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Presentations: Are They Really Teaching our Students Public Speaking?

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Photo by Ellena Korisheli

by Mailani McKelvy

This time of year marks the start of English teachers requesting their students to recite poetry in front of the class for Poetry Out Loud. However, is requiring every student to present in front of the class really the best way for students to gain public speaking skills? In a series of informal polls, 83% of Morro Bay High School students that responded have participated in presentations in front of the class this year, but only 40% of respondents consider themselves a good public speaker. Both polls had about 75 respondents. This means that only about half of all respondents consider themselves good public speakers.

The fundamentals of public speaking are being comfortable to articulate an idea clearly in front of an audience. In my experience, many teachers allow a notecard or similar aid in the presentation, yet there is still a lack of appeal of presentations. This raises the issue of presentation anxiety, a common affliction of high school students. Presentations are usually done through a slide presentation or something that involves has specific guidelines to get the ‘A’. This sometimes leads students to resort to using overplanned notecards to get the perfect definitions and anxiety over memorizing the right things to say.

According to an article in The Atlantic (link here), more and more students (and some teachers) are arguing that accommodations must be made for students with anxiety, whether it be making presentations optional or having an alternative assignment. Many teachers are arguing that students must learn public speaking, therefore they must do presentations in front of the class. An article in Forbes (link here) cites that public speaking is more important than ever given that persuasion skills are now responsible for 25% of American public income, and forecasted to be on the rise in coming years. Economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey stated in the article that it would be a “terrible idea to reduce public speaking opportunities in class at a time when students need the skill to succeed.”

This establishes public speaking as a sort of ‘necessary evil’. So how can we change the stigma surrounding public speaking and settle the debate between students and teachers? Senior Alexandra Borges, who claimed that presentations should not be mandatory for all students explained, “I’ve known a lot of people who have trouble speaking in front of a large group, even if it’s, you know, a smaller group- they still have trouble,” and “If they’re a shy person presenting in front of the class can be a really hard thing to do.”

Though Borges believes that there should be some alternatives (such as presenting in smaller groups) to bigger presentations in front of the class, she thought that there should be more emphasis on presentations, saying, “You know, a lot of people hate when people say this do more presentations in front of people, so they get used to doing it. If we do it every now and then, we don’t get experience in it.” Borges does not consider herself a good public speaker.

On the other side of things, English teacher Daniel Freeman, champions the idea of public speaking. Freeman is a proponent of cultivating students’ public speaking skills, and requires some of his students to do mock TED talks in front of the class. He employs various methods of improving students professional speaking skills like encouraging students to rid their sentences of the words ‘like’ and ‘um’. He wants to do more public speaking activities with his classes and argued that public speaking should be taught earlier so students feel more comfortable just getting up in front of the class and talking about themselves. Freeman feels it is important that students and teachers continue the conversation of how we can improve the public speaking curriculum.

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