I Know What I Know

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February 2016

Public Speaking is our Mammoth

This weekend was District Speech Contest. Though I teach middle-grade kids, I coach the high school team, and we had a very exciting day traveling to Tipton to compete. I have 12 kids on the team, and 8 of them qualified for State Contest on March 12. We had a few heartbreaks, too, but I think overall it was a good contest. Most importantly, my team got a chance to perform their pieces in front of an authentic audience.

Though you’d never guess it from the bustling District Contest this weekend, I fear that public speaking is something k-12 students aren’t getting enough exposure to. Sure, there are the obligatory powerpoint presentations for classes, but speaking is so much more than that. A skilled public speaker needs to be able to work a room, to think on their feet, and to interpret the writings or ideas of others through the lens of themselves in an authentic way. They also need to learn to transform their own writing into something that can be felt and seen and heard instead of just black words on a white page.

A lot of the time, the speaking/listening standards of the Iowa Core are tacked on to units and lessons as extras, not as a focus. I was very lucky to work with my friend Mark Sulzer (@Education_Stuff)  to gather data for his dissertation on dialogic discussion. We read this book and it fundamentally changed how I do classroom discussions and talking activities. Writing AND talking are extensions and expressions of our thoughts, and talking through and about a text with peers is one of the best ways for students to think critically about their learning. Nothing sets fire to a brain like the lightning bolt of a brainstorm. Students need to talk to each other, not just the teacher, to challenge one another’s opinions and assumptions, to model analytic thinking skills for others, and to truly engage in learning. I see text, writing, and speaking as a triangle to support true learning (a triangle is the strongest shape, after all!)

Of course, I have digressed from performance-based speech into talking about class discussions, but the same fears can plague students and adults regarding either situation. Very shy or anxious people can feel a lot of pressure just talking in a small group, much less speaking alone in front of others. According to this article from Forbes, 10% of people love public speaking and get a real charge out of it, 10% are paralyzed with fear, and the other 80% find it uncomfortable, but know they’ll get through it. Really, 80% of people out there are made so nervous by speaking that they may lose sleep the night before? Not to mention the 10% who will do anything to avoid it.

I worry about that. If we get our fear of public speaking from adrenaline, the same juice that gave us extra strength to hunt Mammoths during the dawn of time, or to escape a bear attack, I’m a little incredulous that we have the same reaction to the fear of public speaking. I’ll take the room full of potentially judgmental strangers over the prehistoric beasts any day, but that’s probably because I’m in that magic 10% that is energized by performance. I am not trying to demean anyone who fears public speaking, but what does it say about our bravery if this scares us as much as a giant woolly elephant trying to gore us with its tusks?

We need to start empowering out citizens right out of the gate. Let’s puff up that top 10% to 20% in the next decade — 20% of people that love public speaking. And let’s cut the bottom 10% of paralyzed folks down to 5%. We can do this by supporting our students emotionally while still requiring them to take chances and perform in public. Baby steps. My students in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade to at least 3 speeches or performances a year as well as participating in graded class discussions. Some of them are scared, but if we give them the tools and the loving support, they can leave my class just a little more confident. My students know that talking to learn and learning to talk is part of the expectations for my classroom, and once it has become normal, and a supportive environment has been established, all students can improve on their speaking from wherever their starting point was at the beginning of the year.

And, participating in Speech in high school, even if you are scared, is the best way to conquer your fear. I have had students come to me and say they want to do Speech, not because they are in that magic top 10%, but because they want to be brave.

So, I guess what I’m saying is, no matter what you teach, start using dialogic discussion as a learning tool in your classroom, and require speaking assignments. Also, encourage all of your students to join speech, even if they’re scared. We’ll slay that Mammoth yet.


Find Your People!

No matter what you do, you gotta find your people.

Maybe you love scrap-booking, or Jesus, or dirty fan fiction. Whatever you love, whatever you do because you love it or because you have to do it, you gotta find your people.

If you’re lucky, those people are already your friends, and they’re in your life. However, that’s not always the case. You have to get out of your introverted little bubble and find your people elsewhere. You can find them in the flesh or online, it doesn’t matter. But I’m telling you: FIND THEM.

I took a chance one frigid night in January and attended a meeting at the public library for a group calling itself The Violet Realm. It’s a fantasy/sci-fi writing group formed through the very awesome Iowa Writer’s House. I am an introvert who is very good at mimicking extroverts, so this was a bit of a nerve-wracking experience for me. However, I found myself among a group of wonderfully nerdy folks who really love writing, and I’ve been attending ever since.

The Violet Realm is a friendly, inviting group of people with great facilitators. I like seeing some of the same faces each meeting and meeting new folks who show up. As much as I enjoy the writing sessions and the topics we’ve covered so far (character and world building) the Facebook group online has also been a great way to get in touch with others and feel supported. Today I spent like two hours world building based on our last session and really fleshed out the Grand Isle for my series Harvest of Ash on Pictured above is my super cool map I drew. As a writer that is new to the fantasy genre, the lectures, prompts, and resources provided by The Violet Realm have been amazing. Ash season 2 is going to kick so much more ass thanks to this group!

