Presenting material and PowerPoints

While the lecture has come under attack as of late for being too teacher centered, we, as teachers, still use it as a method.  I honestly believe that most teachers recognize that lecturing non-stop is not good teaching and attempt to create more student centered lessons as well.  The reality is though, teachers have information that students need, and presenting that information orally is an efficient way of disseminating that information.

I have trouble believing that there are many teachers who stand in front of the room and just talk at their students day after day after day, but I think all teachers do it from time to time.  That being said, we have to ask the question not only “When is it acceptable?” but we must also ask “How can I lecture and present material in the most meaningful way?”

Obviously, one of the most common means of presenting information is via a PowerPoint presentation.  What an awesome tool PowerPoint can be, but, boy, can they be used poorly.  Since I teach Public Speaking, I have done some research on presentation tools and given a great deal of thought to how to use them well.  As a teacher, I tend not to use PowerPoint a whole heck of a lot–not for any particular reason, per se; I just don’t use it a whole heck of a lot.

That being said, as we think about using PowerPoint, I have a few rules of thumb that I follow.   A PowerPoint should enhance a presentation–it should not be the presentation.  There is nothing I hate more than listening to a speaker read PowerPoint slides to me.  I also hate when students just mindlessly copy slides into their notebooks.  If the intention is that students have the material on the slides in their notes, why not simply print out the slides?  If you could simply hand out the presentation to kids and not actually speak, why not do that and save time?  There is something to the idea of presenting material in different formats for students, but the same exact material orally and visually at the same exact time?  That just doesn’t feel right to me.

Which brings me back to the whole idea of just reading the slides.  PowerPoints are visuals.  So let’s use it that way.  A PowerPoint full of pictures or images is far more meaningful and powerful.  Research is pretty clear–providing pictures helps many students learn.  PowerPoint is a great way to do that.

So just how many words should be on a slide?  A valid question indeed.  I constantly remind my Public Speaking students to not overfill slides.  My mantra is clear: “Slides are free” and “more slides”  Sometimes I feel like Oprah (and you get a slide, and you get a slide!)  But in all honesty it is true.  There is no reason to limit the number of slides.  Let’s say you put 36 words on a slide; that’s a number that I’ve seen bandied about on many blog posts.  Simply reading those 36 words is boring to students and a waste of their time, but it also overloads their brains.  The latest research suggests that reading aloud to students from the PowerPoint actually decreases comprehension because the brain is trying to do two things at once–listen and read.  So if you put up 36 words and wait for them to read it, you have to actually wait quite a long time.  The average reading speed is 180 words per minute, which means it would take about 12 seconds for the average person to read 36 words.  Are you really willing to wait that long?  12 seconds is a long time to wait and stare at a class during a presentation, especially if you have multiple slides like this.  Breaking up the slides (and including mostly pictures–not words–helps to alleviate this problem.

All in all, what I am suggesting here is that we use PowerPoints thoughtfully and judiciously.  Not every presentation needs a PowerPoint, nor does a PowerPoint necessarily enhance the presentation.  As teachers, we may need to lecture from time to time.  That doesn’t mean we need to use bad PowerPoints.


So I’ve been thinking about failure today.  As teachers we know that students can learn from failure.  But do they?  Just because a kid fails a quiz or test, doesn’t mean he will automatically learn.  We as teachers have to foster this.  We have to allow the retake/redo.  We have to present the student with an opportunity to learn from failure.  That’s question number one that I’ve been mulling: Even though we say that failure can be the best teacher and shouldn’t be demonized, do our practices support this notion?

My other thoughts relate to teachers failing.  Do we allow ourselves to fail in the classroom?  It is a terrible feeling when a lesson absolutely bombs, but we can certainly learn from that failure and become a better teacher the next day and then the day after that.  But do we allow ourselves to take the risk that something might fail miserably.  How can we tell our students to take risks and then learn from their failure, when we aren’t willing to do it in our own teaching?  Students often don’t want to fail because of the grade or what teachers/parents/peers think or might say.  Teachers don’t want to fail because of our evaluation or what students/parents/peers/administration might say.   Isn’t that a bit hypocritical.

I don’t have answers or even really many attempts at answers; instead I have questions that have been percolating in my mind these last couple of days, but I do know that I’d like to see teachers fail more because they’re trying new and exciting things and want to learn from them.  Let’s fail


Is it important that your students like you?

This is a common question in interviews for both teaching jobs as well as administrative jobs.  To be totally candid, I’ve only applied for one administrative job, but in my research of common questions, this one comes up often.  The answer you are supposed to give is something along the lines of “No, it’s important that my students respect me.”  This seems like the right answer as it suggests that you won’t be too lenient with your students, but I don’t agree with it.  I think it is important that your students like you.

I’m a huge believer in the idea that students need to build a relationship with their teachers in order to learn from them.  Teachers are most effective when students want to come and talk to them about the material.  Students learn best when they are willing to take risks and make mistakes; they are not going to do that for a teacher with whom they have no relationship.  Students learn best when they can take feedback and make changes as a result of it; they are not going to do that if they have no relationship with their teacher.  Perhaps Rita Pierson said in best in her incredibly inspirational Ted talk “Every kid needs a champion”: “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”  (If you’ve never watch this quick talk, it is well worth the 8 minutes)

I’m not suggesting that teachers have no rules or are incredibly lax in an attempt to become friends with their students; instead I am suggesting that we, as teachers, should work to ensure that our students like us just as we like them.  This way they will seek out our advice, and be more open to our criticisms.  They will be more willing to take risks and work more actively to please you thus increasing their own learning.

Last year, a committee of us interviewed a variety of students about their most positive classroom experiences at our school.  As they discussed various classes, the most recurring idea was not the subject matter at all, but the relationship that teacher formed with his/her students and the community that the teacher built in the classroom.

