The perfect project?

Me sitting through nearly 100 student presentations

This tall traveller hasn't always been a teacher. Close friends may know that I used to be a PowerPoint king, a statistics geek and a downright liar in a previous life - well, I worked in advertising. My job was to back up sales arguments with relevant figures and pictures and present them neatly on screen. I thought I would pass on some of my know-how to the students, as public speaking, and being able to format coherent arguments are good life skills to have

For the third 'partial' of our semester, the students had to complete a longer project instead of a written exam. I decided to ask them to do speeches in front of the class to help them improve all their presentation skills. I wanted to assess them individually and give them no hiding place in a group, or behind the dreaded Google Translate. 20% of their semester grade was now riding on their ability to deliver a five minute speech.

My goals for them were:
1. To construct a rational argument
2. To think about problems and solutions
3. To improve public speaking skills
4. To learn how to use PowerPoint
5. To learn from their mistakes.

Looking back at this, it seems comically broad in scope and very optimistic for 20 hours of classes, especially as I was doing everything in a foreign language! What followed was some of my most difficult times here in Oaxaca - mistakes were made and lessons were learned. Oh, and I also sat through 90 something presentations in two days. Funnily enough, that turned out to be a few too many.

Presentation projects:

I gave the students three options for which question to present.

a) What changes do you want for Oaxaca?
b) What should UNSIS (the university) plan to do in the next 20 years?
c) Where would you like to be living in 10 years? Why?

This was error number one. Students will group together to answer the same question, or choose the option which requires the least amount of thought. I was hoping for some good debate and discussion, but instead I got 61 insights into their dream marriage and house on the beach, and 28 fuddled thoughts on the bad things about Oaxaca.

Not one student decided to investigate or criticise their own university which shows a new level of ignorance and apathy, even for students! It was so disappointing that no one wanted to think about how their life as a student could be improved because question b) was probably the only one that they have any real chance of changing!

In the weekes leading up to the assessment, we did a lot of classwork about how to construct an argument
write a good PowerPoint presentation, give a good speech and much more. I even let them come to my office to practice, and tried to spend time with them individually to help them improve their structure and delivery.

Here's what happened.

How to solve a problem like Oaxaca:

As far as I am concerned, the state's main problems are in order of importance: 1. Education 2. Economy (including employment, poverty etc) 3. Health 4. Government (corruption and incompetence) and 5. Environment.

I wanted students to identify the problems, to research them and come up with possible solutions. They were generally OK at finding the problems (apart from one girl who presented 10 Oaxaca tourist sites because Oaxaca is 'perfect'). That one really went off brief. Presentations generally mentioned some perfunctory location information on the state before launching into the problems. I'm pretty sure most people in the audience know where the state is. That's NOT one of its problems!

In fact most of the Oaxaca presentations included assortments of strangely unconnected information. For example recounting a biography of famous General and President Porfirio Diaz or the exact size of the state, then going on to talk about health problems in hospitals.

Bizarre statistics:

One student included a chart which measured the number of plants, animals and other random categories in the state. I don't know what the purpose of it was, maybe to show diversity, but I had encouraged the use of numbers as well as pictures so I let it slide.

Some of the problems the students' talks about were: Poverty, illiteracy, health, education, litter, speed bumps, the teacher's strike, security, and corruption. That's where the good work stopped unfortunately as the students' problem solving powers did not add up to much.

I was hoping for ideas like this:
Problem - corruption in government
Solution - set up an anti corruption commission and punish offenders more severely.

What the students said went something like this:
Problem - corruption in government
Solution - stop corruption

Problem - Bad education system
Solution - improve education

Problem - Poverty
Solution - give more money to people.

I was drawn into asking questions to prompt the students to think more - How to improve education? Where to find more money for services, but the answers always came back to "The government". It's a real shame that people here blame politicians for all of there problems without any idea for change themselves. All of my students said "change the government", yet municipal elections are held every three years. Oaxaca hasn't seen much real improvement in the last 25 elections, so what makes you think one more will work? I asked if anyone had ever voted and was met with a sea of blank faces. I think I may work in the least politicised university in the world!

Favourite question response:
Me: "What do you think about the police in Oaxaca"
Student: "err . . . good"
Me: "But your whole presentation was about insecurity and crime in the state"
Student: "Yes"
Me: "So what do you think about police in Oaxaca"
Student: "err . . . bad???"

Where would you like to be in 10 years?

This sounds like a cheesy job interview question I know. I hoped the students would be ambitious yet realistic and address the questions of Why? With who? and most importantly Why?

Most of my students knocked up a few slides showing the Eiffel Tower or a palm tree and rolled out the usual sentences about eating chicken in the beach or knowing to the beautiful torre eiffel. I've grouped my student's responses about their ideal location into more manageable geographies. I know what you're thinking . . . what does it look like as a pie chart?

Well, feast your eyes on this.

