PowerPointing Better

Just last week, I wrote a post about improving my classroom communication by limiting my public speaking.

I was put to the test sooner than I expected.

As my substitute teaching gig continued, one of the provided lesson plans called for presenting two already-made PowerPoints on two different topics in one hour of one class session (the other hour was spent on an in-class quiz).

The thing is, subs really need to stick to the syllabus and provided lesson plan. My job was as much to provide stability as it was to reach the students. This was really not the moment to radically change the content delivery or otherwise deviate far from normal.

But putting everyone to sleep while I droned on wasn’t going to be particularly helpful, either.

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So here’s what I did:

  1. Set expectations.
    I always put an agenda on the board and cross out what we’ve finished. When we got to this last chunk of the class, I explained that we would do a PowerPoint and then practice it… then another PowerPoint with a practice activity. So we had a lot to do in the last hour of class, and we all knew it.
  2. Kept it short.
    Neither was one of those egregiously long PowerPoints, thank goodness. I did make an effort to keep it snappy without rushing.
  3. Kept it interactive.
    I used Think/Pair/Shares and asked for lots of responses during the presentations. The first one was clearly designed with an interactive class experience in mind, so this was easy for me. The second one was more of an information-dump and it was more of a challenge to keep it from being a soliloquy.
  4. Used the whiteboard.
    I wrote down my oral instructions (i.e. “think of two more examples with your partner”). This saved a lot of time and kept people focused. I also used the board to highlight or explain key points from the slides, e.g. the most important signal word, examples of prefixes, etc.
  5. Built in change.
    The plan was that after each PowerPoint, I’d immediately have students move their seats to practice the material in the context of the textbook article they’d read for homework. This was not going to be a solid hour of PowerPoint!
  6. Went meta.
    My assistant teacher knows this course extremely well, and told me that the students’ final project involves making a PowerPoint. She suggested that I point out good and bad attributes of the PowerPoints I was using today. I pointed out some, particularly on slides that were too wordy.
  7. Split into smaller groups.
    Though I presented to the whole class due to prep, space, and tech restraints, I split them up as soon as I could. I numbered them off (1, 2, 1, 2) so that the assistant teacher and I could explain the practice activity to the smaller groups instead of to the whole class. Those small groups then split into pairs and triads to carry out the activity.

I don’t want to come across like I think I taught the perfect lesson. I felt like I was spinning too many plates to be fully present with the class. Despite my PowerPoint vigilance, I did lapse into teacher talk at least once. I also gave my assistant teacher some vague directions and blanked on a couple ways I could have helped several students with general academic issues. Nothing disastrous, but enough that I couldn’t let this post be only about how focused and awesome I am.

That said, I did manage to focus on making the most of the PowerPoints, and I think it made a difference. In the all-class presentations, the students were engaged and answering questions, not passively reading slides. And the practice time made use of small and tiny group interactions to make the content more meaningful and help people stay alert at the end of a night class. I’m really glad it was in the forefront of my mind.

Photo CreditMelissa on Flickr

You’re reading PowerPointing Better, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Activity Corner: Scaffolding Peer Review

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)

17166723465_aec07bcf7fPeer review can be very useful for the students as well as the teacher.

In my ideal peer review session, students swap papers, then give each other encouragement and gently point out each others’ more obvious errors. Based on that, they edit their own papers, and then hand them in to me.

Two challenges that I’ve faced with peer review are getting students’ buy-in and ensuring that the students who struggle are not way off the mark with their advice.

This activity is a suggestion for how to get a class started with peer review.

It’s also another nice way to use student-generated content during class (like snowballs, one-question interviews, and the grid activity).

In a nutshell, I suggest that you simply use the students’ essays as you’d use any other example writing from the textbook. Give them the reading and several (not too many!) targeted questions to answer as their review. Reviews and essays are handed in at the same time. When you grade Student A’s assignment, read and respond to the reviews on Student A’s assignment, too. Agree or disagree with them and explain why.

