Cancel your participation plan and create speaking events instead

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Here’s an embarrassing story that taught me a lesson:

Setting: my old classroom in northern NJ, sometime in the 2010s, 9:43 AM

As I rounded the back left corner of desks, a student elbowed another.  Feeling the nudge, she covered her notebook. On the page I caught a glimpse of the words “Mr. Dawson” and some tally marks. They traded nervous smiles.

Then it hit me. They were counting something about me. And if they were keeping a log in a notebook, it must be something I did A LOT.

“So, I’m pretty sure I know what that is.  If it’s something I say or I do over and over, I’d really like to know. I’d really like to try to work on it.”

They hesitated, but one girl let it out: “It’s every time you say ‘you know what I mean?'”

Just to emphasize, there were A LOT of tally marks.

My face felt flush, and I was self-conscious for the rest of class. But in retrospect, that was a great day. From then on, I knew the impact that my speaking ability has on my students. Because if they are counting my verbal tics in their notebook, they aren’t learning.

Since then, teaching students to speak with confidence has become important to me. In fact, I’ve probably spent a disproportionate amount of time on it. This spring, I received this email from a student, which showed me that it may be time well spent:


An email from a student who noticed an improvement in her speaking skills.


I’d like to highlight one phrase. Can you spot it?

This student did not thank me for “a magic trick for better speaking.” No, she thanked me for doing “so many class discussions.”  Like many parts of life, getting better at speaking requires putting in the practice.

This article is about a big shift to the way we have students practice speaking. Don’t panic, though. There are two simple steps at the bottom of the article. If you like the big ideas that follow, you can get started using those first steps. 

How does speaking in class usually happen? I think back to my time as a student and it varies.

Class participation vs. speaking events

Three types of speaking I experienced in college:

  • A class where students had to speak 2-3 times daily for an “A.” The teacher asked a question then called on every student with a hand up. Students did not have to interact with each other. They just had to speak.
  • A sociology class where a student accused another of doing charity work only to feel good about himself. The accused student responded to everyone’s surprise, “Yea, you might be right.”  This was after a long exchange between the students as the rest of the class listened.
  • The presentation of my final teaching portfolio to Mr. Mahoney and another gentleman. I gave a presentation on my student teaching experience, then fielded questions.

What can I learn from these three memories?

In the first example, speaking was a chore, a rule. It was a box to check.

In the second, the teacher created conditions where students could interact like that. They gave each other honest criticism. And they were willing to accept it. I don’t know remember those classmates’ names, but I remember the learning from that class.

In the third example, I had to battle my nerves to speak well. I had to plan, prepare, and practice. There were real audience members. I wanted to impress my teachers.

The first example is class participation taken to the extreme. The second two examples are speaking events.

To get clear on terms, consider the connotations of requirement vs. event:

A requirement is something we have to do. It’s bureaucratic. It’s boring. It’s a motion. It’s done. Next.

An event is something that we look forward to. We plan for it. We prepare for it. If we are in the audience, it excites us. If we are on stage, it excites and scares us. Afterwards, we’re satisfied. We talk about it. We review it. And we look forward to the next time it happens.

Some examples of speaking requirements turned into speaking events:

Forget typical debates or discussions. Use pop-up debates instead.

What is it: It’s a discussion protocol I learned about from Dave Stuart. It asks students to discuss a debatable question or topic. The catch? Students must “pop up” from their seats and stand before speaking to their classmates.

Why it works: The typical class discussion becomes a public speaking opportunity. When students pop-up, they take an active role in showing others that they have a point to make. They need to take the initiative to speak.  I recommend Dave’s Pop-Up Debate Starter Kit (I did not get paid to say that). I used the slides he includes in the Kit dozens of times last year.

How to start: Ask students to stand up before speaking instead of raising their hands. Some students will find this awkward. That’s ok. The shift that this makes on the mood of the discussion will surprise you.

Forget boring PowerPoints. Use Ignite talks instead.

What is it: This is a five-minute presentation with 20 auto-advance slides.  Slides feature images or phrases, not bullet points with a sea of text. Generally, speakers do not use notes or any other aids.

Why it works: The Ignite talk dramatically raises the stakes of presentations. This cannot be under-emphasized. There is no winging it. These presentations compel students to learn their material. They need to rehearse over and over again if they want to succeed.

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I gave one of these talks to my sophomores before they delivered theirs. It was one of the most challenging presentations I’ve given.

Disclaimer: the auto-advancing slides have ruined some student presentations. Students who underestimate the task stare at me for the last 45 seconds of the presentation. Emphasizing rehearsal is essential for this speaking event.

How to start: Ask students to give one-minute talks on a topic of their choice without using any notes or guides. Ask students to use images or phrases on their slideshows instead of bullet points.

Like with cold calling, students feel nervous before these speaking events. Raising the stakes puts positive pressure on students to deliver their best in class.  

We must provide clear guidance and instruction when assigning and planning these events. Then, we can trust that we’re helping students build speaking skills for life.

Have you used pop-up debates? Ignite talks? How do you turn speaking into an event? Share with fellow teachers in the comments.

Author: Gerard Dawson

Gerard Dawson is the author of Hacking Literacy: 5 Ways to Turn Any Classroom into a Culture of Readers. He teaches English and Journalism to students in grades 9-12 at Hightstown High School in New Jersey.

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