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Give student presentations an improv makeover!

By Kristin Harrington
June 18, 2018
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In my role as an ed tech coach, I get to see student creation projects and authentic learning taking place in our schools every day. While collaborating with teachers to facilitate these lessons, I’ve learned that the process is often more important than the product. This is where most of the learning occurs.

That’s why students are usually given an abundance of time to work on their brainstorming, research and project creation, with less time to focus on preparing for the presentation itself.

But after learning that professional keynote speakers practice for approximately 30 hours to prepare for a one-hour presentation, I began to question the scant amount of time students have to prepare presentations and the level of importance we were placing on the presentation delivery.

I also began thinking about the types of presentations students will need to create and deliver in their careers. Were we preparing students to be effective communicators in these future roles?

The ISTE Creative Communicator standard asks that students communicate clearly and express themselves creatively for a variety of purposes using the platforms, tools, styles, formats and digital media appropriate to their goals.

This goes beyond students reading bullet points from their PowerPoint or Google Slides presentations. Students need to be able to use a variety of tools to meet their purpose and audience, and present in a variety of formats as well. The process is still really important, of course, because students need to know their content well in order to express themselves clearly and feel confident speaking without index cards or bullet points.

Improvising presentations

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to attend an Edcamp Organizer Summit in Atlanta, and learn from Anthony Veneziale from the Improv group Speechless. At the end of the session, Anthony asked participants to summarize content by connecting topics to random photos he displayed.

To make it more challenging, participants had to act as if the collection of random photos was the slideshow they had prepared to present. A group of us brainstormed ways this could be used in the classroom, and we decided that this would be a great way to have students conduct and present research.

I recently explored this idea further, collaborating with Christine Brink, an AP Biology and AP Computer Science teacher at Matanzas High School in Palm Coast, Florida. Her students worked in groups to research various systems of the human body. The catch was that they were asked to present the content live with random photos displayed for about 60 seconds. Students had to apply their knowledge and make connections without the help of index cards or slides.

The morning of these presentations, there was a high level of excitement in the classroom and, unlike most presentation days, not one student was absent! The presentations kicked off with a picture of two elderly adults in a washing machine.

The audience laughed, which threw the group off for a few seconds. But in no time, the presenters were making connections to the excretory system. One student made the connection that, “You put your clothes in the washing machine to clean things off of them. This is how the excretory system acts, to remove wastes we don’t need from our bodies.”

This continued with students jumping in and elaborating on points that others made, correcting each others’ statements and filling in missing science vocabulary words when their group member wasn’t able to recall a term.

Some students embraced the improv more than others, but they all said they’d like to do it again. When interviewed about the project, Mackenzie, a ninth grader said:

“It strained us to think about the concept in different ways, process it more, and compare and apply it to different things. I feel better about how well I know the concept after having to learn and then explain it to others.”

This approach proved to be a great way to get the listeners more engaged in the content, too. Joshua described his experience as an audience member:

“It was more exciting to see students improvising, rather than reading a script. I definitely paid attention more to see where people slipped up.”

Fact-checkers at the ready

To ensure that misconceptions and errors in reasoning weren’t communicated during the presentations. Brink had students “fact check” the presentations. Each group presentation was recorded and placed in Schoology Learning Management System, where the student audience had the opportunity to watch the videos again, conduct research to determine the accuracy of each presentation and describe any errors they found.

At the end of the first class period, several students walked up to their teacher and mentioned how much they liked this presentation style, how it challenged them and that they hoped she would do this again. I overheard a couple of girls saying that they liked the stress, and felt empowered and accomplished after learning that they were able to talk freely about the concepts like that.

Brink reasoned that this type of presentation also helps prepare students for their AP exam, where they often need to make connections to topics they know little about, and quickly recall information that they may have learned at the beginning of the year or even in prior years.

This lesson can be adapted for many content areas and grade levels, providing much-needed communication and critical-thinking skills. It is still important to provide opportunities for students to create traditional presentations, however, improv presentations may be just what what you need to engage students and prepare them for what the future may bring.

Inspiring students to think outside the box, collaborate and learn that it’s OK to try new things and make mistakes are great life skills that these students will carry with them.

To view examples of this project, and learn more ways to develop Creative Communicators in your classroom, view my recorded ISTE Expert Webinar “Cultivating Creative Communicators: ISTE Standards in Action.”

Kristin Harrington is an ed tech coach for Flagler County School District in Palm Coast, Florida. She has a master’s degree in educational technology and instructional design from the University of Florida. Kristin is a PLN Leader for the ISTE Learning Spaces Network, as well as a contributor to the ISTE Standards Community and Ed Tech Coaches Network. She is also the co-founder of Edcamp St. Augustine and Edcamp Flagler. You can find her on Twitter, Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, where she co-moderates #FLedChat.

This is an updated version of a post published on Feb. 9, 2018.