In this way, you assess and scaffold the students’ ability to review each other’s work. You can learn a lot about where a student is at by seeing their comments on another students’ work. And your feedback helps them improve.

Process:

  1. Think about what you want students to gain from reviewing each other’s work. Pick the two or three main points.
  2. Frame questions that help the reviewers focus on these points. Depending on the level, these might be yes/no questions, ask for an appropriate example from the essay, or ask for an explanation.
  3. Create a simple worksheet with these questions on it. At the top, be sure to have lines for the date, the writer’s name, the essay’s title, and the reviewer’s name. Leave room at the bottom for your feedback to the reviewer about their review. Only one review per piece of paper, for sorting’s sake. Make sure you have enough copies of the worksheet for students to review multiple assignments, as time will allow.
  4. Introduce peer review in class the day the writing is due. Ideally, peer review is good practice for the reviewer and good information for the writer. Today, you’re going to begin by just having everyone practice reviewing.
  5. Students should pass their completed essays two people to the left. They should read the essay that’s passed to them and then fill out the entire review worksheet. I recommend a time limit. As time allows, they can pass the essays left again (and again…) and review the next one that comes their way.
  6. Essays and reviews get handed in at the same time. If you have a class with more than about five people, I recommend that you sort the papers as they hand them in. Make a pile of Student A’s essay and all the reviews about that essay, a separate pile of Student B’s essay with all the reviews on his essay, and so on.

Example:

Let’s say I’m teaching an advanced academic writing ESL class and we are currently focusing on thesis statements. This topic had a rocky start but students appear to be much more comfortable with it now.

For homework, I assigned them each to write three direct thesis statements about any topics they wished.

For peer review, I decided that I wanted to be sure that the students understood the anatomy of a thesis statement, and I wanted them to practice evaluating the points.

I placed the following on a simple worksheet:

Peer Review

Date: ______
Your name: _______
Whose homework are you reviewing? _____

Thesis Statement 1:
A. What are the three points that will be raised in this essay?
1.
2.
3.
B. Do you think that these points are all relevant to the topic?
C. Do you think that these points are different enough from each other?

[on actual worksheet, repeat A, B, and C for Thesis Statements 2 and 3]

I made enough copies that students could review three assignments. I figured that we would only have time for two each, though.

I explained that today we would be introducing peer review. What is a peer? What is review? Peer review means that you evaluate each other’s work. I asked, why would I have you look at each other’s work? Together, we made the points that they can learn from each other’s correct answers and from each other’s mistakes. Also, the process of evaluating is really useful.

I explained that we will be doing more peer reviews in the future, not only today.

I explained the process of passing the homework to the left. Then I handed out the peer review sheets and asked them to spend only about three minutes on each thesis statement. (I considered doing an example with them up on the document camera, but decided that at this level, we could skip this.)

After about eight minutes, I asked them to finish the one they were on so we could all pass the homework assignments to the left again. They did go a little slowly, so we only had time for two reviews each.

When it was time to hand in the papers, I asked them to hand me Sara’s homework first. Then I asked for the two reviews of Sara’s work and put them under it. Then I asked for the next person’s with the two reviews of their work, etc. It took an extra two minutes of class time but saved me a lot of awkward paper shuffling later!

I graded the homework and the reviews of it at the same time. I made sure to do this before I planned my next lesson so that their performance on this task could inform instruction.

Variations and Other Content Possibilities:

  • Instead of having students pass around their original work, collect it all and hand out a packet of all the work to each student. It’s like a student-generated mini-textbook that you can use for many assignments (i.e. jigsaw reading).
  • For lower level ESL, they can review one sentence and check off basics like 1. starts with a capital letter, 2. ends with a period, and 3. I can read their writing.
  • When students are giving presentations, have the students who are listening answer two or three questions about the presenter’s performance. Again, focus on skills you hope to reinforce. Did the presenter speak loudly enough? Were their slides easy to read?
  • Students can quickly check each other’s assignments for factors like completion, handwriting, etc. This is scanning practice for the reviewers and reinforces these elements of the assignments for everyone!
  • This would be great verb tense practice too. In a Present Continuous unit, reviewers can write down the helping verb that was used and the main verb that was used. They can also check off whether each of these elements was correct.

