Why we must make time for kids to formally present…

Today was one of those days when you’re really glad you’re a teacher.  Glad that you’ve decided to stick with it through the frustrations of kids and parents, inadequate pay, unappreciative administrators, and the general contempt of the public.  Though these moments happen too infrequently, when they do, it’s like seeing your baby for the first time after childbirth… it erases the pain and suffering that has come before it.

Today was presentation day at my school.

It was my first day without having my own middle school students as presenters, which, I’ll be honest made it a little bittersweet, but that’s another story. This is not about me and my lost identity as a classroom teacher.  This is about what kids get from being gently nudged into doing things they don’t really believe themselves capable of…and taking a leap knowing there’s no net and then soaring to new heights.

My school is probably like a lot of schools out there.  Tiptoeing into the 21st century trying to catch up to students who have been living there for the past all of their lives. Sure, we have a decent supply of computers (but not 1:1), have 2 cohorts studying the formative assessment process, have a UDL team, and common planning time, but we also still have a lot of old school approaches being put out to our students every day. While old school isn’t always terrible- we do need to make sure things that worked in the good ole days are updated and modernized for our current audience.

That brings me to presentations- been around forever- not a new concept, but it seems to me that there’s a lot of educators who may have given up on this tried and true trial by fire.  Some people want to be gentle with kids and not put them under the pressure.  Some may say that they don’t have time with preparing kids for the tests and catching them up on all their deficiencies, and the list goes on.  So, here’s my take on why this is an absolutely essential practice for 21st century learners.

First of all, some ground rules. If you’re going to have kids present formally, they need to have choice in what they’re presenting.  They need to be taught how to create high quality presentations. They need to be held to high standards and know that the presentation experience will be authentic- real people will watch them, ask real questions, and expect it to be accurate, easy to understand, and polished- and they will give feedback on those things. I’d also advocate for having them dress up and make an event of it.

Ok, moving on. The why.

  1. Confidence:  The word of the day was nervous. As it is every year. Students had expressed doubts since the beginning of the year about doing these presentations (they’re a staple in 8th grade and so they know they’re coming since they were audience members in previous grades). Lots of deep breaths, sweaty palms, and mangled note cards later, they finish and smile great big smiles of relief that scream, “I.did.it.” Many reflect at the end of the day that they won’t be as nervous the next time they do an important formal presentation. Many kids experience this sense of new-found confidence in sports but many don’t ever face these experiences in an academic setting. It’s not just about facing the pressure, but knowing how to organize a message, convey it, and anticipate and capably respond to authentic questions.
  2. Pride: I watched the past week as students frantically worked on turning research into slide shows, grappled with insufficient content, checked on citations, and practiced their presentations with their peers who gave them important feedback for improvement. And let me be clear.  Some of these kids are not the academic cherubs of your dreams. Some of them had procrastinated or had been absent and were playing serious catch up. But they all knew they were going to have to present, come hell or high water. The payoff came today.  They entered the school this morning in dress clothes- dresses, ties, the bow tie overtaking the windsor knot by a wide margin, dress shoes, and fancy hair- the first symbol of the pride they felt at their elevated status on this day.  When the school’s media center was abuzz and it was all because of them.  When board members and central office supervisors came to see their presentations.  When teachers from other classes and other grade levels took time from their classes to see them. When parents left home, kids in tow, to see them. When they were able to breathe that sigh of relief when they looked at their slide and the next memorized bit of the presentation flooded into their mind, it all added up to a spirit swelling sense of pride.
  3. Shared experience: I think it will be a long time before these kids forget this day and how they felt. It was about the culmination of hard work and doing things you thought you couldn’t, but you weren’t alone in doing it, and that’s part of what made it doable. These kids, though they often don’t get along throughout the year, now had a common bond and shared memory of supporting one another through their nerves and doubts, making sure everyone had dress clothes to wear, and getting carnations to wear from their teachers. These are the moments that make kids like school and want to come back. We need to build in more of these moments, so kids see a reason to come.

Consider some of the highlights that came out of this process:

  • A student asking if she could try to figure out how to do the citations like she would have to do them in high school
  • A parent sharing that her son was getting the extended family together to give his presentation the following weekend
  • The notes from parents on comment cards thanking the teachers for doing all they did for the students and for the invitation to see the presentations
  • The assistant superintendent noticing the improvement in a presentation that had been given at the board meeting a few nights before
  • The student who has more referrals than I can probably count under his belt this year, saying, upon being asked what his favorite part of doing research project and presentation was, “Well, to be honest, I’d have to say doing this presentation. ‘Cause, it kind of makes you feel good about yourself. And, I think some of you maybe didn’t know about some of the stuff I talked about, and I like the idea of teaching people about something they didn’t know.”

So, did these teachers spend a lot of time preparing their students, working with them, frustrated at times? Yes. Was it hard work for both teachers and students? Yes. Worth it? Yes.