Let’s Say Slideshows Are Bad for Teaching and See What We Have

I. The Good Of Slideshows

I’m in essay grading mode. That means I’m living and breathing essays. I’m reading and reading and commenting and commenting. It’s a lot: like 151 essays a lot. In this mode, my planning bell where I have been given time to “plan” is now my “grading” bell. My sleep patterns are adjusted: I wake up earlier just to grade because, after school, I’m just drained. The reason: it takes me about 10 minutes per essay, which is about 25 hours of grading that I cannot do during class time.

The thing about essay grading mode is that school must go on. Therefore, I spend what little time I have in class to frantically plan the next day. Like many teachers, I have transferred many lessons to slideshows because they are easily editable and easily presentable. They look pretty good too. It requires no effort to display a slideshow. And best of all, they can be reused ad infinitum. So it is no surprise that in this state of grading fever, slideshows I’ve made become time-saving treasures. I throw them in lesson plans with a sigh of relief, of thanks to this past Mr. Wilson.

II. The Messiness of Writing and How It Relates to Teaching

When I was growing up, learning grammar terrified me. I didn’t know anything about grammar save for my French class, and it scared me to write something down that wasn’t grammatically correct. This made me a hesitant writer. I had this feeling of blunt inferiority when it came to writing. Especially so when I compared myself to the writing of my teachers. My English teachers were so good that even their written instructions on assignments were immaculate and professional-looking. They used sentence structures that miffed me, punctuation marks were still quite exotic to me. So smart. And then, like every English class, we read these heralded authors whose writings are poetry even if not in the poetic genre. In high school, I always felt like I was this small fry amongst the masters, and in college the feeling deepened. I read Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss and tried to make it my writing guide. I took a grammar class and got pretty lost with the professor and with the required book: A Writer’s Grammar by C. Beth Burch.

I became a teacher with my grammar muscles still quite atrophied. I guiltily listened to the podcast Grammar Girl. I consumed grammar books by interesting people: The Deluxe Transitive Vampire and The New Well-Tempered Sentence by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, Lapsing Into a Comma by Bill Walsh, and Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner. I finally read—having read many snippets of it in high school and college—The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and EB White. I took an unpopular stance on the Oxford comma and could defend it well.

But then I read The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language and Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, both by Stephen Pinker. I read about the history of English in The Story of English by Robert McCrum and Robert MacNeil. I read style guides by rule-breaking types: Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale and Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik. I learned that language is not logical, it’s messy, it’s artistic. It’s human. In fact, language is the most democratic thing on the planet.

Then I started in on the books on writing by writers themselves. I read On Writing by Stephen King twice. I read Anne Lamotte’s beautiful and encouraging Bird by Bird. I got into an Ernest Hemingway phase and read the compendium that Larry W. Phillips put together, aptly called Ernest Hemingway on Writing. I read about the creative processes of artists, musicians, and writers in Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. I read a style guide by the thinker that helped me understand my instinctual descriptivism: The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker.

Finally, I read tons and tons of online interviews of writers and their process from really, really good modern classic writers to independent self-published ones. (When interviews were free, The Paris Review was wonderful for this.)

The findings are thus: knowing all the grammatical rules does not make you a better writer. Language and culture are always changing, and it is up to the writer to write successfully in that field. Furthermore, writing something for yourself is always easier than to write for other people. In essence, writing is just a plan mess. Communication itself is such a convergence of so many things: biases, aesthetic appeals, connotations, relevance longevity, empathy, etc. In order to get it right, good writing consists of drafts and drafts, of pondering how to best say something to an audience with or without grammar. And when all you see is the final product, good writing looks beyond reach or, if you are inexperienced and optimistic (read: many teenagers), easy.

Teaching, like writing, is a form of communication, albeit a far more interactive one. My classroom audience has a built-in experience problem. In fact, every year, the gap in our age and culture widens. In order to be effective, I need to be ready to learn something new every bell I teach. I am constantly changing lesson plans, even between bells. Nothing is fully formed. It’s just approaching that, always. And when I became a teacher I realized that this messiness, this ever-learning-ness, is the thing that students need to see the most. Students should not leave high school thinking that the content of their learning, the examples, the skills, the knowledge, are all paragonal. This is final draft learning. What matters most is the process and the skill of learning, of being open and in flux.

III. Presentations vs. Teaching

If you want to be transparent and messy, then slideshows are not good for teaching. They impart a semblance of perfection upon a lesson, a set-in-stoneness. And many teachers are not good slideshow presenters. I myself have made terrible slideshow faux pas. I’ve read off of slides. I’ve flummoxed my way through year old examples that aren’t familiar anymore. I’ve wasted precious class time by navigating the technical difficulties that sometimes come up when editing or revising slides in front of students. And I’ve made the horrendous blunder of rushing through slides, unheedful of student “ummms” or “waits!” or sighs.

Presentations require lots of practice: telling the story of new information in an engaging way, knowing the invisible next slide, and eloquently merging word and visual. To get all this right, we rehearse our presentations out loud in a secluded place or in front of a mirror. We may make notecards or memorize certain lines. We time our performance to ensure it’s the appropriate length. Presentations are for audiences, not for students.

It’s not that we teachers are bad presenters. I’ve seen some amazing teacher presentations. But many teachers, including myself, use slideshows as a tool of efficiency. This is where the slideshow fails. It puts up a curtain behind the rough and messy, the bits that teachers need to show for students to understand how something is something. Slideshows don’t show work, they show the end result, immaculate and clean. And this environment allows for the blunders of an ill-prepared presenter, furthering the distance between the lesson and student understanding.