Sometimes it feels like we write alone, we write in a vacuum, alone in our thoughts — the solitary sensation of being the only person alive on a jettisoned life shuttle after a space station explodes, floating among the silent and unforgiving stars. If you are a writer, I cannot encourage you enough to find your people. They can offer you encouragement, perspective, advice, and support. They get it when our friends and family might not, as much as we love them.

If you live in the Iowa City area, I cannot encourage you enough to come and join us for The Violet Realm. It meets on the first and fourth Tuesday of the month in room B at the Iowa City Public Library 6pm-8pm. I hope to see you there!

Virgil Caine’s Lamentable Postscript

If you haven’t discovered 8tracks yet, it’s a fun music streaming service that allows you to make playlists to suit any mood. Thanks to Amanda at for introducing this to me. I made a soundtrack to my fantasy series Harvest of Ash and I thought it would be perfect for my other great idea: create a “sad rustic” playlist.

It’s hard to explain what I meant in my previous post about the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” so I created a companion playlist for you to listen to. Please enjoy here.

Sad Rustics from harvestofash on 8tracks Radio.

Making a Murderer

I’ve finally finished the documentary Making a Murderer and want to express my thoughts. Be warned: there are spoilers.

Obviously, the big question the film asks is if the police framed Stephen Avery for murder, just like they framed him for rape all those years ago. I’m pretty convinced they did, but the thing I keep coming back to is: who killed Theresa in order to frame him? Would the police go that far? Did they find her dead and decide to work with what they had instead of finding the real killer? I had a horrible vision today that maybe she died of natural causes on the road, maybe a brain aneurysm, and the cops found her body and decided to use the fact that she’d been on the Avery property that day to their advantage. But could they have really coordinated so quickly? How far did the conspiracy reach?

I know these are the big questions of the film, but I don’t really want to spend much time talking about them. Because I think the real tragedy is the conviction of Brendan Dassey. I’ve worked with students who face challenges to learning much like Brendan’s (from what I can see based on the movie) and watching those officers and the defense investigator take advantage of him was just absolutely sickening.

The scene that made me openly weep can be viewed here. This is where Brendan’s own defense attorney unleashes his investigator to elicit a confession from Brendan so he can plead guilty. The confession could then be used to attack Stephen Avery and get him convicted. Brendan’s own attorney was conspiring against him and his family. This in and of itself is shocking, but the way the investigator got him to confess was what made me so outraged and sick.

You see, the investigator acted like he was Brendan’s teacher, and Brendan was a student who wouldn’t do his assignment. 

He gives Brendan what is essentially a worksheet with questions about the alleged crime, and tells him to fill it out. Then, when he doesn’t get the “answers” he wants, the investigator makes Brendan re-do it, all the while guilting and badgering him about not doing it correctly.

His language, terminology, and demeanor reeked of a frustrated teacher trying to force a student into compliance. It’s so easy, kid. Just do the work. Just do the stupid worksheet and let us move on with our lives. Can’t you even try? How could someone be this slow?

Teachers with the best of intentions (myself included) can skirt into this territory, especially with kids that they view as capable but just not trying. Brendan appears like he can pass for shy and reluctant, but relatively normal at a first glance. He was, according to the documentary, in some regular education classes. I imagine that many of his educators were at times frustrated with him for not getting it, and saw his silence as lack of trying, not as a lack of understanding and being too afraid to ask for help.

See, I’ve taught this type of kid before. I know this survival tactic. “If I don’t do the assignment long enough, eventually they’ll stop asking me to do it. If I’m passive, they might tell me the answer. If I guess, maybe, just maybe, I’ll get the right answer, and we can just be done. I just want to be done. I want them to leave me alone so I don’t feel stupid, so I can do what I want instead of this. Please God, let it be over soon.”

At one point in the documentary, when Brendan is explaining to his mother why he confessed, she asks him, “How did you know all that stuff?” He replies, “I just guessed. That’s what I do on my homework.”

That’s what I do on my homework.

Let’s get down to it. The educational system molded Brendan, and taught him to rely on the survival tactics of passive resistance, guessing, and doing whatever it takes to get past the discomfort of an assignment that is too difficult or an authority figure that is upset with him. He just wanted the interview to be over. Hell, he thought he was going to get to go home when it was done and he had complied with what the authority figures wanted. And why not? He’d always gotten to go home before when he gave his teachers and administrators what they wanted.

As teachers, we need to be very careful with how we shape kids like Brendan, students who are at risk due to learning disabilities and disenfranchised by socioeconomic status. A time might come when someone in authority will take advantage of them. We must teach our students, regardless of their academic ability, to know their rights. And we need to prevent shaping them into people who can’t defend themselves against corrupt authority.

Unfortunately, it’s too late for Brendan. He’ll be in prison until 2046.


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