Tuesday, December 20, 2011

21st Century Talk: Communication Still Matters

Note: I'm in the process of "shopping" this piece to EdNews and will hopefully get it published somewhere (besides in this space with my faithful 13 followers :).  Regardless, I owe special thanks to Laura Peace, whose classroom provided me with the anecdote to show what public speaking can do for a group of seemingly disengaged 7th graders and to Tara Harris, who graciously allowed me to follow-up our parking lot conversation with an interview on this subject.

21st Century Talk: Communication Still Matters

            The 21st Century: an exciting time to be a learner.  And a frantic, high-speed time for educators who are facilitating learning in brick and mortar classrooms by day and via online tools around the clock – grading, evaluating and commenting on student work on Googledocs, posting assignments and updates on social media sites or class blogs and wikis, logging onto professional learning communities to swap ideas, and staying connected and accessible to students through smart phones.  The dismissal bells may signal the end of the school day, but in the 21st Century the virtual classroom door is always open. 
            Because learning can happen anytime and anywhere, teachers might feel in some ways like on-call doctors.  And yet, amidst all of the texting, tweeting, and typing within and beyond school walls, I was struck this week that it is still face-to-face communication between teachers and students that offers the most powerful examples of authentic learning.  The means of communicating may be limitless, but verbal communication skills matter more than ever before.
            In the days before Winter Break seventh graders in a large, diverse Aurora middle school scramble to present speeches they spent the last several weeks crafting.  After drafting and revising, conferring and rehearsing, it is their time, for four or more minutes, to stand before their classmates and deliver a message that is meaningful to them and meant to inspire their audience.  The teacher, apprehensive about the final presentations and disheartened by the number of late and missing assignments and the groans and sighs she heard at the beginning of the term, witnesses the fruits of weeks spent modeling, sharing mentor text and supporting writers through the writing process.  One after one, they present.  The audience respectfully listens.  And they’re good.  Polished, practiced and proud of their work, each presentation rivals or tops the one before.  Their voice matters, and allowing them to use their voice and supporting them with the tools, resources and structures to use it in a powerful way, the teacher sees the first evidence of meaningful learning and passionate engagement in her students, from the prolific to the struggling, nearly every seventh grader in the room has found success.  One of the final presenters reminds his classmates: “"When you look around you and think that you have nothing, tell yourself, 'No, I have a future.'"
            Teaching kids to use their voice in effective and powerful ways, matters.  And for the first time, the new Colorado P-12 Academic Standards honors this by re-naming the content area formerly known as English/Language Arts, “Reading, Writing and Communicating” and by focusing on “oral expression and listening” standards (in addition to reading, writing, research and reasoning) across grade levels.  While educators are apprehensive and skeptical about authentically assessing communication through current standardized testing practices, (and fear if it is not assessed it won’t be taught in-depth) speech and language arts teachers celebrated that the standards finally reflect, with equity, all four domains of literacy: reading, writing, speaking and listening. 
            In light of this it is a disheartening irony that budget cuts have impacted speech courses in Aurora’s comprehensive high schools.  At some sites speech classes are not even offered within the master schedule and the only opportunity for students to work on public speaking is through extracurricular activities like speech and debate teams.  Where speech classes are still offered, they are in danger of being cut.  Beginning as soon as the class of 2015 in APS, high school speech courses will earn elective credit (vs. English credit) a decision speech teachers fear places these courses in precarious territory.
            Tara Harris, Language Arts Assistant Department Chair and Speech and Debate Coach at Hinkley High School in Aurora, shares her worries about moving speech into elective vs. English department territory: “If speech courses become elective courses, my fear is that it will be cast to the side in times where TE is in question.  One of the greatest rewards that many students earn is the knowledge that they do have a talent and can overcome their fears.  They have also learned that public speaking makes their writing better, especially in the areas of organization, ideas, and voice.”  She went on to say that currently her speech students enroll in the course for many reasons: including credit retrieval in English, to improve public speaking skills, to better prepare for the demands of college or the workforce, to overcome fears, prepare for speech competitions, and to gain additional practice in what for many Aurora students, is not their first or native language. 
            Most of us have only begun to dabble in the communication methods available to us as 21st Century citizens.  But regardless of the tools available to teachers and students, communication matters.  Our students deserve to have their voice heard, and they deserve to have access to courses and extracurricular activities that teach them how to use their voice in powerful, persuasive and provocative ways.  


  1. Powerful piece. Although technology provides us with more ways to communicate, we are not connecting as authentically. We can hide behind the technology. In a way it can allow us a safety net to be more honest. But we don't see the eyes of the person or people with whom we are sharing ourselves. You are so right that it is face-to-face where we become real, human, and learn the most. Thank you for this work. I hope it spreads! ;0)

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