Saturday, May 6, 2017

Teach Speech: What I Learned from Year One of Teaching Community College

May is here and the school year is winding down at a rapid pace. This year, in addition to my high school day job, I am fortunate enough to teach an introductory speech course at a local community college. With only one class period left to administer the final exam, I find myself reflecting on the differences between teaching at the high school and college level, the classroom environment, the students, and the sentiments they hold toward public speaking. While my Thursday evenings (and Friday mornings) are extremely tiring, I have sincerely enjoyed this new challenge and believe that this experience has enriched my content knowledge and approaches to teaching speech. This opportunity has also allowed me to observe different students as they transition from high school students to college students.

The night classes I taught this school year are much more diverse, and the age range of student varies greatly. Surprisingly, I am on the younger end of my classroom demographics. What I have found to be the most interesting factor about my students is the different reasons students have enrolled in my class. The introductory speech course is a required course for all students who intend to graduate with an associate degree and is almost always a requirement for students who plan to continue their education at a four-year university. Reluctantly, students do enroll in this introductory course because this course is mandatory, but their goals and aspirations for certifications and degrees vastly span from nurse to botanist to auto-mechanic. Several students speak English as a second language or are first generation college students and starting post-secondary school is uncharted territory. Of course, there are several students in their late teens and early twenties who simply wished to stay home to save money or did not know what to major in yet. Whatever the reason for continuing their education, I have been very impressed with the lengths at which many of these students have taken to further their coursework and attend a three-hour Thursday night class. 

I have certainly gained a deeper appreciation for different types of students and learned a great deal from my colleagues and the opportunities provided by the college. Overall, I am glad that I have taken on this exhausting experience and would recommend that colleagues who teach at the high school level pursue a similar role at some point in their careers at least once. Because of this experience, I have gained knowledge and am more prepared to teach my high school students for what lies in front of them after graduation day. 

Here's some of what I am taking away from year one:

1. The more experience students have with research and writing, the better prepared they will be for post-secondary learning. 

"I was never taught THAT," is a common comment I hear from students when I introduce research assignments. My colleagues and I often lament over these claims and are frustrated because we know exactly what their previous high school teachers have taught them. The fact of the matter is that both research and essay writing skills do not come naturally to most students and need to be reinforced several times. Frequent practice and repetition is the only way for students to become proficient at conducting research and writing about their findings. Through my conversations with both high school and college students, I have come to realize how universal research and writing skills are and how frequently students are required to complete these types of assignments in their science, history, business, and humanities courses. They are often writing papers at the college level without a great deal of technical guidance often, which makes the need to be able to research and write well an invaluable skill that I must be teaching my students at both levels as a way to prepare them to find success in any discipline they choose to study in the future. 

2. Students are still apprehensive to speak in front of a class - even when they have two decades of work experience in an area on which they are presenting to their peers. 

Many of my college students work full time. They are professionals with a wide variety of experiences. Speaking in front of a class should not be as scary for these individuals because they deliver speeches at work, give presentations, and work with customers, but for a myriad of reasons, all students still exhibit a higher level of apprehension than I would have initially expected. Stage fright needs to be the subject of early classes, and all students - no matter their confidence level - need to be given strategies to cope with this anxiety. Even the most confident and experienced speakers can still experience anxiety when a formal speaking experience. Several strategies such as frequent and informal practice to speak in front of small groups, group work and class discussions to build a collaborative and supportive environment are necessary to build students' confidence. Public speaking is difficult, and my role is to create a more comfortable and positive experience for all my students.

3. Students still need clear direction and organization from the instructor (and still won't always read or hear the directions). 

I chuckle to myself a little when I hear the phrase, "Kids just don't listen." Unfortunately, people of any age or profession struggle with listening to instructions fully or reading directions or emails carefully. We are busy individuals who are easily distracted. We all attempt to multi-task and clear the to-do lists as efficiently as possible. As an instructor, I have to remember that my instructions and directions need to be thorough, clear, and repeated a few times to help my students fully understand what is expected of them as they complete any given task or assignment. This year, I have had a few encounters that have reminded me that even though these are adults, busyness is a common factor in miscommunication. Students need support and clear guidance. As for my high school students, they love hearing stories about mistakes by students at the college level, and often respond with, "It's not just me!" 

4. The learning environment and relationship between students and the instructor are still the most vital parts of the learning process. 

Students' lives and backgrounds greatly impact their learning. Their workload, responsibilities, and relationships impact the time they have to spend on coursework. These life factors also greatly influence their interest, passions, values, and beliefs. Understanding our students' lives outside of the classroom enhances the experience in the classroom. Being able to ask a person how their kids are doing, how work was, or about another project for another class builds rapport and improves the classroom environment stronger. With a strong rapport between the instructor and students, the levels of anxiety wane and students feel more inclined to put forth effort toward the class - especially their speaking assignments that require a significant amount of preparation. Building strong relationships is my favorite part of teaching at any level. I have truly enjoyed working with and forging relationships with my diverse college students and love that this element of teaching is still just a prevalent and vital to the learning experience as it is with my high school students. 

