September 20th, 2016
[This piece was originally written for Adventures in Games Analysis: Volume I back in 2013. I now feel that it would be too indulgent to dedicate some 6,000 words on myself to paid copy. Plus, these activities—whilst good in their own right—are not an accurate reflection of my current teaching practice. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.]
Developing Presentation Skills
Aim: To prepare the students for giving speeches.
I like to run my teenage students through a series of debating classes. In terms of language teaching, debating is a wonderful alternative to the skill-and-drill death march of the Chinese education system as:
- it gives the students a chance to use all that language “learnt” at school, but never really put to use;
- it promotes critical thinking skills;
- it is a form of social exchange;
- it emphasises correct language form through the negotiation of meaning;
- it allows students to think conceptually and use higher-order language;
- the debate topics can connect them with their community and help them better understand themselves as developing adults.
Although classroom debates take a few lessons to establish, once the students get a handle on the structure they practically run themselves. Before I cover debating I focus on public speaking because without good presentation skills, the students can’t have a debate. I mean—literally—if some kid mumbles through their argument, it’s hard for the others to form a rebuttal. I begin these lesson by giving a bad speech and having the students identify my weaknesses. From there we form a list of dos and don’ts. I then give the students a pre-prepared speech and a few minutes to practise before they speak in front of the class while their classmates evaluate them against the aforementioned student-developed criteria.
I like to model a bad speech as it provides a safe and accessible starting point. Having the students critique my delivery and develop the list of dos and don’ts gives them some buy-in (i.e. makes it harder for them to squirm out of the activity) and prepares them for the subsequent step (both in terms of critiquing their classmates and giving their own speech). The students are also encouraged to consider language as performance (contrary to the dominant language as a system view), which is a nice bonus.
In the second lesson I cover the criteria more thoroughly through short mini-games. Here are two examples:
Eyes Around the Room
I have a student stand in front of the class and talk about themselves. Meanwhile I’m at the back of the room holding up a brightly-coloured object and moving from left to right. The speaker must talk and look at the object at the same time. When I click my fingers they have to gaze into the eyes of someone in the audience. A second click returns them to me. The goal is to encourage students to make different types of eye contact. Keeping the speech going while following the brightly-coloured object, i.e. multi-tasking, is the core form of engagement. As with many of the games introduced so far, my role as the facilitator allows me to scale, balance, and add mix-ups to the game.
Eye Contact Face-Off
I split the class into pairs and have one of them stare into the other’s eyes while introducing themselves. The quiet student must call me as soon as the speaker looks away. The pair then switch roles. The student who can talk the longest without looking away is the winner. This game attempts to make the students less afraid of looking into someone’s eyes when speaking to them.
These two games exaggerate the significance of their respective speaking skills so that when the student speaks naturally they will still remember to incorporate these elements. It’s more a case of having students be more concious of the nature of speaking, than mastering these skills outright. The gimmicky nature of these games helps support this function. One of the reasons why I decided to create these game is because I found it hard to speak a second language whilst looking someone in the eye.
Debating Skills Practice
Aim: To improve the students’ rebuttal skills and the quality of their arguments.
I like to structure the debating classes so that one week we have a debate and the next we do debating skills. The following is an example of a debating skills lesson. You can read about how I conduct classroom debates here. Each step tests a different debating-related skill (see parentheses).
I present the class with a speech based on the previous week’s debate topic. As I read aloud, the students write down the weaknesses in my argument (listening and taking notes). After reading the speech a second time, I have them share their ideas with the class (akin to the open discussion of the floor). This gives the students a more complete picture of the potential for criticism. In pairs they must then write a rebuttal for each point (preparing counter arguments). Once they’ve finished, I give them a print-out of my original speech and ask them to rewrite it so as to counter all of their rebuttals while maintaining the original arguments (planning for potential rebuttals). With the speech rewritten, I then have one student from each group read their text to the class (presentation skills) while their classmates listen and note down any flaws in the argument, as they did with the original speech. The class then share their criticisms, which can sometimes lead into mini-debates as the group who spoke defend their rewrite (akin to the open discussion of the floor). By this point I’m usually out of time, but as you can imagine we could continue this cycle multiple times with the students digging ever deeper into the central argument on each rotation.
The student-centred, student-generated nature of this activity is its core strength. The students pick apart a speech, use their rebuttals to improve it, and then have their improvements dissected in the same way as the original speech. They bounce between different roles and different tasks, but remain anchored to the core argument. This allows me to test a variety of skills from the perspective of both the proposition and opposition, while reusing and building off of the students’ earlier efforts.
Over the past 3 years I’ve come up with more than a hundred classroom games, ranging from five-minute mini-games to projects that span over four 2-hour lessons. Some have been good; others have been awful. Regardless, the teaching context is constantly changing and there’s only so far you can get recycling the same old material, so it pays dividends to constantly be on the offensive planning new games and activities week in, week out. Video games and games analysis have helped guide my teaching practice and have sparked the light of inspiration in times of creative drought. By analysing a sample of my classroom games, we’ve been able to explore the relationship between the two disciplines of video game and classroom game design.