More Presentations

I haven’t been blogging, but I have ideas to share and need to brush up on a few posts, as I got busy with work and setting up the Scholastic Book Festival the past few weeks.

Currently, counting down the day to the start of our Goose Hunting Break!  Up north, we do not have a March Break. Our spring break is delayed until the end of April, when the community shuts down, packs up their bag and heads for their bush camp for two weeks of hunting. Most of the non-native teachers or outsiders head “back south” to visit family and friends. This year, I’m doing something different and going to DisneyWorld for 6 days … YAHOO!!! I haven’t been since I was a tween!

Anyway, in our science course, we are currently in the middle of our ‘Earth and Space’ unit, exploring the origins of fossil fuels, the pros and cons of wind turbines and learning about other forms of energy resources.

This afternoon, my Grade 11s did a presentation comparing two types of energy resources, which they’d been working on for the last two weeks. Many of my students are fairly shy, but I didn’t have to drag any of them to the Smartboard (there were a few that put up a fight the first time we had presentations!). They were much more comfortable starting off, knowing what to expect. Also, my strategy with shyer students is for me to sit at the back of the room, zip my lips and just let them take the reins. The small group of students who were present today all did some excellent work!

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If you recall, my students are English Language Learners. Cree is their first language and many of them struggle with technical science words. Kids “down south” might be exposed to the ideas of climate change or photosynthesis even through popular media, but I often have to break the ideas down to make sure every single student is on the same page. Especially in a classroom made entirely of ELLs, it is integral to go back to basic definitions. Recently, we’d been using Quizlet a lot and it’s working beautifully (a more detailed post to come).

Also, I’d written back in November that giving time for ELLs to research, read and create an oral presentation improves their literacy skills in a myriad of ways. And over the past several months, I’ve definitely seen some of my weaker students transform and show better engagement and improved confidence in answering questions and reading aloud! These are students that, at the beginning of the year, would sometimes stare at me in utter silence!

It’s really great when you’ve realized how far they’ve come. We will be finishing our presentations tomorrow and Monday. I’m looking forward to it … as well as the weekend!

The Power of Speech: How Oral Presentations Impact ELLs

As a teacher, I am always trying to figure out to improve my own skills and my classroom. One of my initiatives this year is to focus on developing better metacognition within my students and developing their speaking skills.

First of all, they’re pretty shy. I can’t speak for native students everywhere in Canada, but my students are known to be pretty taciturn. And although they know me quite well and trust me, most of them are still hesitant to solicit an answer or voice their opinion in a large crowd, even if they are amongst their peers that they’ve grown up with for most of their life.

One of the methods I’ve used to encourage more verbal participation is to make a game of it. Each term, students are awarded “Oopsies points” if they see that I’ve made a mistake. At the end of the term, the two people with the highest number of points are given a prize*. Specifically, spelling mistakes are low-level mistakes and only get a single point. Conceptual errors, whether on a test, assignment or chalkboard, are worth three points.

A game setting encourages participation in a light-hearted way and gives some friendly competition. It keeps me on my toes and it also encourages students to challenge authority. I do not want them to think I have all the power in the room. They need to be encouraged to think on their own and to question elders, very much the opposite of Cree cultural norms, but by no means am I encouraging disrespect. I myself grew up in with Confucian values as a Chinese person, but I think it’s important to help young people speak up when they see something is wrong. Without this capacity, horrible things can happen – sexism, racism, violence, exploitation, abuse – the list goes on. Therefore, this skill is important not only in the classroom, but outside the school and in their community.

The second initiative I’ve set out is to have students do one oral presentation each term. For science, both the Grade 10s and 11s were given the last month to research one element of their choice and to make a short Powerpoint presentation. Most students had 3-4 50 minute periods to work on it. Each presentation averaged four or five slides; the most important information that was:

  • basic information about each element – mass, colour, boiling point, melting point, atomic structure
  • interesting facts about the element
  • where the element is found and how it is important to people
  • references and websites used for research

Overall, most of the students did pretty well! There were lots of interesting facts that I learned myself and didn’t even know about. And in fact, several students put up some great puns and ChemCat memes. This was probably one of my favourite ones, and I had never seen it before!

What I really didn’t expect was to see that presentations affected their overall understanding on a much deeper level. While this might seem obvious, remember that my students are ELLs (English Language Learners); Cree is their first language and a large portion of my students struggle with literacy. I’ve been working in the north for 3 years and I have never seen such a strong impact in such a short amount of time!

The unit test scores were the highest they had ever been**, students were using the vocabulary regularly and there was a lot less misunderstanding about scientific terms. I even heard more students helping each other and defining terms. Therefore, ELL students spending time to research an idea deeply and working to develop an oral presentation helps their literacy skills in multiple ways. This makes sense when you look at Bloom’s Taxonomy.***

In the past, I had students repeatedly ask me what ‘atomic mass’ and ‘valence’ mean, despite having explained it many times quite thoroughly. When students worked on their presentation, during their research and reading through websites, they would come across these terms pretty regularly. They would quickly realize that they would need to figure out these terms in order to understand what they were reading. They would also be analyzing the information to see if it was pertinent and evaluate whether they would include it or not (i.e. using higher levels of thinking). The process of creating criteria forced them to think more deeply about their topic and helped them understand concepts that translated to better test scores and improved performance on assignments. 

It is great to see how my students are doing so well. Working in the north is challenging and it’s easy to fall into the pitfall of making excuses. I know in the back of my mind I had doubts of whether they’d be capable or not. I sheepishly admit I was afraid of being disappointed. I imagined the worse scenario; that the computer lab periods would become a big waste of time. What actually happened is that most of them stayed focus and worked far harder than if I had just given a simpler assignment!

It is amazing what is possible when you trust your students and give them the opportunity to set the bar high!

*The term 1 prizes is a medium-sized poutine and drink at the local diner.

**The highest score was 61 out of 63 on the unit test. A large portion of them had done extremely well. However, there is the condition that my Grade 11s are repeating the science course, so this is not to be compared with a new cohort of students.

***I know there are revised copies, but for the sake of simplicity, I will only refer to the most commonly used version of Bloom’s Taxonomy.