Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Skip the PowerPoint!

I recently had a content area teacher come to me for help with non-fiction literacy and research projects.  Brilliant, I thought.  I immediately got to work looking for the best strategies around to help kids research and take notes.  When we reviewed some tried-and-true-lessons to experiment in her upcoming unit, (ones that I have pilfered from Chris Lehman's book, Energize Research Reading and Writing) she assured me that she doesn't have the time for that kind of depth.  She just wanted the kids to know one topic well.  Then,  I went into her classroom and saw one full week scheduled to present research through PowerPoint.

Photo courtesy of
Have you ever seen a middle schooler present a PowerPoint?  It's painful.  Really, truly painful.   And trust me, the kids in the audience feel the same way- except for the fact that it's a free week of no- homework and they can just zone out during class and be thinkless for 45 minutes (I might have just made up the word thinkless, but I can't find another word to replace it, and so I'm going with it).  And yet a full week of instruction… valuable time... was being devoted JUST to the presentations.  Two other weeks were given to the research and construction of the group project.

In middle school (well, our middle school), the go-to choice for projects is PowerPoint; students and teachers alike seem to love its prospects.  The perfect culmination to a content area study:  create a project to present to your peers and teacher to show your learning on a topic (which doesn't really interest you, either, but it's part of the topic study).   Teachers like it because it makes them feel like they are integrating technology.  Some even go as far as to say that they are teaching kids life lessons by using/teaching PowerPoint.  As a support teacher, I watch kids gravitate to the PowerPoint choice because it's easy, and frankly, doesn't require a lick of research.  So, kids love it.  I hate it.

Wait, before you get angry… Let me explain.

Picture this:  Student,  "Chris" and his partner, "Billy",  have been "researching" for two weeks, (which was really one day and playing on the animation of their Powerpoint for two weeks) and they stand up in the front of the room to present.  Since this project doesn't include a group grade  (who can get away with that nowadays?), Chris and Billy haven't actually worked together on the project.  Sure, they did some planning early on about who would take responsibility for the different slides based on the requirements listed in the rubric, but they don't REALLY do the research.  So then, based on the slides that are assigned to them, let's say… "what a whale shark looks like", they just research the whale shark's physical appearance.  So when they get to the beautiful graphic in the non-fiction text that describes the whale shark's eating habits, they breeze over it because it doesn't pertain to them…  Chris is doing the "diet" part of the rubric, Billy would argue.  Neither Chris nor Billy dig deep enough to recognize (or realize) that the diet of a whale shark is directly related to its physical appearance. Because, honestly, they're not reading. They're not researching, but rather, they're plugging in requirements to share with the class.  So, they stand up to present their beautifully animated and decorated PowerPoint, but neither of them actually know anything of what they're talking about. In fact, the background on the whale shark's feature slide is bright pink and the letters have a rainbow WordArt pattern.   They stand in front of the pretty SMART board and bore the class by reading bullets from the slide, facing the screen.  Actually, if Billy and Chris used bullets, and not full sentences on their slides, they're far ahead of some other presentations.  Sure, Billy and Chris may not be the exceptional example, but they are the norm.

The teacher is furious.  What have you been doing with class time the last few weeks, she quips?  Though the students have the right amount of slides, and technically they have the information necessary, they don't actually know their content and so their presentation flops.  The teacher is genuinely frustrated, looking for help, because the kids "can't" research.

And so the cycle continues, which brings me to my point.  Finally.

Skip the PowerPoint.  Get rid of it.  Don't allow it.  It's the lowest form of technology possible in today's day in age, anyway.  Kids could do it in their sleep.  It is the anti-research.   Even corporations hate it nowadays.  Look here!  People beyond education are shunning the once cutting-edge technology.  If our goal is to create thinkers that are college and career ready (independent, critical thinkers), we have to teach them how to convey meaning with interest, not read off of a PowerPoint slide.

If you really want to teach PowerPoint, you have to teach the presentation skills within your unit.  You have to teach kids how to present.  You have to teach symbolism:  how do objects in your presentation bring meaning to it?  How do they enhance it? How do the words make your argument stronger?  You'll need mentor texts and shared examples. You'll need to model presentation strategies and name the kinds of methods used in the presentations.  And you can't end there.  You have to show kids that the animation matters.  If the words float in, spin in circles, and jump back to make the audience laugh, then the topic shouldn't be about the veterans of World War II or the horrible effects of the e-Coli bacterium.

But you don't want to do that. That's even more time!  So don't.  Skip it and teach the real stuff. Looking for time?   Skip the three weeks of fluff and spend your time teaching kids what matters.  Teach kids how to find topics that matter.  Teach kids how to take notes on those topics.  Show kids how to talk about the subtopics that are important.  Teach about text patterns and word choices.  Show kids how every single word and picture in a diagram of non-fiction text gives you a new, significant piece of information.

Please don't misinterpret me:  I'm not downplaying presentation skills. We've all sat in enough horrible professional development to know that presentation skills are essential and important in today's fast paced, quick world.  So if that's your goal and your essential question, go for it.  But if the purpose is not the PowerPoint itself, but the content and the research, skip it. Presentation skills are only necessary to present information that has been researched.  Not just researched, or copied into bullets on a slide, but really understood.  That's what its purpose should be.  The research should be the point-- not just the product.  Teach kids how to understand.  Teach kids how to think.  Show kids how to present.

So let's put weight where weight needs to be.  Instead of checking off what needs to be included in the product, let's teach about the important symbols necessary to make an impact on an audience that will convey meaning and get kids excited about learning.   You'll find the time by skipping the PowerPoint. I'd be willing to bet that if we teach kids how to read the text correctly to do the research, they'll blow us away with their use of technology to present their ideas.  I know it can be done. I've seen it.  We need to find the time in the right places.

Do I use PowerPoint?  I sure do.  And sometimes, when I'm delivering PD, I get carried away (like I clearly often do), and the PowerPoint keeps me on track to finish on time.  Every word has been carefully placed to send a message, to convey my purpose.  Each picture relates to the meaning of the presentation.  There is a place for PowerPoint… I argue that its place, however, is not in the middle school classroom.  We just don't have time to be thinkless.  

No comments:

Post a Comment