You’re reading Activity Corner: Scaffolding Peer Review, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Volunteer Management Conference

After being kind of disappointed by MinneTESOL, I wasn’t hugely excited about the next conference on my list, the Volunteer Management Conference.

Concrete Bricks by Alesa Dam on Flickr
Concrete Bricks by Alesa Dam on Flickr

It seemed unlikely to be valuable because I was feeling pessimistic about conferences in general, and also because volunteer management is kind of a “fluffy” profession, not backed up by much research or data or formal history.

I’m thrilled to report that I was pleasantly surprised.  The sessions I went to did not perpetuate the fluff, but sought to give us concrete ideas and skills for taking our work to the next level.

I gained background in creating a volunteer-led ESL curriculum, setting up focus groups (of students and volunteers), addressing the 80/20 rule of life (that 80% of your effort will go to 20% of your tasks and problems), and creating well-designed flyers and brochures.

I think I actually found the last one to be the most useful.  Making flyers is one of those random parts of my job that I’m expected to just do, and I have never had the slightest bit of training on how to do a good job.  The presenter walked us through the four pieces of the puzzle that we need to consider, and three days later I still remember them: proximity, alignment, repetition, and contrast.

Here’s what I think she did right:

  1. limited her scope,
  2. stayed focused on it, and
  3. provided different levels of meaningful practice.

That presentation had no hand-outs.  This was disconcerting at first, but it turned out to be a strength.  Her goal wasn’t to give resources, but to convey four interrelated elements of design.  She didn’t try to make us into designers that afternoon.  The unified design she was teaching us was reflected in her presentation: she taught what she said she was going to teach, and she did it in a way that assured our attention was never split.  She also followed the basic format of a good ESL lesson: I do it, we do it, you do it.  By this I mean she gave us opportunities to practice what we were learning, and that over the course of the session she went from actively guiding our practice to letting us work through examples independently.

I think what made this conference stand out is that all the sessions I went to were taught in this way.  I hope other conferences catch on soon.

MinneTESOL

MinneTESOL was last Friday and Saturday.  Overall I’m glad I went, but I wasn’t quite blown away.

To my mind, the conference’s highlight was when Kao Kalia Yang, author of The Latehomecomer spoke on Friday evening.  It was poetic and moving and beautiful.

The rest of the conference was a let-down except when I went to presentations by Hamline University faculty.  And no, Hamline did not pay me to say that.  The fact is that their presentations were exactly what they sounded like, were well-thought out and easily within their expertise, included hands-on practice of what we were learning, engaged and engaging presentation style, and successfully distributed useful materials that I’ll be able to use and/or alter at the learning center.

There was actually one other worthwhile presentation about a research project in neurolinguistics.  It was just a talk with a PowerPoint but the speaker’s energy and focus on actually communicating with the audience made it work wonderfully.  My colleague also pointed out that the scope was perfect for a short presentation.

The other presentations committed the following (what I consider to be) sins:

  • the keynote was plain lecture with a busy, dense PowerPoint for an hour straight.  Also, they didn’t know that PowerPoint has several pointer features and that they didn’t have to point to parts of their graphs with their shadows.
  • one woman actually just read her paper to us without pause while her busy PowerPoint went on behind her.  I’m sorry, but I didn’t get up at 6:45AM on a Saturday for your airport voice.  Thank goodness she only wasted 20 minutes of my life.
  • the following 20-minute session was at least an attempt to communicate with the audience, but he had not only made too few hand-outs but misplaced some of them and didn’t freely pass his card around for us to contact him later.
  • the special interest brainstorm session on Adult Education had potential, but I ended up in a small group that was taken over by a group of three women griping about terrible cooperation between ESL/ABE and the MN State Colleges and Universities.  I wish we could have moved past that phase of the discussion.
  • I went to another 20-minute presentation in which the speaker concluded that adopting technology in the classroom was easier than people think and they just need more time.  Clearly he hadn’t seen the keynote in which they thought they knew PowerPoint.

