In my role as an edtech coach, I see student-created projects and authentic learning taking place in our schools every day. While collaborating with teachers to facilitate lessons, I’ve learned that the process is often considered more important than the product because this is where most of the learning occurs. Students are usually given an abundance of time to work on their brainstorming, research and project creation, with less time devoted to preparing the presentation itself.
The process is important because students need to know their content well in order to express themselves clearly and feel confident speaking without index cards or bullet points. But it’s equally important that students learn how to deliver high-quality presentations. After all, professional key-note speakers practice for dozens of hours to prepare for an hour-long presentation.
Presenting is a real-world skill and relates directly to the Creative Communicator standard, one of the seven ISTE Standards for Students. Creative Communicator asks that students “communicate clearly and express themselves creatively for a variety of purposes using the platforms, tools, styles, formats and digital media appropriate to their goals.”
This goes beyond students reading bullet points from their PowerPoints or Google Slides. Students need to be able to use a variety of tools to meet their purpose and audience, and present in a variety of formats as well.
As we consider the types of presentations students will create and deliver in their careers, we need to make sure we’re not just preparing them to present slideshows, but also videoconferences, online trainings, video tutorials and other interactions.
Challenge students with improv
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to attend an Edcamp Organizer Summit in Atlanta, and learn from Anthony Veneziale of the Improv group Speechless. At the end of the session, Veneziale asked participants to summarize content by connecting topics to random photos he displayed. To make it more challenging, participants had to consider how they would use the entire collection of random photos in a slideshow about a specific topic.
That gave some of us in attendance an idea. What if we used this same approach to have students present their research? I recently explored this idea with Christine Brink, an AP biology and AP computer science teacher at Matanzas High School in Palm Coast, Florida.
We decided to try this approach for a unit on the systems of the human body. Students would do their research as usual, but their presentations would be like nothing they’d experienced before. They would present the content live and connect it to random photos being displayed for about 60 seconds each. Students had to apply their knowledge and use creative thinking to make connections to photos they hadn’t seen before without the help of index cards or slides.
The morning of these presentations, there was a high level of excitement in the classroom and, unlike most presentation days, not one student was absent! The presentations kicked off with a picture of two elderly adults in a washing machine. The audience laughed, which threw the presenters off for a few seconds. But in no time, they made connections to the excretory system.
One student explained, “You put your clothes in the washing machine to clean things off of them. This is how the excretory system acts, to remove wastes we don’t need from our bodies.”
This continued with students jumping in and elaborating on points their co-presenters made, correcting each other’s statements and filling in missing science vocabulary words when their team member wasn’t able to recall a term.
Some students embraced the improv more than others, but they all said they’d like to do it again. When asked about the project, Mackenzie, a ninth grader, said:
“It strained us to think about the concept in different ways, process it more and compare and apply it to different things. I feel better about how well I know the concept after having to learn and then explain it to others.”
This approach proved to be a great way to get the listeners more engaged in the content, too. Joshua described his experience as an audience member:
“It was more exciting to see students improvising, rather than reading a script. I definitely paid attention more to see where people slipped up.”
To ensure that misconceptions and errors in reasoning weren’t communicated during the presentations, Christine and I wanted students to “fact check” the presentations.
I came up with this idea after listening to the podcast, “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” hosted by Stephen Dubner. On the show, guests compete to see who can provide the audience and host with information they didn’t know, as well as useful information that is factual. The podcast features real-time fact checkers who verify the information, while expanding and adding additional facts about the topic.
We knew that the improv project would be a perfect opportunity for students to practice verifying information. But real-time fact-checking would be a challenge and require lots of practice, so we opted for a variation.
Each presentation was recorded and placed in the Schoology learning management system, giving the student audience the opportunity to watch the videos, conduct research to determine the accurateness of each presentation and describe any errors they found. What an engaging way to address the Knowledge Constructor indicator 3.b. that asks students to “Evaluate the accuracy, perspective, credibility and relevance of information, media, data or other resources.”
At the end of the first class period, several students told their teacher how much they liked this presentation style, how it challenged them and that they hoped she would do this again. I overheard a couple of girls saying they liked the stress and felt empowered and accomplished after learning they were able to talk freely about the concepts.
This type of presentation also helps prepare students for their AP exam, which requires making connections to topics they know little about and quickly recalling information they may have learned at the beginning of the year, or even in prior years.
More importantly, improv presentations allow students to practice a skill that’s essential for a variety of live presentations, be they webinars, tutorials or question-and-answer sessions: thinking on your feet.
This lesson can be adapted for many content areas and grade levels, providing much-needed practice with communication and critical-thinking skills. Inspiring students to think outside the box, collaborate and learn that it’s OK to try new things, take risks and make mistakes are great life skills these students will carry with them to a wide range of careers.
Customizing the message
Another important skill embedded in the Creative Communicator standard is the ability to adapt content for a specific audience. In Andrew Hutcheson’s AP and honors physics classes at Matanzas High School, students use the Feyman Technique to create science content for elementary students. Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who believed that you don’t really know something until you can put it into simple enough language to teach it to a child.
The project is a great example of the ISTE Creative Communicator standard because students have the opportunity to “Choose the appropriate platforms and tools for meeting the desired objectives of their creation or communication” (6.a.), as well as “Publish or present content that customizes the message and medium for their intended audiences” (6.d.).
We began this project by working with students to select grade 2-6 science standards. The students then brainstormed ways they could teach these concepts to their younger peers. Ideas ranged from live presentations and experiments to using videos, websites and online games. Several groups created iBooks.
Students were required to incorporate content from their own AP and honors physics coursework, so they needed to adapt the content to engage and hold the interest of elementary students.
While creating these elementary lessons, students also engaged in ISTE Creative Communicator indicator 6.b., by “Creating original works or responsibly repurposing or remixing digital resources into new creations” and 6.c. by “Communicating complex ideas clearly and effectively by creating or using a variety of digital objects such as visualizations, models or simulations.”
Several groups received permission to use existing YouTube physics videos, modified them by slowing them down and added voiceovers and annotations to explain the content. This reflects ISTE Digital Citizenship indicator 2.c.: “Students demonstrate an understanding of and respect for the rights and obligations of using and sharing intellectual property.”
Others used live models and visuals to communicate ideas, such as a group that created a hovercraft from a leaf blower. Students also learned about the importance of considering instructional design and multimedia principles when designing content.
One of the greatest rewards in teaching is seeing students exceed your expectations and go beyond where you thought they could go. Through projects like these, students have the opportunity to showcase their talents and practice valuable communication skills that will benefit them well into the future.
Kristin Harrington is an edtech coach for Flagler County School District in Palm Coast, Florida. She has a master’s degree in educational technology and instructional design from the University of Florida. Kristin is also a PLN leader for the ISTE Learning Spaces Network and a contributor to the ISTE Standards Community and Edtech Coaches Network.