Developing Research and Public Speaking Skills for Civic Engagement by Kathleen Bailey

Why is this important?

Ana  is quiet. She often seems to be hiding behind her long, elegantly curled hair. She makes excellent connections, which is why I often ask for her input in discussion, but she is clearly very unhappy to be called upon. During her project presentation on the health effects of stress on teenagers, however, she demonstrated remarkable skills of engagement. She was louder than I had ever heard her, sending her voice to all corners of my rather large room. She spoke directly to the people in her audience in a smooth, even tone. Most impressive though was the sense that she really wanted to help people deal with their problems. She offered a variety of ways that her peers could begin to handle stress, and then expertly fielded questions about why some of those techniques might work.

Vanessa is also quiet, though not necessarily from shyness. She is a deep thinker and likes to have her ideas very well developed before she shares them. For her, the Senior Project offered a chance to go very deep with an issue that she had personal connection to and then bring her knowledge to the class. In her presentation she kind of brought it like a boss. She cooly described the current state of the Inclusion Program at our school, the program which works to include special-needs students in mainstream classes. She increased engagement by connecting the topic to her own experience as a peer-tutor for the program. She explained how tutoring students helped her not only be more accepting of students with disabilities, but also helped her deepen her understanding of the subject, which is a finding she supported with published research. Vanessa finished strong by educating the class on how they could help make the school a more inclusive place.

“It would be helpful if you could include these students more in conversations, maybe help them play a role in group work or similar scenarios. You can help your teachers make inclusion work in your classes.” By ending with a direct connection to action that could be taken, Vanessa made sure that the presentation was not just a list of facts, but a lesson on how to make change.

With my inquiry group leader, Young Whan,  as a thinking partner, I teased out what made student presenters successful at civic engagement. The topic needed to be community based so that all students or community audience members would have the ability to participate in discussion around it. We decided that if the presenters were confident enough in their research that they were comfortable opening up a discussion about it, then the questioning/discussion could go in any number of  fruitful directions.

In terms of what I could do as the classroom leader to get students to this point, it broke down into two main areas: scaffolding better research strategies and preparing more confident public speakers. We decided to focus on the skills of public presenting for the inquiry, but scaffolding research strategies was also an important focus for me this year.

What did I try?

Coming out of summer professional development that stressed the benefits of academic discussion, I wanted to formalize some academic discussion strategies in class that would contribute to a strong sense of classroom community and hopefully make students more confident public speakers.

I implemented a variety of classroom practices that I hoped would increase the level of discussion and “student talk” in the classroom.

Yearlong Academic Discussion Strategies:

* Socratic Seminar (approx. every 4 weeks)

* Group Thesis Poster Presentations (approx. every 6 weeks)

* Formal Team Debates (once per semester)

* Structured Academic Controversy (once per semester)

* Small group seating arrangement (all year-rotating tablemates every 6 weeks)

* YouthSpeaks Poetry Workshops (approx. every other week)

* Class Generated Presentation Rubric

All of these strategies did raise that level of student control of the conversation in the classroom from what I had seen in previous years. However, there were some drawbacks.

With Socratic Seminar, students who were most confident in the spotlight naturally spoke up the most. I did increase the level of participation slightly by creating a preparation document  for the seminars (heavily indebted to Jo Paraiso at Fremont), but students who were shy or hesitant mostly declined to enter the conversation.

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Doing Thesis Poster presentations did force all students to speak and give them something concrete to speak about, but often students were merely reading off the poster. This lead to poor presentation technique, such as turning away from the audience to read posters and a lack of audience connection.

 Formal Team Debates were largely a success in getting students to demonstrate good presentation technique. The majority of students were prepared, were articulate, and were connecting with other speakers and the audience. I attribute this to my having developed a very clear rubric for the oral/physical aspects of presentation and also the preparation students got several days before the Team Debates in the form of a Structured Academic Controversy on the debate topic. Speaking about the subject in a small group first, and taking the time to write out notecards with specific arguments and evidence seemed to give the shyer students the ability to project more confidence.

As we got closer to the presentation period for the Senior Projects, we began to do some group analysis of what makes a presentation interesting. We spent half of one class period going around the room and sharing one-minute summaries of senior project findings. Like with the structured academic controversy, everyone got a chance to rehearse their ideas for the larger presentation. Then I asked for students to share out about what made someone’s topic sound compelling. Next, we watched several video clips of Thesis Poster presentations that had been recorded in class about two months earlier. I asked for students to share out what people did well/could have done better and we recorded all of these ideas on the board. I then took all of the suggestions on the board and turned them into our rubric for Senior Project presentations. When we began our presentations, each student got a copy of the class generated rubric with which to score all of the other students’ presentations.


One rubric element in particular, audience engagement,  represented a shift from what I had previously expected of students.  Students identified specific ways to bring audience members into the presentation: questioning and something they called “relatability”. If presenters asked the audience direct questions, the audience was more likely to perk up. Also, if the presenter shared how the project connected to their personal experience, students said they were more interested in listening.

What does success look like in my class?

I really had two main markers of success, one individual and one social (civic). For the individual mark of growth, I was hoping to see my shy, reserved students present with confidence. What did this look like? Upright posture, audience eye contact, professional attire, reading of any notes was from notecards instead of off the projected slideshow behind them, and a lovely smile. For a project to be a civic success, it had to have the aim of really informing audience members about an important community issue and it had to promote some sort of action.

In the end, I didn’t see any presentations this year that really turned into group discussions like my two models from last year. I did however see a level of improvement in engagement and confidence in my three senior classes overall. Instead of two outstanding and 88 passable presentations, I saw an incremental improvement in almost everyone’s work. It wasn’t quite what I had imagined, but it was rewarding nonetheless. Now that all of the seniors have presented their projects in my class, they will still need to go out and present for the class of a faculty adviser. Hopefully the practice and assessment we did together will make their presentations more engaging for audiences. Hopefully we will have also laid the groundwork for civic engagement, so students continue learning about issues that affect them and passing on what they have learned to other affected parties.

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