FAQ: “My kids’ presentations are just blah. What can I do?”

FAQ: “My kids’ presentations are just blah. What can I do?”

I often get questions about Project/Problem Based Learning ideas, units, and methods/strategy sent to me by teachers who are looking for some feedback or help. I love receiving those questions and helping the teacher figure out a solution or two, even if I’m sending them to another source of info (nope, I don’t know it all!)

And then I also love to share here on my blog some of those more commonly-asked questions and my responses. I hope that folks can continue to use this blog (and the important search feature) to find all sorts of answers to all sorts of PBL classroom realities.bad presentation PBL

So in that spirit, here’s one I’ve received a couple times in the past month or so:

“My kids are presenting soon and I can already tell they’re going to do what they usually do and ‘phone in’ the presentations. I’ve seen some great student presentations, but no matter what I do with these kids, their stuff always, always ends up … blah. bland. boring. And what’s worse? They think they’re doing great. I can’t have it any more. We’ve created public speaking rubrics. We’ve watched various TED Talks/Shark Tank episodes to analyze what other great presenters do. But the kids still aren’t getting it. HELP!”

I get it. Often kids are great workers, thinkers, and doers, but when it comes to presenting, those same kids just prefer to crawl into a shell. And sometimes this can afflict an entire class! I get it. Presenting in front of peers can be horrifying…particularly in a middle or high school and especially so in a rural community, although fairly, this can happen anywhere.

I want to help these teachers not only in the right now, but also into the future. Because poor presentations, like many struggles in a classroom, often goes deeper than just a “try this ointment” approach to a struggle/solution scenario.

Symptoms – what are we seeing?

Kids work hard. They talk all the time in their groups. They’ll talk to the teacher 1:1. They know what they’re doing. But when it’s time to prepare and present, they don’t take it as a different mode of communication. They mumble. Their voices sound as if they’re on their way to their death chamber. They make side-jokes or nervously gouge each others’ ribs and giggle. They talk in incomplete sentences. They read their notes in a mono-tone instead of energized presenting, or worse — they read their slide shows … in a monotone. GAH! It’s enough to make a teacher crazy!

So what can we do? I’m glad you asked. There’s plenty we can do!

Potential solutions

  1. View other great examples of speakers. Watch those TED talks. Watch those Shark Tank episodes. Discuss what the presenters are doing with their body positions, their voices, their word-choice, the energy behind the words. But realize that this might not work for all classes, especially if the students see these people who are removed from their own reality; they’re adults, they’re rich, they’re professionals, blah blah blah…whatever the students are seeing that separates themselves from the exemplars. What’s going wrong? Kids don’t connect with this example, or therefore, the lesson you’re trying to get across.
  2. View examples of some terrible student presentations. There are thousands out there on YouTube. Go ahead. Take a look. Don’t show them their own poor quality presentations. It’s easier to spot mistakes in others we don’t know than to put ourselves up for class analysis. Bad Student Presentations
  3. Be sure the kids are sharing their work for a purpose they are deeply bought into. The more the work — and results — matter to them, the better their work will be. Are they doing something that when they’re finished, they’ll be proud of what they’ve done? That if they fail or do a sub-par job, something they really care about doesn’t happen?
  4. If getting the kids to buy into something deeply, whether they’ve suggested it or you have… (and yes, this is a very real thing with kids who are not learners. Often we see this blasé classroom existence in high schoolers who’ve been allowed to slide by on minimal effort and resent the fact you’re asking for more, asking for deeper involvement in their own educational process…), you might consider setting up a competition. I prefer to have the kids competing together as a class to beat a classroom outside my school. Yes, I’m trying to create situations where kids will have to pull together to win instead of creating some sort of Lord of the Flies competition amongst each other. But when others are involved, I remind the kids that they don’t want to “embarrass the family” — We want to be at least as good as the other kids will be…and I assure you, they’ve been practicing! Keep that sense of urgency for quality high.
  5. Have a high-profile professional come in to evaluate their work. It could be a professional speaker who comes in during the soft deadline (learn more about the power of soft deadlines) to give pointed and honest feedback. It could be a professional working in the field, seeing if they’d accept this work from potential clients. We are prepping these kids for the real world, right? You might pre-qualify the guest with what your expectations are for their skills and have the guest be the “bad guy” as they share the wonders you’ve fed them with. DO NOT just grab anyone and let them give feedback. Too many people will give too easy of a critique, since these are just kids. And some will be a bit too harsh. Be sure you’re going to get a the feedback your kids need to hear. And it’s ok to preload the guest a bit to be kind but truly honest. And then after the soft deadline, you can spend a moment with your students going back over the notes given by the speaker and helping the kids make a plan for improvement.
  6. Leverage the mid-point regroup to keep the interest in the project high. Even within the most awesome units, we  can experience “project fatigue,” that is, to get worn out, tired, and relax a bit on the work. Quality will slip, and then so will the need for a high-level ending. Keep that urgency high! Learn more about mid-point re-groups.

Causes and Long-term work to recovery

There are several causes to look for in a lack of energy and quality of final work. Some of it can be caused by years of half-efforts-being-good-enough in our classrooms, especially with kids who are fully capable. Some kids who may have learning difficulties may have spent years learning that no matter how hard they try, they’ll never be the top players, so they’ve also allowed themselves to give half-efforts. The above efforts, applied daily, across the classes and curriculum can send the message that 1) our work here is meaningful and 2) we care that you’re working hard at things that matter to you.

Some classes might have a ring leader or two who keep the rest of the herd at half-efforts. It might not be readily seen by a teacher because, especially again in small-school situations, these ring leaders have held such sway for years that it’s just become the culture of how and who we are at school. This is a hard culture to recover from and reenergize. But it is possible with a whole-school effort with these kids. We can keep putting meaningful work in front of them. We can speak openly and honestly with parents about what we’re seeing and how this isn’t how other classes work (without pointing fingers at kids. We’re just reminding parents that we care and that we’re doing everything we can, which probably looks different from past years and their kids might be balking. It’s ok).

Because, let’s face it…too many teachers blame the kids for half-efforts when in reality, we have a very large role in helping kids continue to develop those habits or not. And yeah, maybe they came to me with poor learning habits. If only there was a teacher in my classroom who could influence kids…oh wait! That’s me! I can choose to do something about it today, no matter the shape they came to me. Or I can choose to not do anything.

…Actually I can’t choose to do nothing…I feel it’s my moral obligation to help kids. period. And I hope you do too.


If you’re looking for more support with Project/Problem/Passion Based Learning at the K12 level, consider any combination of the following:


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Written by GingerLewman

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