I feel the conference as a whole could have done a better job with:

  • making sure there were on-site photocopying resources
  • facilitating electronic communication of presentation hand-outs in lieu of paper hand-outs (i.e. a Conference Resources page on their website, or an email directory of the presenters)
  • laying down some standards of presentation style

Several people I talked to agreed with me but remarked that these are perennial issues with conferences.  Which begs the question… why?  These are very fixable problems!

Conference Thoughts

Rewired State Presentations by Ben Dodson on Flickr
Rewired State Presentations by Ben Dodson on Flickr

(At the end of this post I ask a specific question about my tone.  Please tell me how I come across!)

I recently attended a small conference (maybe 80 or so participants) for half a day.  There was some good information and valuable context, very little of which I absorbed.  In short, here’s why:

  • I was not on board with the theme.
  • I could not see the speakers or Power Points properly.
  • The answers we needed were not there during our small group discussions.

A bit more on these points:

Not On Board

The conference was about distance learning, mostly about how we’ll be doing a lot more of it.

Well, ok.  Yes, there are many benefits, and yes, there is potential for us to reach more students.

But what about the fact that most teachers teach because they love the in-person interaction?  What about the fact that many of our students attend class as much for the social connections as the content?  What about the interesting combination of emphasizing things like additional trainings and “designating a distance learning staff member” while talking about looming budget problems?

These were issues on the minds of everyone I talked to, and the conference did not address them.  They were talking, and the participants were thinking, and they were not necessarily about the same things. I think they really missed an opportunity here by not meeting the skeptics where they were at.

I Couldn’t See

saving lives in church basements by smussyolay on Flickr
saving lives in church basements by smussyolay on Flickr

Ok, full disclosure: I arrived five minutes after the program started.  Sitting in the back was my fault.

That being said, lots of people had to sit in the back – there wasn’t room for everyone in the front.  All of us sitting in the back trying to see the Power Points and speakers had to contend not only with the people sitting in front of us, but with floor-to-ceiling support poles.  Not the greatest space.  In the future, no poles.

And now let’s talk about the PowerPoints.  They had a ton of tiny text, often in colors that didn’t have much contrast.  The presenters appeared (from what I could tell) to use them as notes.  Where does the nonprofit obsession with Best Practices go when it’s time to bust out a PowerPoint? Seriously, we can do better.  Seth Godin has some great pointers.

The Answers Weren’t There

Thankfully, the organizers did not plan an all-PowerPoint program.  For the second half they broke us into small groups with facilitators and well-thought-out questions to discuss.

The discussions were very “Collective Intelligence,” intended to have us share our knowledge.  We discussed some common fears too:  What if my job changes in a direction I find utterly mind-numbing (i.e. computer/internet troubleshooting)?  How is administration going to support the additional trainings I’ll need?  What assurances do I have that my other work will be reduced when I start taking on this new distance learning work?

My group actually did a great job of not focusing on the negatives or the potential negatives.  Still, it would have really helped us to be listened to and have some of those fears assuaged (or at least noted).

We took notes, and the organizers collected them at the end to type up and email out to our groups.  I really liked that.  They never said whether they plan to read them for content and respond to them though.  I very much hope that our notes are taken as an opportunity to listen and reply – the higher-ups and our students both need us folks in the middle to be on board.

So… on the spectrum of whiny vitriol (0) through groundbreaking problem-solving (10), where does this post land?

