Kym was convinced that she had a disorder: she was unable to speak in class, and there was no way to solve it. This is what I learned on the first day of school when Kym filled out an index card telling me a bit about herself and who she wanted to be.
I can just imagine Kym sitting there in the back row, warily eyeing my classroom on the first day, her eyes eventually locking on the Everest statement up front beside my desk: We are all about becoming better thinkers, readers, writers, speakers, and people. She must have been terrified. Within a few days, Kym had emailed me letting me know that she didn't speak in front of groups. It just wasn't a thing that she did.
How was I going to get Kym to participate in pop-up debates?
Wherever I speak with secondary teachers these days, we all seem to be observing more and more Kyms in our classrooms. These are good, young people, just the kinds of folks we got into this gig seeking to serve and educate. And we all seem to intuit what hard data corroborates: oral communication skills are growing more important as the twenty-first century progresses, not less. (In this article, writer Scott Leung unpacks some potential reasons for this increased need for verbal communication skills.)
The question that confronts us is straightforward: How do we help the Kyms of our classrooms develop proficiency in managing this monster of public speaking anxiety?
Before I unpack a few practical methods for helping students overcome public speaking anxiety, let me clearly state that Kym and I are of the same ilk. I was the last to volunteer to speak as a freshman in high school, and even today in the staff meetings at my school, I much prefer listening to speaking. I'm just more comfortable in the non-speaking mode, and writers like Susan Cain have demonstrated that this penchant toward introversion can be quite a strength. (Cain's newest work, Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids, is especially relevant for schools.)
And yet the goal of long-term flourishing gives me just as much a responsibility to teach Kym to speak publicly as my children's swim instructor has to teach her students how to survive in the water.
Methods for Helping Students Overcome Public Speaking Anxiety
1.In the first week of school, every student must speak for the whole class to hear, and for this I recommend ‘warm-calling.‘ The literature is full of calls for cold-calling — the practice of calling on students regardless of whether their hands are raised. But students' minds needn't be stone cold on a question before you call on them. Rather, I find it's best to have students first answer a question (briefly) in writing, and then to have them share the gist of what they've written with a peer, and then to work through your roster calling them at random. If you do this once per lesson, calling on seven students in this manner, then in a week you'll get through 35 students. Adjust the frequency or volume of this Think-Pair-Share exercise to suit the size of your class, but just make sure that during the Share time you use the warm-calling strategy and that you have a means for making sure you get through every student on the roster, each week.
(Here's an article I wrote on starting Think-Pair-Share well at the beginning of the school year.)
2. Cold-calling has merits, too. In “Impact of Cold-Calling on Voluntary Student Participation” for The Journal of Management Education, researchers found that undergraduate students in classes with high cold-calling answered more voluntary questions than those in classes with lower cold-calling, and that this effect also increased over time. Teachers in the study feared that cold-calling might exacerbate student anxieties or humiliate students, but the researchers found that the effect was often the opposite.
Obviously, the students in this study are several years older than my Kyms, and they've elected to take an undergraduate business program — something that Kym seemed unlikely to do when I first taught her. But there's an inescapable logic to the study's findings: namely, that when speaking is normalized (as teacher-writer Erik Palmer discusses in Well-Spoken), all students find it a much more natural thing to do.
3. Normalize participation early and often. As Martha Sevetson Rush writes in Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers, “Once a classroom culture is established, it is difficult to change, so lecturing for six weeks and then suddenly calling on students to discuss will result in an uncomfortable silence” (73).
4. Genuinely connect with all students early and often, treating the Kyms of your class with special care. Once a student indicates to me that they are anxious about speaking publicly (as Kym did via email, or this past year as Chris did when he refused to speak during a Week 1 warm-call), I take extra pains to connect with them via moments of genuine connection. My goal is to make them feel valued, known, and respected.
Where possible, I speak to their anxiety around public speaking during these moments, and about how this is actually normal. I sometimes share how this was my own struggle in school, too.
(For many examples of the kinds of language I use during moments of genuine connection, see p. 30-31 of These 6 Things.)
5. After three weeks of the above methods, hold your first all-class pop-up debate or discussion. (I discuss pop-up debates more here, and they are treated in depth in Chapter 4 of These 6 Things.) For the Kyms in my class, I typically pull them aside prior to the start of class, letting them know that today we'll be doing something like the Think-Pair-Shares we've been doing, and I stress the idea that success looks like them simply standing up, reading from the part of their warm-up writing that answers the debate question, and then sitting down.
During all of my pop-up debates, as soon as there is a lull in the speaking, I start calling on students who have not spoken yet. I'm explicit before the debate starts: this will happen! And all you need to do in this situation is read from the writing you did at the start of class. (The writing warm-up on pop-up debate days is typically that day's pop-up debate prompt.)
6. Following successful speaking performances, give anxious students specific praise on what went well. I love connecting privately with anxious students right after I see them doing something that I know was hard. When Kym answered her first warm-call question, I pulled her aside after class, saying, “Kym — look at you! I just called on you randomly and you answered the question, nice and clear. How do you feel?”
“Um… good, I guess.”
“Okay, great! Next time, do that again — and if you're feeling brave, add a sentence or two to explain yourself further.”
7. Normalize public speaking nervousness through a simple, visual poll. After the first pop-up debate of the year, I like to ask students, “All right — during today's pop-up debate, who felt at least one percent nervous before standing up?” At this question, 60-80% of hands raise each year.
“All right, excellent! Now, look around! Did any of you think that you were the only person who felt nervous?” Students invariably nod their heads. “Yes! This is a weird thing about anxiety — it convinces us that we're the only ones experiencing it! But actually, it is normal to feel some trepidation about speaking in front of one's peers. Most people will never learn this — but now, only four weeks into the school year, you have. Bravo, class.”
This past spring, Kym graduated, and afterward she came up and gave me a big hug. Her year of warm-calls and pop-up debates wasn't easy for her — I remember one during a mid-year debate when I had the students film themselves for the sake of post-debate analysis, Kym rushed out of the room in tears — but each school year afterward she would stop by to tell me thank you.
If you were to ask Kym why she appreciated me as a teacher, I know she wouldn't cite stories of Hollywood-esque self-sacrifice or book-worthy elaborate unit design. Rather, she'd probably say, “He cared. He was a good teacher. He helped me.”
And I don't think any of those things would have been true for Kym had I not worked to create conditions in which she would be taught how to speak publicly and was regularly expected to do so.