Tuesday, January 10, 2017

That's a Wrap: Ending a Semester Long Class

Half over. This school year is already half over. As I sit in my quiet classroom at 5:32 AM on the first day of final exams, I am in awe at how quickly this school year has passed by me. Essays have been (mostly) diligent written and meticulously graded, speeches have been well-crafted and delivered, and memories have been forged, which I hope my students will carry with them as they venture off to a fresh semester of classes and new experiences. Teaching seniors at my school means that English classes are electives and therefore only a semester long. I am closing the books on one course, and a new elective is on the horizon. I am saying goodbye to many students and only keeping a few. This past week, I have spent contemplating what makes an effective ending. When concluding this course, what do I want my students to recall when they walk out my door for the last time? How do I highlight the most important lessons I want my students to take with them while leaving impressions that will make them fondly remember public speaking? How can I instill in them one last time the notion that their words are powerful and must be used wisely?

Yes, the adage that "people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” is true. I have taught seniors long enough to know that even though my words are fleeting sentiments, the feelings they experience are not. Public speaking is such a vital part of life, and I want my students to feel empowered, confident, and prepared when they are called upon to do it in the various settings that they will find themselves in weeks from now and years from now.

So how does one spend the last week in a senior-level public speaking class?

1. Encourage students to celebrate each other and the growth that has occurred.

In the week after winter break and before finals, I enjoy allowing the students to do most of the talking. The floor is theirs to share last minute messages with their peers. Because there is little time to prepare, I often have students deliver impromptu speeches, but give the assignment a twist. Instead of handing students a proverb or a random word, I place all of the students' names into a hat and ask the class to select a name on which to deliver a speech randomly. Then, I review the elements of a commemorative speech, challenge students to remember how their subject has contributed to the class over the past semester, and have students one-by-one deliver a brief and celebratory speech on each member of the class. Not only does this speech incite positive, sentimental feelings about the class, but it also encourages students to self-reflect on how their presence has impacted the class as a whole. This assignment usually takes two days to complete, and I love every minute. These two days are full of laughter, encouragement, and remembrance. "Remember the time..." or "I loved it when..." are phrases that spark conversation and reflection in us all. After the final speech has been delivered, I ask students to hand-write a thank you note to the person who spoke about them. Reminding us that our words, both oral and written, are powerful, students spend time showing gratitude and returning the appreciation to their peers. 

2. Ask students to self-evaluate and self-reflect.

The Personal Report of Public Speaking Anxiety (PRPSA) is a self-assessment I administer at the beginning of the speech semester and the end. This assessment is designed to have students reflect on their confidence level as speakers in a variety of settings. We then compare our scores with national statistics and discuss how to overcome stage fright at the beginning of the year. This assessment is nice also to do at the end of the semester to show student growth, reflect on how students have gained confidence, and open a dialogue about how our class experiences have changed their perception of public speaking. Another way to self-reflect is to have them grade themselves. Writing a personal reflection in which they are asked to express their thoughts on their own strengths and weaknesses as a public speaker encourages students to consider their growth, their effort, and their abilities. Students might not enjoy self-reflecting, but they are usually quite honest. When they begin discussing how they have improved or how they could improve, it opens the door to rich conversation about their progress as students and speakers. 

3. Open the floor for suggestions on how to improve the course in the future. 

At the end of the semester, I want real feedback. I want to know how my teaching has helped students and what I can do to improve the experience for future students. We are all constantly working toward improving our crafts, and students are always changing, too. As the world evolves, so do the needs of our students. Because of life's constant cycle of change, I want my students to tell me what worked well, what was worth our time, and how I can make the most of their learning experience. Using Google Forms, I can collect both quantitative and qualitative feedback relatively quickly. I also leave a question at the end for a note or any last minute idea they want to share with me. I am always pleasantly surprised and touched by the kind words, statements of thanks, or words of encouragement from students! While the idea of opening up the floor for feedback can be intimidating, I have found it to be a meaningful exercise and encouraging! 

4. Laugh.

Laughter is such a simple concept and yet there are times that we forget to do it. Laughter promotes joy, play, and silliness, which are important aspects of creativity and happiness. Recently, I read an interesting article on Laughter and Learning from Edutopia. In it, author Matt Bellace encourages teachers to incorporate humor and improvisation into lessons. Encouraging laughter increases comfort level and promotes a positive environment. When students feel comfortable, they are more likely to relate to the teachers/peers, and they are more engaged. I do not consider myself a comedian by any means. Most of my laughter is the direct result of my own self-deprecation, but I have come to realize that laughing at my own spastic outbursts encourages my students to laugh a little more at themselves, too. We all make mistakes, and our shortcomings can be valuable learning experiences, especially if we learn to embrace them and have a hearty laugh.

5. Impart words of wisdom... or at least try by delivering a final speech.

 After a semester of evaluating speeches, I believe it is only fair that I impart one final speech to my students. Yes, I remind them that I craft and deliver speeches to them every day as their teacher, but the formality and finality of one last speech seems fitting. My biggest life lessons include: be kind, be prepared, and believe in the power of your words. With commitment and kindness, positive experiences will happen. Remembering to be mindful of our words, how they affect others, and how they can inspire change for the better is critical, too. While my words may be quickly forgotten, I hope that demonstrating strong structure, passion, and sincerity instill the importance of public speaking (and just generally being a nice person... kindness really does take a person far in this life!).

 6. Write personalized notes. 

Writing personalized notes on the back of our class picture has been a tradition of mine for several years. While students are taking their finals, I distribute a personalized note to each student. I love watching their faces as they pause their testing for a moment to read what I've written. Even if it is only treasured for a brief moment, this small bit of positivity makes students feel motivated to finish their final. At the end of this class, I hope this minuscule gesture reminds students of the memories we have shared and the community we have built. While these notes might mean more to some than others, it is always my hope that years from now, they'll find this picture tucked into a book or an old folder and smile at the memories they have from high school. Our words really are powerful and can be used to make us feel empowered, motivated, and encouraged. I love taking this last opportunity to wish my students well and reinforce the idea that words hold great power.

There are countless ways to finish a course. As I reflect and grow, I hope I can continue to discover the perfect way to wrap up an entire semester's worth of learning and make our time together meaningful. 

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