Teaching Public Speaking through Distance Learning (or Blended Learning)

The Problem
When distance learning started in March, one of my biggest concerns was how I would teach the public speaking standards that I still had left. For both my seventh and eighth graders, fourth quarter in my ELA class normally includes high-interest public speaking projects to keep engagement up through the end of the year. 

But how would these projects look from afar? Even if I could ensure access and student participation*, what would need to be different now? If public speaking is already stressful, then would the trauma of current events only make speaking-related anxiety worse for students?

*For context: All of my students had their own school-provided Chromebooks and theoretical internet access, so we were very lucky. Many students had internet connection problems, though.

The Good News
Fortunately, we were able to leverage enough free software to still make video-based (and written) speaking situations still work. In fact, most of my students reported back that they found submitting videos of their speeches to be far less stressful than an in-classroom public speaking scenario and that they enjoyed getting to watch their peers' videos as well. 

Rather than lament what we couldn't do like normal, we embraced the fact that the ability to record a high-quality video of yourself is an enormously important skill. 

Ultimately, I taught the 8th graders a reduced version of my TED Talks unit via FlipGrid (described below), along with other forms of discussion. 

Here's what we did, and here's what I will continue to refine (if needed) next year!

#1. Written Debates & Discussions
Unless you truly have the technology and structures to get every kid on your class online at once, then at least some of your discussions and debates need to be asynchronous. In fact, some of ours weren't even spoken. 

For example, as a way to assess Common Core SL.7.1 and SL.8.1, we did written debates in which students had to read an article, type their response in ONE shared Google Doc (in a designated table cell with their name), and also respond to others (in column two). Check out this free template here as just one starter example! (Note: The Doc will ask if you want to make a copy, and your answer is Yes!)

The beauty here is that not only could camera-shy students still engage in a text or topic, but even students with no Google account or laptop can still contribute to a shared Doc (such as on their phones). 

#2. Live, Virtual Discussions
Google Meets was the anchor for everything we did this spring in distance learning, and if you are able to host online discussions, debates, presentations, or speeches, then that's as close to being authentic as we can probably get during a quarantine. We did not choose to go this route very much, mainly because I didn't want to inadvertently punish students who couldn't log in and join us, but it's still an option for some schools. 

#3. Direct Instruction for Video Skills
Especially since I teach middle school, I wanted to take the time to break down some of the how-to's of high quality videos, including:
  • Lighting: putting the computer or camera between yourself and a light source (instead of keeping the light source behind you and obscuring yourself in shadow)
  • Angles: some people prefer to have the camera "up and out" 
  • Background: staying aware of what's behind you (and in the camera's frame)
Eye Contact: Since I didn't require students to memorize their speeches for the recordings, we also talked about how to hold or position their speech transcripts. Some of our solutions included:
  • Printing the speech and holding it BEHIND the laptop, about where the webcam is, so that their eyes would be UP and looking at the screen instead of down. 
  • Having the speech open in a tab and reading it while the webcam is going (again, to keep their eyes up and looking more conversational than a mere read-aloud)
  • Teleprompter apps*
*EDITED TO ADD: After reading this post, a teacher just recommended the website https://cueprompter.com/ to me, and it seems like a great, free option for a teleprompter without requiring an app or account. Thank you, Amy!

#4. Recorded Video Presentations (on FlipGrid)
The idea of having students email or share video files to me (and having to track them all) was daunting. Without prior experience, we took the leap and chose to use FlipGrid instead. This is how the 7th graders did their Virtual Wax Museum project and how the 8th graders recorded their mock TED Talks

Side note: you can get FlipGrid certified here if you want some training on it!

#5. Asynchronous Debate
Another benefit of FlipGrid is that not only can students leave peer feedback on speech videos, but asynchronous "debates" can also happen. I am using FlipGrid to conduct a Virtual Debate Summer Camp this July; FlipGrid, Google Classroom, and Google Meets will be the foundation of that camp.

#6. Listening to Experts
I've always been a big fan of studying TED Talks as examples of modern, professional public speaking (instead of only modeling the overly stiff, formal kind sometimes seen behind podiums). Distance learning is a great time to assign a TED Talk for listening, whether it's...
  • As readers: summarizing a speech and/or transcript, tracing its argument, identifying main ideas, and more
  • As listeners: reflecting on a speech, responding to its ideas, etc. 
  • As writers: listening to a mentor text before attempting to imitate it and write their own
  • As speakers: observing what the speakers do with their faces, hands, feet, etc., such as through note-taking
If you need a starting place, I have guided notes for some of my favorite TED talks to learn public speaking basics (shown below). 

Did you teach public speaking remotely or have additional ideas? 
Tell us in the comments!

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