Popular destinations in Europe included Spain, Paris and strangely Holland. I thought all Mexican hated the Netherlands after the FIFA World Cup debacle. For those who wanted to live at the beach I asked why they weren't studying in Puerto Escondido or Huatulco - they just rolled their eyes and said "ahhh expensive teacher". I was more impressed by those who had the realistic goal of living and working in Monterrey, Puebla or another big Mexican city. Whilst they knew more about the realities of how to achieve their goal, the lack of research was still fairly astounding. Many mentioned that they wanted to study at this university or work in that hospital but knew nothing of the entry requirements or working conditions there.

Bizarre statistic:

One student included their top five preferred places to live, but represented it as a bar chart thus showing number 5 as looking the most important and number 1 as less attractive. It also included the comedy mistake of listing cities as countries or vice verca.

I think the students don't really know what they want. They haven't had to think about the future before. Many showed their hometown and said that they wanted to live close to their family, which is fine but made me think why did you answer this question then? Their lack of life experience really shone through as they all seemed to equate happiness with big houses and higher salaries in big cities without giving thought to paying more in living expenses and having previously said that their family makes them happy.

Favourite question response:
Me: "Do you like Mariachi music?"
Student: "err . . . no teacher"
Me: "Do you drink Tequila"
Student: "No teacher, no drink alcohol, is bad"
Me: "So why was your Guadalajara dream presentation all about Mariachis and Tequila?"
Student: "Because is very important!"
Me: "Why is it important for you to live in Guadalajara?"
Student: "Because is very interesting."
Me: "Why is it interesting?"
Student: "Because is beautiful"

Ahh, the familiar old 'important, interesting, beautiful' loop.

The evidence:

Here's a couple of videos showing what kind of presentation the students came up with. Some were better than others.

The good . . .

This student not only has a higher level of English and better fluency, but often thinks outside the box and tries to do more than the bare minimum. I was really pleased with his focus on one of Oaxaca's problems, his personal examples and his suggested steps to improve things. He practiced the presentation and kept focus on himself by minimising words on the slides.

and the bad . . .

This student is of an average level in terms of speaking and writing abilities. Unfortunately she didn't practice, got nervous, flipped between slides and included a lot of erroneous information. She didn't make a clear argument or interest the audience. Sorry about the quality of the video, if you can stand to watch part of it, you'll get an idea about how difficult it was for me to sit through 90 of these. She was by no means the worst.

Emotions run high:

I always knew I was taking on a bit too much with this project. Trying to coach the kids through the presentations and assessing them individually didn't work. After two solid days of presentations I was absolutely broken. It turned out to be the most difficult days of my teaching career as I was left exhausted, frustrated and saddened. Don't get me wrong, I didn't expect them to deliver a Steve Jobs style professional keynote speech, but their lack of effort, ability and awareness really got to me.

Seeing 60 kids who probably won't graduate let alone travel abroad telling you they dream of living in Paris while showing the Italian flag on screen is heartbreaking. Watching 30 recitals of Oaxaca's woes without one viable solution being offered made me question what I'm doing here and whether things can ever improve. I felt that I had a really good opportunity to teach something to the students but had bungled it so that it was a waste of everyone's time. As ever I was more frustrated with myself, than with them.

However, depression never lasts too long at UNSIS. I was cheered up in my last class by a bizarre question. A rather happy go lucky girl was in the mood to find out as much information about teacher as possible and asked


"What is your favourite object?"
"My favourite object? I dunno, maybe my guitar. Why? What's yours?"
"Ah no nothing teacher."

Learning a lot:

I may be a little down on the execution of this project, but that students did take away some small tips and learnings after four weeks of me drilling it into their skulls. The majority had minimal text on their slides and used images to demonstrate their point. They used lots of presentation phrases like "Today I'm going to talk about . . .". Some asked questions to the audience or used some (questionable) statistics or quotes. Those that took it seriously practised and memorised their speeches quite well.

The negatives have already been mentioned, but most disappointing of all was their lack of desire to question or to look deeper into a problem or solution. I wish they would concentrate more on why they are at university, rather than worrying about which smart clothes to wear which wasn't a requirement!
To be fair, I didn't get too much of this

I think if I were to do this again I would have to do it in groups and make it more of a research based presentation on more specific problems (e.g. health in Oaxaca). I could go through where to look for information and how to collate and demonstrate it slide by slide. I'd insist on them practicing their performance for weeks to make the presentation as good as they can be.

Although babying them this much might drain my resources and resolve just as much as my two days of projector based hell, they would have a piece of work to be proud of at the end of it. I would like to video all of them in the future and then have their classmates assess them to show where they did well, and where they fell down. In conclusion I nearly killed myself getting through the projects this semester, but I'd do it again in a heartbeat because I'm always looking to improve and every little bit of instruction helps the students to develop.

I hope you enjoyed my presentation about the presentations.