students must understand how to process the information they receive, discern misinformation, and also be able to eloquently articulate opinions and thoughts. In addition to reading, writing, speaking, and listening, students need to be empowered with the ability to make sense of the messages they receive from a variety of platforms. Media literacy is a valuable tool for communicating in a digital world.

3. Words allow us to connect.

Being able to express oneself is valuable and empowering. It also allows individuals to build relationships - both professional and personal. One characteristic that has made the speech team so successful is the bond and friendship that the students form. These relationships arise because students can be open, honest, and expressive with one another. When people bond over shared experiences and can articulate their perceptions, they are more likely to create strong memories that strengthen friendships.

4. Words allow us to create.

Words enable us to express and share ideas in formal ways. We can write, deliver speeches, and create various forms of media that communicate great messages. Words must be used responsibly because they have meaning to their receivers, and if they are not entirely articulated, they can be misunderstood or lead to breakdowns in communication. Even a single word can hold significant meaning and elicit powerful emotional responses. As such, we must use them thoughtfully and cautiously. Our words are powerful. We must remember to use them well.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Completing the Puzzle: Team Building/ / Ice Breaker Game

A puzzle is a problem to be solved. It is a literal act of collaboration as several components (or pieces) work together to create a larger picture. Using this metaphor as inspiration, we tried a new team building activity during this past speech camp. This activity was one that I was looking forward to because it would challenge students to negotiate and "play fair." Watching the event unfold and reflecting with students after the activity was complete, I can say that compromising, collaborating, and being considerate of others are key attributes of a successful team. Just as a puzzle is comprised of several pieces that work together to create a greater picture, a team must complement each other and unite to find success. 

This game would be a great ice breaker for a classroom or a team building challenge. Taking only 20 minutes, I was surprised and pleased with the experience and the outcomes of the puzzle challenge. While I completed this activity with high school students, it could easily be adapted for younger children through adults. 

The Setup: 

With five teams of 10 students, my assistant and I took five Marvel themed puzzles (48 Pieces), labeled them one through five, and removed six individual pieces from each puzzle. We attempted to select pieces that looked most like others in hopes of making it equally challenging for all teams. Then we placed one piece from each of the puzzles into a bag labeled with the corresponding number. This piece would need to be earned by solving a riddle. The other five pieces were placed into one giant bag from which students would pick pieces. Perhaps they would be lucky and select their pieces or perhaps they would receive pieces from players that they would later have to barter with to find all of the pieces that belonged to them. 
The Game: 

Each team selected a puzzle at random. (Little did I know, but I had dropped one piece from one of the puzzles. Technically one team would not be able to win this challenge, no matter how swiftly they moved or wisely they negotiated). Then they received five pieces at random. After attempting to complete their puzzles, they evaluated what was needed to finish their puzzles. The first group to complete their puzzle would win the game. The game moved quickly. Students raced to assemble their puzzles and deliberated about what was missing. Making plans and communicating as small groups were essential for their ability to break apart tasks and to mingle with the other groups. Time was certainly limited, and they needed to effectively communicate as they exchanged information and pieces with the other 40 speech team members. Overall, the game required much less time than I thought. Students did not withhold as much information from each as I had anticipated. Goal-oriented and determined, these students seemed to focus on task one - completing their puzzles without worrying as much about the progress of other teams.

The Implications: 

In terms of strategizing, teams often divided into smaller factions - seeking specific pieces each. They realized that giving away a piece necessitated a reciprocal exchange. They needed to use the pieces of others to trade for their own pieces. Also, students realized that they need to be careful with what they revealed to others. Showing all of their spare pieces could put them at risk for not being able to trade with others. While many resorted to cunningness and a little bit of "thievery" to complete this task, students also realized that they needed to work together to find mutual success. This activity was designed to challenge students to communicate under pressure. Students need to determine how to finish a task while using problem-solving strategies. Watching students share ideas and brainstorm with their small groups, interact with their competition in the larger group, and find success was not only fun but also paved the way for strong connections for the season. While my fellow coaches and I were hoping that a "piece summit" would emerge in the midst of the hustle to fill in the final holes in each team's puzzle, I am proud to say that students approach this activity with fervor and a great sense of humor. Poking fun at one another while trying to complete a task can create lasting memories and even inspire a little collaboration from time to time.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Lessons from Speech Camp

Another week of Speech Camp has swiftly passed. The first full week of August (the CG annual Speech Camp) is filled with excitement, the promise of another great season, and organized chaos. Every year, I end the week weary from an exhausting yet fulfilling experience and also encouraged, excited, and ready for another fantastic year teaching great kids.