This has been such a valuable and growing experience. I have loved watching these students gain confidence and grow as speakers. In turn, I am so grateful for my students' kind words and the lessons they have taught me. With a fresh perspective and a richer understanding of communication theory, I cannot wait to see what the future brings from teaching speech at any level. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Combatting Speech Anxiety: Ways to Increase Student Confidence with Public Speaking

Recently, I have run into an overwhelming amount of anxiety in my sophomore classroom related to public speaking. For the past few years, I have only taught public speaking skills in a senior-level speech course and a college-level speech course, and in both of those courses, students have either elected to participate or paid to be present. While I still have encountered students with anxiety, I have quickly forgotten how truly terrifying public speaking is to the general population - especially young teens.

Having been removed from working with students who would rather write a ten-page research paper than deliver a two-minute speech, I have found myself scrambling through my list of coping strategies to promote positive feeling toward this experience. While it is not uncommon for any person of any age to express a sentiment of dread when a speech assignment is presented in class, I have come to the conclusion that with this group of underclassmen, I must incorporate a few interventions to quell their fears. Addressing speech anxiety of this magnitude necessitates more than a simple pep talk, although that is certainly a terrific place to begin.

What can we as teachers do to combat stage fright to relatively new public speakers? How do we as teachers build a positive atmosphere for students that instills confidence while empowering students to share their voices?

1. Start by reviewing the rubric.

Students need to understand that formal speaking is about so much more than just standing in front of their peers and talking! Several elements work together to create a speech that is impressive from a technical standpoint while communicating strong content. Content does matter, and that content is created in the preparation portion of the assignment. Effective content often comes in the form of a story, which is easier to remember than a list of facts and makes engaging an audience an effortless feat. Also, when one takes the time to identify various elements of public speaking on a rubric, students can begin to understand and recognize what makes a great speaker impactful and what skills they may need to practice to improve their crafts. Looking at and breaking down the rubric for my most recent speech assignment with my sophomores boosted their confidence. They began to realize that even if they lacked confidence with all of the speaking elements, they could still earn a high grade if they relied on their content, prepared thoroughly, and focused on their strengths.

2. Encourage students to confide in each other about their feelings toward delivering a speech in front of their peers.

Talking about their fears and reservation in an open forum truly does begin to create an open and supportive environment. While we all know that most (or all) people exhibit a level of stage fright, we do not always accept that our peers are just as nervous or more nervous than us until we sincerely discuss is. I like sharing "war stories" with students about embarrassing speech moments. We all have them, and we all can laugh about them later... usually. My personal story is not of a speech but a 6th-grade talent show performance in which my doll that served as a prop's head fell off in the middle of a song. The entire school laughed at me, I terrified some kindergartners, and I was bestowed with the label of "that girl who's doll's head fell off" until well into my high school career, but I didn't die. In fact, I kept singing. Louder. While public mishaps are not amusing at the moment, we all survive them. These experiences often serve as valuable lessons, and if nothing else, they certainly are funny after the fact.

3. Peer evaluate and practice.

An important way to build students' self-efficacy as speakers is to encourage them to practice in front of their peers. Small group practice time forces students to present their ideas and rehearse the speaking situation before evaluation. I also like having a rehearsal day as it allows me to check note cards, gauge how much work has gone into the presentation prior to its due date, and also encourage students in a smaller setting, too. This practice also empowers students to watch critically and develop an understanding of what features create a successful speech. They are quick to be honest but also willing to be kind. This experience leaves the speaker with the feeling that no matter what, they have allies in the audience who know what to expect and are rooting for their success.

When I designate a rehearsal day, I also create a Google Form that reflects the rubric and uses an extension called FormMule to automatically email to go to the student speakers with feedback from their peers. In my experience, students sincerely do read their reviews and are often self-reflective about how much work still need to be done before the final performance.

4. Record student speeches AND provide class time to watch their film.

Every talented athlete or performer watches film of his or her performance. Why shouldn't students watch themselves speak? I am fortunate enough to have 15 flip cameras that students can use to record each other. These mini cameras can then be plugged into USB ports and uploaded to YouTube with ease. I upload these videos to my YouTube account and mark them as unlisted, but students can just as easily upload their videos on their own. Filming can expose the nerves, but even though the end products might make the individuals cringe, they pick up on their nonverbal and verbal ticks so much faster when they can watch themselves and critique their work.

Students will avoid watching their film unless given time devoted to watching their work. They need to be given a designated time to watch their work. They can even use a webtool like to annotate their videos while they watch. When they are encouraged to critique themselves and given guidance, they are far more likely to find value in the experience. I have even had students use these videos to create a portfolio with my senior speech class that they can then use to identify their progress at the end of a semester.

5. Incorporate frequent and informal opportunities to practice speaking and listening skills.

In this first semester back to teaching this level of students, I realize that I did not incorporate enough speaking experiences. Yes, students have participated in Socratic seminars and class discussion, but they have not until this point been tasked with standing in front of their peers to present their ideas. In other public speaking courses, students are asked to deliver impromptu speeches, demonstrate simple tasks like making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, teach a section of a text to their peers, and watch/critique other speeches. In my other speech classes, I incorporate video examples of speech assignments that students will deliver and discuss my grading process. Why should this course be any different? While I only teach underclassmen second semester, I now in hindsight realize that the skills and standards in a full speech course can be woven into the fabric of a general education English course with ease. Speaking is such an important pillar of literacy and a necessary skill for all people to find success in any career path they pursue. While I am so proud of my students' this semester, I am eager for next year to begin and to work to use speaking and listening as a way of increasing students' understanding of course content and confidence in all walks of life.

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