How to Get Students Comfortable Speaking in Your Virtual Classroom

There are so many challenges with teaching in a virtual classroom, especially with all the tech issues that can easily consume us. As an organization focused on building confidence and community through communication skill development, we have learned a lot in recent months about communicating online.

We know that social interaction is fundamental to learning. So we had to quickly figure out how to apply to the virtual space what we know about building an inclusive classroom culture where students feel capable enough to lead and speak. Here are our responses to some of the most common questions when trying to get students comfortable talking online.

1. What are the conditions needed to sustain a “culture of talk” in my classroom?

It can be challenging to develop a culture of talk when students are afraid of being judged, reluctant to have attention placed on them, or feel uncertain about interrupting other people. This is especially true in online learning, where there is less flexibility about physical arrangements (i.e. everyone is flat on a screen) and even more uncertainty about interruption. The following resources provide some principles and tools for building a culture of talk:

  • Establishing and Sustaining a Culture of Talk (Coaching Guide Resource 1): This essay describes how coaches can shape a culture that supports everyone and what indicators to look for over time.
  • Conditions for Equitable Voice: What to Say and Do (Coaching Guide Resource 2): Use these tips as suggestions for the kinds of words and actions that contribute to a more equitable learning environment.
  • Self-Assessment of Coaching Mindset and Skills (Coaching Guide Resource 3): Self-assess key mindsets and skills related to coaching public speaking, including approaches to facilitation, pedagogy, and relationship-building.
  • Confidence and the Impact of Fear on Equity (Confidence-Building Guide Resource 1): The author describes her personal perspectives on why the fear of judgment leads to the silencing of diverse perspectives. 
  • Qualities of a Fearless Classroom (Confidence-Building Guide Resource 2): Post this list to remind students of what a fearless classroom looks like (or edit as norms for the home or workplace).

2. How do I help students feel more comfortable to speak?

Students often struggle to formulate their ideas and get stuck when they don’t know how to start. Speaking in a virtual classroom only exacerbates this when it feels like the spotlight is on you. Sentence starters can help by providing some structure and guidance, especially when beginning new routines and norms. As teachers, we don’t always know the exact struggle that’s preventing students from speaking. Let students share through quick check-in surveys. Using a checklist to reflect on the current classroom conditions can also help by identifying opportunities to build a culture of talk. The following resources unpack some of these struggles and provide a few jumping off points:

  • Making Storytelling Inclusive and Equitable (Storytelling Resource 2): This essay describes how stories promote inclusion and how leaders can facilitate equitable conditions for storytelling.
  • Helping People Contribute: Facilitation Moves to Improve Communication (Coaching Guide Resource 8): Use these tips to help students feel comfortable and facilitate equitable discussions where everyone can fully participate.
  • Getting Stories Started: For Educators and Facilitators (Storytelling Resource 4): This one-pager contains 6 personal checkpoints for facilitating opportunities for storytelling.
  • Unpacking the Fear of Public Speaking (Confidence-Building Guide Resource 3): This list includes sources of personal fear and what is needed to address those fears. 
  • Anxieties in the Classroom: A Teacher Checklist (Confidence-Building Guide Resource 10): This checklist outlines questions to ask to reflect on the teacher’s role in helping students handle communication anxiety.

3. How can I get students talking?

It’s not just about getting students “talking”, it’s about how to get them talking about their authentic ideas and expressing their real selves. This can be difficult for students when classroom structures feel rigid, you run out of time, or are worried about how your peers will respond. The following resources can be integrated into your units and lessons to include flexible structures, student choice, ways to encourage self-expression and audience preparation:

  • Stories About Stories (Storytelling Guide Resource 3): The author tells her personal experiences with students and why stories can promote student self-expression. 
  • Getting Stories Started: For Speakers (Storytelling Guide Resource 5): This one-pager contains 6 personal checkpoints to help speakers come up with ideas for stories.
  • Getting Stories Started: For Listeners (Storytelling Guide Resource 6): This one-pager contains 6 personal checkpoints to help people be better audience members when listening to stories.
  • Storytelling Speech Template (Storytelling Guide Resource 9): This format shows one way to weave stories into formal speeches that connect to broader messages.
  • Storytelling Rubric (Storytelling Guide Resource 16): This rubric can be used for a class project or giving feedback on storytelling as a whole. 

4. What should I do in the first 10 minutes of class?

Routines, routines, routines. What are they now in the virtual world? What can you keep and what can you add in to enhance youth voice? The following resources offer quick activities that can be integrated into daily routines, including prompts and some techniques to build student confidence with early success. 

  • Storytelling Warm-Ups (Storytelling Guide Resource 7): These 10 warm-up activities can be used as fun ways to practice storytelling in only 8-15 minutes.
  • Small Steps for Educators: Using Storytelling in Schools (Storytelling Guide Resource 13): This resource provides a list of ideas for incorporating storytelling practice into classrooms and schools.
  • 10 Techniques to Promote Confidence and Early Success (Coaching Guide Resource 7): Use these teaching techniques to help students feel successful as they work on their public speaking skills.

5. What happens when I have a student that won’t say anything at all?

It’s important to start with getting more information from students about why they aren’t speaking in class. The digital learning space is new for most of us, and as with all new things, it takes time to learn the rules of engagement and get comfortable participating on new platforms. Some students need more preparation and we can help them by providing templates, time, sentence starters, guidance, etc. The following resources help to gain information about how students feel and offer a few strategies to support student preparation and participation.

  • What Fear Looks Like and Sounds Like (Confidence-Building Guide Resource 5): Use this resource as a reminder for what the fear of public speaking looks like and sounds like for many people.
  • Communication Anxiety Quiz (Confidence-Building Guide Resource 6): Take this quiz to reflect on personal feelings, triggers, and situations that affect communication anxiety.
  • Storytelling Cheat Sheet (Storytelling Guide Resource 8): Use this cheat sheet for quick tips for strong story beginnings, endings, and overall delivery. 
  • Advocacy Sentence Starters (Advocacy Guide Resource 11): Use these sentence starters to respond in situations of confusion, difference of opinion, or changing the subject.
  • 12 Tips for Time Management (Coaching Guide Resource 12): Use these tips to effectively cover desired content and manage your time to help as many students as possible.

6. What can I do as a class to get students to participate?

Being online doesn’t mean that things have to be boring! Take attention off the teacher with classroom talk activities that have clear protocols, timing, and specified roles to make facilitation easier. The following resources include activity examples with compelling prompts and clear structures to support student engagement:

  • SPAR and Extemporaneous Panels (Debate Guide Resource 14): Practice argumentation skills through standards-based activities using these protocols for panels and mini-debates.
  • Getting Debate Started for Speakers (Debate Guide Resource 5): This one-pager contains 6 personal checkpoints to help people be better audience members when listening to presentations.
  • Activity Examples: Morality on the Spot and Expert Shares (Presentation Guide Resource 14): Practice spontaneous speaking through short presentations such as these two standards-based examples (which include a self-assessment and prompts). 
  • Activity Examples: Advocacy Simulations (Advocacy Guide Resource 14): Use simulations to explore real-world advocacy, such as IEP role plays, school board meetings, and documentaries.

You can also download the PDF version here!

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