Leading up to the start of camp, I am often filled with trepidation and an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. It is natural to approach the unknown with apprehension. Even now as a seasoned veteran, the idea of gearing up for another year seems a little daunting. Preparing, planning, and creating a positive environment for 49 young and spirited high school students, takes a significant amount of energy and creativity. Honing public speaking and leadership skills is not an easy feat. Communicating with others requires individuals to be vulnerable, open, and confident, which are not the most natural characteristics for teenagers to embody, but what is so rewarding is watching students discover how to cultivate these skills, which will help them well beyond the coming speech season. This year, the week went so quickly, and we were so happy with the results.

Every year, I leave camp grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this community. Working with this group of students and adults teaches me a great deal about teamwork, collaboration, and becoming the best versions of ourselves. While there is so much to unpack from this week (a few team building games that yielded some impressive results, a few more lessons in public speaking, leadership growth, etc.), I have a few takeaways that I will carry with me into the 2016-2017 school year.

1. Organization is a time-saver, expectation setter, and can create more time for fun. 

I am obsessed with Google, Google Drive, and all things digital. Being a Google school for nearly four years, I have spent time reorganizing my Speech Team files. My naming convention is six layers deep (folder by event, word count, title, gender (if applicable), year used, name of student used), and it is my hope that this naming convention will help future head coaches to utilize years of files created to help our students access the best material available. With great material comes the opportunity to learn about important issues, grow as performers, and have chances to break into finals. Yes, going back and organizing files has taken time, but it has also allowed me to reflect on my practices, remember the good, and will allow me to save time for someone else in the future.

In addition to organizing files, I also spent time planning and linked team building activities, videos, and resources into a Google Sheet. Scheduled by the day, hour, and beyond helped us to be present, at the moment, know what goals we had for students each day, and also gave us options to change activities to meet the needs of our students. I used the sheet from last year to help me create this year's sheet. Next year, coaches will have this sheet to use as a template and resource to plan significant and meaningful experiences for future students. When we can spend less time inventing the wheel from scratch, we can focus on fun, too.

2.  Set high standards. 

We work hard, and we play hard on the speech team. It is a place to bond with friends and be oneself, but it is also a place to develop skills and grow academically. Students really do rise to meet challenges. I am so grateful to students who are open to learning and laughing at the same time. When we presented students with challenges and tasks, they were happy to fulfill them. They did not back down or question what was being asked of them. Led by our amazing seniors who served as excellent examples for our new students, the group actively participated, learned, and worked to be successful. Whether students were completing relay races, writing scripts, or creating videos, they did so with great effort and utilized their skills.

3. Be willing to fail big.

Failure is such a taboo topic, especially in education. We often approach education with the notion that no child will be left behind for a myriad of reasons, but on occasion leaving a few behind is the right motivation to complete a task, learn a lesson, or sparks a conversation that can lead to significant realizations. Failure is a powerful learning tool. During improvisational games, students are asked to jump into scenes, make up stories on the spot, and are told never to say "no." At times, this yields some silly and ridiculous results. There is always a solution to the scenes that do not go the way we anticipate them to go. What we learn from these moments would never occur if we feared and avoided failing on occasion. It is okay to make mistakes - as long as we grow from them and solve whatever problem or situation we encounter.

4. Trust others. 

We can learn so much from each other. Trust in one another, in the process, and in the idea that any situation can be a learning experience is crucial in communicative situations and academics. When we support each other, we can take more substantial risks, we can embrace failures, we can recognize and celebrate the best in others, and we can discover more about ourselves in the process. Establishing trust creates that positive environment which is necessary for any team to find success. I am so grateful for the students, parents, and colleagues that trust in the team and trust in the process to commit to the week and commit to growing as speakers, performers, and people. Teamwork relies on trust!

5. "Yes, and..." has a powerful impact on group dynamics.

"Yes, and..." is a fundamental rule of improvisation. When completing an improv scene, all parties involved should always say "yes" and add additional ideas to the scene to keep it moving. It is a method used to support performers and provide a positive outcome.

The idea of saying no is not one that is easy for me. The world often encourages individuals to take on less responsibility as to not overwhelm oneself or do too much. At the same time, saying yes can lead to amazing opportunities and experiences that one might never think to approach. While we should find work-life balance and not take on more than we can complete, it is okay to say yes and embrace the beauty of what can come. (Shonda Rhimes has an amazing TED Talk on saying YES! For parents and anyone who works a great deal, it is a great message!

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