The very thought of public speaking can strike fear in even the most polished professionals.
The scenario is the subject of nightmares for many adults, but recently a group of elementary students squashed that fear, giving presentations to classmates and community members in the Decatur ISD boardroom.
Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in DISD’s Advanced Academics classes presented proposals for improvements or enhancements to either their school campus or the city of Decatur.
The project evolved over months, starting in the fall with kids working together to come up with an idea, researching how to implement it and the cost associated with it, and culminating with their presentations April 10.
“Part of project-based learning is presenting to an audience outside of the school,” said Advanced Academics teacher Danielle Scroggins. “They know they’re accountable but to be accountable to other people that they may or may not know they have to really step it up and know their stuff.
“That’s the biggest part of project-based learning. The kids have a real-world connection.”
Sixty-eight children, ranging in age from 8 to 11, worked in groups and made 24 presentations to their classmates, parents and community leaders.
To kick off the project, Advanced Academics took a field trip to Roanoke. Scroggins said students were initially uninterested in the trip, but once they arrived, they began to notice the draw of downtown and the amenities the community offers residents.
“They were impressed with the pavilion area, and they felt the main street was very homey,” she said.
When they returned to campus, they were asked to answer the following question: How can we improve the opportunities in Decatur?
Scroggins said the students compared Roanoke and Decatur and began brainstorming ideas for community projects or ways to promote their city. From that, several also came up with ideas on how to improve their schools.
Ideas ranged from bike rentals to storefront flowerpots in downtown Decatur, to fish ponds and cafeteria choices at elementary campuses.
“Anytime it’s the kids’ first time with this type of project, they want to know the ‘how,’ but I wasn’t giving them a ‘how’ ,” said Scroggins. She described it as an exercise in active participation – and teamwork.
Many of the students said it was harder than expected to agree on the specifics of their projects.
“There were a few times that we were just not getting along,” said fifth-grader Jada Boner. “But we realized that we just needed to listen.”
Fourth grader Reese Montcalm said there were days when team members were absent, and in the end, he learned “teamwork is best.”
“It’s hard to get anything done by yourself,” he said.
Once the projects were finalized, the kids prepared their presentation, which had to include a video.
Everyone seemed to have different expectations.
“I was expecting a small room with only like five people there,” said Montcalm.
Fifth-grader Brittany Tye expected something similar to the state Capitol.
“I thought it was going to be a huge room with a bottom layer and a thing around the top, so I got in there and thought, ‘This is not what I thought,'” she recalled.
Boner said most students were nervous, and it was intimidating to think about getting up in front of the audience.
“You wanted to go up there, but at the same time you thought you were going to get sick if you did,” she said.
During the presentations, students in the audience used iPads to fill out online surveys about each presentation, and they also posted comments and photos to their class social media page, Edmodo.
Fifth-grader Chrystian Chapman said that was the most fun part, seeing what people posted about your presentation on Edmodo.
Decatur City Manager Brett Shannon was one of a handful of community members invited to hear the presentations, and he said he was “very impressed.” He noted that students not only had to make the presentation, but also run the computer equipment and answer questions afterward.
“I don’t think I could have done that in the third grade,” he said. “I thought they were pretty polished overall. You could tell they had worked hard on it.
“There are a few that we can partially implement, and hopefully it’ll be something that they notice and citizens will, too,” Shannon said.
Beyond Four Walls, an organization created by Decatur ISD teachers to fund educational opportunities and community involvement projects proposed by students, is considering funding two projects.
Scroggins said the idea that their projects might actually be developed was a source of additional inspiration, although students admitted last week to being nervous about whether their project would be chosen.
They also felt a sense of accomplishment with the presentations behind them. They had learned how to handle sweaty palms, an upset stomach and a mouth that’s stone dry.
“Whenever you’re really nervous, you just take control of everything, and it’s really easy,” Tye announced in a recent group interview with students.
“You could have told me that on presentation day!” chided Boner, one of her partners.
But the newfound knowledge was something learned by experience, and this is one they won’t soon forget.