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Presentations in class: yay or nay?

Updated: Mar 8

Reading time 7:48

This semester in SPAN 1004 (the last course that students are required to take AND the highest level course offered at the branch where I teach), I decided to share the wealth, so to speak, and put the onus on the students to present a chapter of the book we’re reading together. Sure, I wanted them to practice their presentational skills, but if I’m honest, I wanted someone else to do the heavier lifting. I mean, how many times have I graduated by now?

Anyway, the “rules” were simple (‘cause you all know how I don’t like rules): the class had to make sure that they read the chapter to know what’s going on, and the presenter could deliver a review of the material however s/he/they wished. Time limit of 30 minutes. (Our class is 1h 45m, so that works). 

Knowing all of my students from the previous semester, I chose the line-up ahead of time and added it to the course calendar. Not. One. Complaint. I was already winning! Before the presentations started, I had no idea what to expect. 

The first presentation was great (good pick on my part on the student who was to go first): a 10 minute animated video that the student created to go along with the audio that played simultaneously; followed by some questions to be answered in groups. It was very well done (and I didn’t even get mad when the student told me he hacked the Digilangua website to “steal” the audio!). That student’s presentation set a great tone for the rest…

True to form, the next several chapter reviews followed this model, until someone added the bonus of Kahoot, Nearpod or whatever, to gamify the activity. The students, of course, were thrilled - especially since they have been weaned on these technological dopamine rushes. I was not so sure…

To those not in the know, I am a reluctant tech adopter. Furthermore, I had long ago tired of games in the classroom. However, the way my students have been creating the questions forcing the class to read answers that are actually sentences rather than one- or two-word answers, I was able to see the value of these games or apps or whatever they are. 

So, while students are practicing presentational skills, how to deal with tech failures and trying valiantly to speak Spanish, they are realizing that they can do hard things. Some of us have been together for four semesters, more of us for three and all of us for the last two, so we know each other. Still, students are coming to class for their presentations all worked up and freaking out about having to present in front of peeps who are, pretty much, now their friends. Unplanned, but coincidental: that is the very theme of the novel we are reading, Con (un poco) de ayuda de mis amigos.

Part of the reasoning for assigning this presentation (in addition to handing over the work!!) was for my students to normalize asking for help. Most of them have been taking advantage of running their presentations by me ahead of time. This is a win-win: I know they are thinking about it and preparing, but also they have to stay after class or reach out to me via email to ask questions for reasons other than, “What can I do to raise my grade?” It’s been so great!

But today’s presentation… I didn’t know what we were in for. This particular student, H, is not the strongest Spanish student. Okay, even after four semesters, she still struggles with output of any kind. And yet, H never approached me for help with the presentation. Oh, jeez, I thought. What is this going to be like? She kept telling me, “Profe, I got this. Don’t you worry.”

Well, I came back to my classroom after lunch to this:

H was there early - very early - to set up her presentation. I imagined there might be a bit of fanfare, but I surely wasn’t prepared for the light show.

It was a rocky start for H. I attributed it to lack of language, but it was nerves, she said. It took a while to get in a groove. It was a little painful. But when that groove came, it was awesome. When I tell you that H planned more for this 30-minute presentation (which ended up being an hour!) than I have planned for a whole week’s worth of lessons for two courses, I’m only slightly exaggerating. This lesson was so involved, and better still, the students were engaged.

There was 

  • a shape-cutting activity (still wondering about this one)...

  • a word scramble (where students could use their books to find the words that they needed to unscramble)

  • an emoji rebus puzzle (to match with phrases that the student typed up in Spanish)

  • an acting activity (students had to act out a scene that related to the chapter)

  • a foosball championship on a mini table (for bragging rights)

All the while, students were rewarded with play money if they completed the tasks well. At the end, too, students were rewarded with cupcakes.

Make no mistake, there was very little in the way of Spanish and littler still, of correct Spanish. I. didn’t. care. Because, in the end, everyone learned something.

  1. Students worked together in groups to solve the puzzles. Interpersonal interactions are still stilted after the pandemic, so I loved watching them work together.

  2. H was able to shine. Being creative in this way is her love language, if you will, and I know that every student was impressed with the planning.

  3. I learned three new creative activities that I make for my teacher guides for when I’m feeling creative. Yes, even after 30+ years of teaching, I learned something.

Afterwards, I sent an email to H. It is below (probably with some random capitalizations from talk-to-text, please overlook those!)

H has had a tough time in Spanish as she was an online student for the first two semesters, just joining the crew last semester. Also, at this branch of the university, there are many commuters, so there’s not that natural built-in camaraderie that may exist at schools with dorms. So, when H mentioned to me that she has made some friends…I was overjoyed.  Yeah, that’s part of it for me. Allowing students to feel comfortable, have fun and learn at the same time. 

H sent me this email in return (provided with permission).


I realized I had people to talk to.

…thank you for pushing me…

From what I have noticed over the past five years teaching at the university level, creativity and problem-solving skills are at a premium these days. And, in the world of education where we seem to want to “rule” ourselves in and out of different situations, I hope to encourage you to ditch the rules every now and again. 

There are so many reasons why I teach and probably even more for why I have very few rules for assignments like these. Today was one of them.

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