I’m not suggesting that the most well liked teachers are automatically the most effective, but I am suggesting that the most strongly disliked teachers are ineffective.  Is it important that my students like me?  Yes, because otherwise they’re not going to learn.

Grading efficiently

As an English teacher I have to grade literally hundreds of multiple page essays.  I have to score them with a rubric, provide feedback, input those grades into the computer, discuss those grades with parents and students all while trying to convince those same students and parents that their learning is far more important than their grades.  Of course, I have college recommendations to write, meetings to attend, various other forms to fill out and a family that I like to see from time to time, all while the pile of papers on the corner of my desk gets bigger and bigger.  I am certain that this is a contributing factor to burnout among new teachers.  To that end, I offer 9 tips to grade more efficiently:

  1. Grade less.  Seriously.  Not everything a student does needs to be graded.  Sometimes a quick glance, and quick feedback is more than enough.  This past week, I asked my students to answer some questions regarding the literary devices in The Declaration of Independence.  They did this in class in small groups as I walked around, read their answers and engaged in discussion with them.  What good would have come from me collecting and grading this assignment?
  2. Less red ink.  All too often when we read essays/lab reports/etc. we become copy editors, and it all gets lost on the student.  Focus on what really matters.  I’m a proponent of standards based grading, and I keep that mindset as I grade so that my commentary and feedback stays relevant to the standards at play.  It may kill us to not mark every comma, but it’s better for everyone if we let it go.
  3. Grade with a highlighter.  Don’t correct grammatical errors even when it’s a standard being focused on.  Whoever corrects the error does the learning.  I simply highlight the sentence with the error and it is up to the student to determine what the error is and fix it.  (Obviously I teach these grammar concepts first)
  4. Make meaningful rubrics.  All too often we use rubrics with absurdly vague descriptors that mean nothing: “Essay has a strong thesis statement.”  Well, what the heck is a strong thesis statement?  When you use a rubric like this, you have no choice but to write commentary.  A clear, meaningful rubric would save time from having to write that commentary.  We are leaning in education towards creating school wide or district wide or department wide rubrics that are so vague that can cover any assignment.  This is a mistake on so many levels.  It doesn’t make it easier to grade and give feedback, that’s for sure.
  5. Don’t comment–write “see me.”  Often times, the commentary is just too long or will elicit too many questions or is just too complex to write in the margins.  Having students come and talk to you about their assignment can clarify issues and tailor your feedback even more specifically.  Obviously, you’ll need to establish a relationship with students so that they don’t simply ignore “see me,” but that’s a post for a different day.
  6. Remember that you are not the only person who can give feedback to your students.  Teach peers to how to give meaningful feedback to one another and then let them go.  Peers grading one another is a tricky subject, so I just keep this for non-judgmental feedback.  This increases the audience for students’ work, and it builds a variety of skills such as working with a team.  I spend time early in the year training students on how to give non-judgmental feedback, and then expect it of them throughout the year.  Bad peer conferencing is a waste of time, but if done correctly, it can be a very powerful tool.
  7. Find the right place to grade.  Figure out your personal preferences.  I have a great deal of trouble grading at home.  I have two kids who distract me, and I start looking for other things to do.  “Oh boy, I haven’t cleaned out the garage in a long time–better get on that!”  I’m a morning person; I wake up early and get to school early just to grade.  Figure out what works for you and go with it.
  8. Set a timer.  Get some hard data on just how long it takes to grade one essay/lab report/project.  Then ask yourself: Is it really worth that much time?
  9. Sub for yourself.  I try not to do this often and it obviously depends on your class, but sometimes I give my students a work day or a reading day, just so I can get caught up.  I’m not going to be a good teacher, if I am overwhelmed, overtired, irritable, and all that is keeping me going is coffee.  They read; I grade and get caught up; everybody wins.

A few thoughts on Differentiation

Differentiated instruction was all the rage in my school a few years ago.  Every piece of professional development brought to us was in some way about differentiation; it is on our evaluation; it was a constant topic of discussion at staff meetings.  Over these last couple of years the conversations have died down and differentiation is being implemented in various stages throughout the school.  (There’s a whole post brewing here regarding keeping initiatives alive over time…)  I am a proponent of differentiation, and I was before we started going full tilt in that direction in my school, but I have frustrations with some persistent misconceptions regarding it.  In theory, we focus less on DI as a school now because we have a good grasp on it, yet there still seems to be one common and pernicious myth regarding DI.

Differentiation is NOT a set of strategies–it is a mindset.  I listen to other teachers talk about how they are “using DI today” or something like that.   In a truly differentiated classroom, the teacher is constantly adapting lessons to meet various students’ needs.  When teachers pull out a differentiated activity simply because they haven’t used one yet this unit or because it’s an activity that they used last year,  they aren’t truly respecting and understanding what differentiation is.  In a truly differentiated classroom, the teacher is constantly asking what purpose this lesson/activity serves and is it really the best means for students to learn that material.  Perhaps your students last year needed a differentiated lesson at this point in the unit; maybe this year they don’t.  If that is the case, then using that activity on that day is not the most appropriate means to teach this content.

Unfortunately, many teachers (based on my conversations, observations, and readings) are doing DI a disservice in this sense.  Sometimes it is merely because school leaders expect to see differentiation written into plan books or they want to see it when they come for an observation.  This is too bad.  When teachers view DI in this manner, they are not seeing the results that hope to see and naturally they get discouraged or view this as another thing put forth by administrators who don’t understand what happens in the classroom.  We need to continue to have conversations as educators about how to implement DI effectively so that teachers see that it is not just a series of different activities.