Sharing The Power

My thoughts on today’s conference are actually pretty brief:

The best presentations align their content, structure, and facilitation.  In other words, they demonstrate what they teach.

A corollary:

Saying “Don’t say things over and over again in the same way!” over and over again in the same way is a little ridiculous.

That is all.

“The Art of Teaching Adults” – Chapters 25-27

The last three chapters of the book!

Overhead Projector by Tango McEffrie on Flickr
Overhead Projector by Tango McEffrie on Flickr

Notes

Projecting Overhead: What Renner says about using overheads is largely transferable to quality digital slides.  In six points he manages to say that simple is best and to focus on readability.  He then lists a bunch of Dos and Don’ts, which emphasize the value of controlling the learners’ attention by only revealing a bit of information at once, not leaving old slides on the screen, leaving lights on to allow for note-taking, and minimizing distractions such as waving your arms.  He also emphasizes the importance of setting up the room so that everyone can see and spends a page listing diagrams.

He includes a “classic concept” at the end of this chapter that to me seems entirely incongruous but important: Knowles’s assumptions of adult learners:

  • adults are motivated by what they feel they need to know;
  • adults are more life-centered than subject-centered;
  • adults have many experiences, and these should be analyzed in their education;
  • adults want to engage in self-directed learning.

Seems a little ironic after a chapter of “how to transmit knowledge to learners via a one-way presentation.”  Or maybe the juxtaposition was intentional?

Flipping Charts: Renner encourages posting flip-charts as records of what was discussed, but only inasmuch as they help the class focus.  He spends four paragraphs talking about different qualities of paper and how to tear it, even describing and recommending the “matador tear.”  This struck me as a little odd, or a little desperate to fill space.  He recommends multiple easels or a blank wall, and specifically mentions that it’s nice to have a separate place for brainstorms and side-lists that aren’t the main focus.

Tools by Adactio on Flickr
Tools by Adactio on Flickr

He suggests bringing a screwdriver and pliers with you to presentations to remove pictures and nails from walls so you can hang flipchart paper.  I cannot even imagine feeling comfortable un-decorating a meeting space that’s not my own.

He diagrams how to set up a row of flip-chart paper along the wall with already-torn tape in a neat line above it for writing and posting ease.  He also diagrams how to tape the caps of four markers together, resulting in a “handy four-color dispenser,” which I thought was kinda clever.  Then he crosses the line into micromanaging by telling you when to cap and put down your pens, and goes so far as to recommend throwing out dry markers immediately.  I mean, sheesh.

His suggestion to use colors in such a way that learners can see them and to help organize text is also a bit obvious.  He encourages abbreviation and posting an abbreviation key, which I agree with but there’s no mention of potential difficulties for English Language Learners.  Encouraging presenters to remember to face the learners and to observe the sheets from a learner’s point of view were helpful pointers.

All in all, perhaps needlessly detailed.

Showing Films: Renner warns that old videos are more humorous than helpful, that they’re passive unidirectional tools, and that they have to have a purpose that relates to the topic.  He spends a page and a half emphasizing planning ahead and previewing material.  Then he reminds us to prepare the learners – give the film some context and tell the learners where you’ll be going with it, and then go somewhere with it both short-term and long-term.

He lists eight ways to go somewhere with films, including Q&A sessions, pitting the film against an article with a different viewpoint and comparing them, and creating “viewing teams” that address questions, clarity, disagreements, agreements, and application.  I can actually use those ideas.  Way to end strong, Renner!

My Overall Impressions

In writing notes on that second chapter, I kind of couldn’t believe he was still going.  I’m still astounded that he spent the same amount of space discussing paper and markers how-to than he did when discussing how to properly prepare for, screen, and follow up with an educational film.

I was also surprised that there was no wrap-up to the book.  It’s not one that’s necessarily intended to be read cover to cover, and each chapter was separate, but in a work that emphasizes discussion and debriefing, it was an abrupt ending.

More about the book overall in the next post.