IV. The Anatomy of a Slideshow

One of things that we forget when we use slideshows is that they can overwhelm students with information. We can have just so many sentences and words and pictures on a single slide. We can have just so many explanations. If there is excess anywhere, even just a little too much, students may give up. Or, they valiantly flail about in their notebooks, grasping at what seems most important while information continues in unending torrents. Simply enough, just having the two mediums together can present a problem if not properly vetted: “[D]uplicated pieces of information—spoken and written—don’t positively reinforce one another; instead, the two flood students’ abilities to handle the information”. I am reminded of David Attenborough’s calming, measured, and succinct narrations of famous nature documentaries. We may not be able to see that a lion is hungry, but we don’t need to be told that it is a meat-eater, that it walks on four legs, that it is a large cat, that it breathes the same air that we do.

It’s difficult to slow down with a slideshow. Waiting is tough, especially if you must make the same wait six times a day. When we present, we do not wait for our audience to understand, to take notes. In order for our audience to be fully focused, presentations must be entertaining. There is no dead air in entertainment. When we use slideshows in our classrooms, the draw to speak in the wait time silence can be too much, the error of overloading our students with information as the consequence. Better to be active with the students. That’s why using the whiteboard, which may now be thought of as kind of old school, works so well. It makes the teacher distill the information just as much as the student.

The form of a slideshow is deceptive. It looks perfect. You design a slideshow and have fun organizing its structure, its color, its ultimate look and effect. (I use slideshows as daily agendas for these reasons.) But once a lesson begins and you’re in presentation mode, it is cumbersome to reconstruct or add information. The temptation to just verbally correct errors or add information is strong. This makes a slideshow the opposite of a conversation, and teaching should be a conversation. One that has a sense of building meaning together. Slideshows are mechanistic, they are the same for every class, offering no personalization.

But it’s not like I can’t open an older slideshow up before I teach a lesson, evaluate it, and edit it. This is possible. But when you have so many things on your plate, as teachers do—grading, lesson planning, email replying and sending, tutoring students in need, reviewing and rereading texts, copying class materials, organizing the digital part of the classroom, various meetings, etc.—you tend to gloss over past slideshows and take the awkward hit of teaching something less than perfect. Creation is always more internalizing than revision. Especially so after a year of not going over something. When I revise an essay, the creation of that first draft is still fresh in my mind. But with a year old slideshow, it’s like a lost friend who I both know and don’t know. And the temptation to efficiency, to just quickly fix it and be done with it, is just too much. It’s why humans easily defy speed limits or would rather watch the movie than the book or eat fast food instead of taking the time to make something healthier. We are bad about thinking of the long term, which, if modeled in the classroom, is a disservice to teenage students who are even more terrible about thinking of the long term.

V. We Need More Inefficient Teaching

It’s no surprise that the best way to learn something is to teach it. We often tell our students that the first reading is never the same as any other reading. If the text is good, there is always something else you didn’t notice on a prior read. And if you are human, the new experiences you bring to a previously read text changes your understanding of it. It is in this same spirit that each year, we reevaluate our lesson plans, units, classroom structure, and teaching styles in the spirit of improvement and betterment. We approach problems anew with different analytical prowess, with matured perspective. We find gaps, as Richard Feynman, the famous physicist, did when he wanted to find out what he didn’t know by analyzing what he knew. Feynman would select a concept he knew and dissect it in a dedicated notebook to find the gaps in it, the places that he didn’t know so well. And these gaps were the things he honed in and studied to find new information.

When I have the time, I like to sit down and sketch lesson plans in my notebook, drawing them out in all their messiness. I figure out what I know about the topic. This includes the things I knew the last time I taught the lesson and the new things I’ve learned since teaching the lesson. The new knowledge I’ve since acquired is always considerable and sometimes subtle. In essence, I am recreating my lesson and putting it through the grinder. I’m engaging in “deliberate practice.” I have become the student again. I am learning, not simply reviewing. I create new structure; I find new angles and examples; I up my allusion game.

When I translate these notes to the board, having diligently and thoughtfully reclaimed mastery of the lesson, it gets messy. This is good. My handwriting swoops over the board. Arrows are drawn. New examples are created and fed through the grinder. Students get involved. The board reflects our conversations. I get lost in it. So do students. Each bell different in what gets left up on the board. It’s wonderful. And it is for them and only for them, not for last year’s classes or that of classes five years ago or for future classes yet to come. We have together made this learning possible.

When slideshows are used as a tool of efficiency, they elevate the teacher as presenter. Classrooms don’t need presenters. They need teachers. And in the age where we have very good statistics that efficient things on your phone like texting and social media bring out the worst in us, we must be vigilant about what kinds of efficiencies in tech get the worst in our teaching. Slideshows are one of these things. If we are to be good teachers, we must be what good teachers are: the best learners in the classroom. The person that constantly keeps themselves open to reflection, new ideas, and flux. Slideshows make teachers the smartest and most knowledgeable person in the room. The one that has it all figured out. That’s not what students need. Students need their teachers to be at the board, making a mess, learning as well, plastering their own notebook with new notes and concepts and reflections. For when we want to consult our learnings, we never consult our slideshows. We consult our notes.