This is the fourth of seven posts written by Dr. Tibby Lynch. This post was written in early December 2009. I have included it as part of my 21st century pygmalion series of posts.
I have never been a fan of oral presentations. By high school, students have usually done a fair number of them. The favored mode of delivery is wooden, the information bland, the conclusions predictable. PowerPoint has not helped much as students generally just read the power pointed items to those assembled. Upon reflection however, one cannot imagine a language arts skill, save writing, more important to master. Regardless of particular educational, professional, or life choices, almost every student will, at some time, be required to present material to an audience. And as we all know, nothing is more painful and dispiriting than a poorly conceived and delivered presentation. Armed with a disinterested sense of making a purposeful contribution to the betterment of society, I therefore decided to make “The Presentation” the focal point of our academic endeavors in Quarter I. The content to be covered included: (1) Joseph Campbell’s essay “The Hero’s Journey” (online); (2) A collection of assorted readings on the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture (online links); (3) the complete text of Beowulf (an online adaptation and a direct translation). As we worked our way through the first half of the epic in class, we began to compile a list (from festivals and funerals to women and warriors) of researchable topics that were deemed worthy of our attention, and, most importantly, that we felt would help illuminate our understanding of what must certainly be considered a misty time and place. By the time Beowulf had gotten old and was preparing to fight the dragon, the students had each chosen their topics, and Steve was ready to introduce the prezi.
In a moment I will reveal the results, but let me say outright that I strongly discourage flying by the seat of your pants on this one. The students needed Steve above and behind them for the key phases of construction and for multiple instances of troubleshooting prior to delivery day. Fortunately his office is about 25 feet away from my classroom door and he responded without apparent irritation to our bleats of distress. It’s not that the system is terribly hard to master (especially for the kids), but the psychological barrier to operating without step-by-step instructions is daunting for those of us who lack computer confidence. I would also advise monitoring prezi construction in scheduled classroom workshops, partially because this gives the kids a chance to see the innovations of others and mostly because the teacher needs to watch the “building” process.
OK, now for the outcomes: (1) While, as with any academic enterprise, quality varied, the visual/sensory element of the prezis was a revelation. Color, movement, film, music, and collage were incorporated smoothly into the written text in a way that energized presenters and audience. There were original works of art, cartoons, and comparative illustrations that brought the Anglo-Saxon characters to life. There were wonderful historical insets, and clips from films. There were artifacts from archaeological digs and excerpts from critical tomes. It provided something of the aesthetic pleasure of leafing through a well designed coffee-table book – a feast for the senses. With some exceptions, the presenters abandoned the drone-like power point reading, and adopted a livelier mode of delivery, pausing to discuss a variety of research “discoveries,” and responding to questions with enthusiasm. And there were more questions. This is a profoundly sensory generation of learners; they come to life when they are in the presence of light and sound and are pretty sophisticated about evaluating what they see and hear. Ultimately, our biggest problem was keeping the kids down to the 25 minute limit we had imposed, and in the end a majority of the groups had gone overtime. (2) Steve and I had agreed that it made sense for us to collaborate upon (but not divide) the grading; he was more cognizant of the technological level of difficulty and I was more knowledgeable about Beowulf. Both of us, as veteran teachers, were experienced evaluators of oral presentations. While we agreed on most of the grades, I think we were both surprised about the huge gap (sometimes spanning two or three grade levels) in our assessment of the group of presentations about which we disagreed. What was happening here? In my experience, collaborative assessments vary quite narrowly, if at all. Was I resisting the technology in a way that would cause me to downgrade those with more elaborate displays on the assumption that they must have skimped on the content? (I will admit that on a number of occasions, I was so deer-in-the-headlights dazzled by the stuff on screen that I sort of stopped making notes on the coverage of ideas.) Or was Steve, in his understanding of the level of technological difficulty, assigning more credit to elements of presentation than substance? Whatever accounted for this phenomenon, it left me uneasy, hesitant in my explanation of the students’ grades, and feeling like I had lost control of my goals for the project. Steve and I agreed that we probably needed to make a better assessment plan ahead of time; in mitigation, however, how can you do that when you don’t know what to expect? The only sure way to address this conundrum is to try again.