Wednesday, 8 July 2009
A unit of French and presentation skills
Presentation skills are a largely neglected area in Finnish education. Even people in quite high positions sometimes give appallingly poor presentations. This is why, I am trying to incorporate presentation units in my language classes. The chance to present at some international conferences has urged me to keep learning better and better practices myself, which I then model and share with the students. I also regularly organize student exchanges abroad, during which students are always asked to present something in the host school. What better way for further, authentic practice outside the classroom!
I teach both English and French. All of our high school students study compulsory English, but French is an optional language, whose popularity has been steadily decreasing in the last decade. It's a real pity, since, in my opinion, knowing more than one foreign language significantly widens anyone's horizons. On the other hand, I must admit, the decreasing popularity of French works in my favour at times, too. If there are enough students for the administration to give the green light to starting the group, I usually get a nice, small and highly motivated group to teach for three years. Last year I started to teach a group of only 8 girls! With such a small group, I get to know each student's strengths and weaknesses much better, and consequently am able to give them more individual attention, scaffolding and help. What's more, the atmosphere is such a class is very informal and relaxed.
In one course we were studying the French-speaking world and after introducing the concept of 'la francophonie', I wanted the students to work in pairs, choose one country and prepare a presentation on it to practice their language and presentation skills and also to share what they had learned with their classmates. I had done this before, but been rather disappointed at the outcome each time - despite a lot of guidance and coaching. Students typically consulted Wikipedia or relied on the first hit in Google, copying lots of boring and rather uninteresting statistical information, such as land area, population, capital city, its population and so on. Lots and lots of numbers and figures, which, you may know, can be rather a nightmare to pronounce fluently in French, if you are not a native speaker - and even harder for the non-native audience to comprehend! This time, I wanted to try something different that would make the project more useful and enjoyable for everybody.
I came up with the idea that, instead of a factual lecture about a country, each pair should imagine that they had made a trip to the country in question and, on return, they should show their friends their photos and tell about their experiences. We spent one whole double lesson putting a rubric, guidelines and evaluation matrix together. It was very rewarding, and the students thought long and hard what things should be evaluated and how. We decided that each student would evaluate the other pairs' presentations, but I as the teacher would have the right to decide on the final grades. I emphasized two things: the content should be aimed at the audience of their classmates, in other words should appeal to young people (ie. no lists of boring numbers!). This meant that after researching their country info, they should then apply it cleverly to tell an interesting account of their journey, while at the same time teaching the others about the country and culture. Secondly, whatever resources they used they should rewrite their script using the level of French that they knew - and their friends would understand (ie. no copy-paste of incomprehensible, long words that they wouldn't even be able to pronounce properly!).
For the presentation, each pair prepared PowerPoint slides to clarify their spoken speech and bring it more to life. We looked at Presentation Zen, for example, and I showed them some of my conference presentations as a model of avoiding text and bullet points, and concentrating on engaging pictures instead to support their story and facilitate their classmates' comprehension. Naturally, we also studied copyright and Creative Commons to help them find photos that they could safely use - even though we didn't even publish their work online. In the end, most of them ended up using the advanced CC search on Flickr, which was something quite new to most of them, to my surprise. For citation reference I used my own blog, where I often use CC photos from Flickr. I was even more amazed that some students (at 16) had never used PowerPoint before! But with peer support, they got the hang of it in no time at all. This to me, is an indication that there does exist a huge generational gap here, where most youngsters are much more open, fearless and prepared to adopt new technology and jump in to make use of it.
The students started preparing their work while I was away at a conference, and as usual, there was no money to pay for a substitute, so students had to work independently on their own without a teacher. Luckily I managed to book our small computer room for them for these lessons, so they could use the time efficiently, and contact me through email or text message in case of unsurmountable problems. I have a wiki for my French group where I post course plans, homework, sometimes extra assignments, and useful links. This time, I gave each pair some online links to get them started with their country researches. (Sorry about the Finnish on the wiki, but my French students are not yet advanced enough for me to use only French.)
Although nothing new as such, I was very pleased with this unit, and students, too, gave positive feedback. Each pair managed to prepare an engaging presentation with colourful slides. They talked about the journey there and back (how they travelled and how they felt about it), they mentioned some interesting sights, or some imaginary people they had met, talked about food, played some music from the country, described what souvenirs they brought back, what they liked and disliked, unexpected incidents and surprising cultural phenomena. All of this, could be nicely presented with the vocabulary and language level that they had reached. Apart from language, lots of different skills were practised, students were very self-directed in their work, and as the icing on the cake, it was fun, too!
In the evaluation matrix we had the following categories:
1) French language - eg. comprehensibility, pronunciation, fluency 30 %
2) Presentation skills - eg. contact with the audience, not just reading! 30 %
3) Contents - eg. telling an interesting, original and well-structured story 20 %
4) Technical realization - eg. effective use of PowerPoint 20 %
Thanks to this, and the fact that I compiled the matrix together with the students, they really knew what was expected of them, and they took ownership of the whole process - from laying the groundwork to planning, preparing and finally presenting with confidence and pride.