INTRODUCTION:  When I first joined the Speech and Theatre Department at Madison Area Technical College many years ago, I noticed that the dropout rate in the Intro to Speech courses was very high.  About 40% of those who began the course were not completing it, with some sections having dropout rates as high as 75%. I began a concerted effort, via research in best practices around the country, to reverse that trend.

By administering an assessment tool called the Personal Report of Communication Apprehension (PRCA), I discovered that our students’ average scores (75 compared to the national average of 60) predicted they would have a difficult time managing their apprehension during a speech. (The PRCA was developed by Dr. James McCroskey in an effort to find ways to identify college freshmen who might be in danger of failing the Intro to Speech Course at the University of Iowa.) I believe students’ fear is caused by a lack of preparation in speech skills coupled with previous negative experiences. Only about 28% of our students reported having studied public speaking, yet students often reported that public speaking activities had previously been assigned.  From kindergarten to college they had been asked to stand in front of their peers with little or nothing in the ways of skills, practice or coaching.  Many failed these experiences and decided they were not gifted in public speaking.  Some even had horror stories that underscored the fact that our department’s high dropout rate had far more to do with past experiences than with present abilities.

I concluded that our students’ communication apprehension could account for a significant portion of the drop outs, and we could do something about that. The literature in Interpersonal and Organizational Communications notes a clear correlation between levels of self-confidence, trust of others, and self-disclosure. The idea is that self-confidence grows when people feel trusting of those around them, and trust rises as a result of self-disclosure.  With this in mind I began to experiment with activities designed to promote self-disclosure, build trust, and foster self-confidence.

Two of these activities are the “I Am Poem” followed by a Gallery Walk exercise. These activities can be replicated in any course where students are asked to make presentations and/or where it would be beneficial to raise students’ level of self-confidence.  These two activities will take part of one class and all of another.

PURPOSE:

  • To build an atmosphere of trust in the classroom.
  • To help students gain self-confidence.

SUPPLIES/SET UP:

  • Personal Report of Communication Apprehension (PRCA) This instrument can be found HERE.
  • 11×17 white sheets of paper
  • Markers
  • Handout: I Am Poem Instruction Sheet, with example (appended below)
  • Masking tape
  • Post-it notes 2″x2″

DIRECTIONS: 

1. Administer the PRCA, return scores, and brainstorm reasons why students may feel any level of communication apprehension.  Give the following homework assignment: Write a journal entry identifying reasons why you have anxiety about giving a speech.

2. In the next class, begin by telling the students “We are going to experiment with self-disclosure. Sharing things about yourself can help develop trust and respect for your classmates. This atmosphere will help many of you feel more comfortable giving your speeches, and, of course, you will get better grades. In this activity you will look deeply inside yourself, putting your dreams and feeling to words in a scripted poem about yourself.”

3. Ask volunteers to read aloud the sample “I Am” poems on the handout (see RESOURCES below).  

4. Tell the students “You, too, can write an ‘I Am’ poem. How? See the ‘I Am’ Directions.  Here is a line-by-line guide you can follow.  It may seem strange at first to write a poem this way, but give it a try.  You may surprise yourself.  Some students who have tried this approach have been amazed by the results. Begin by describing two things about yourself; special things that we might not know.  Avoid the obvious and the ordinary, such as ‘I am an 18 year old man with brown hair and hazel eyes.’ Think of things about yourself that are distinctive. For example, ‘I am a woman who bruises easily and believes in astrology- when the stars are right’ is better because it give a sense of the speaker and how she is unique.  Don’t be afraid to be different. Once you have the opening line you are ready to take off.”

5. Give students 20 minutes to draft their poems.

6. “Now that you have the poem drafted, rewrite it on the 11×17 poster paper using a marker. You may use any high-contrast colors that are easily read.  Write carefully and cleanly. Do not identify yourself on the poem. Put your signature on the back of your poster.  Then, using the masking tape, hang your poem on the classroom wall.”

7. When all of the poems are hung, tell students, “Now wander around the Gallery of Poems and provide positive written feedback to the poems. The use of ‘I’ messages is best for building trust.  So, ‘Great imagery’ is a nice thing to say but is really evaluative and not helpful in building trust.  ‘I was touched by the images of sadness in your poem’ would be more effective. During the Gallery Walk, please remain silent.”

I tell the students to “write your comment on a post it note, sign it, and stick the note on the edge of the poem or on the wall next to the poem.”  Then I demonstrate by writing a comment to one poem and sticking the note on the poem. 

Finally I remind the students: “We are experimenting with building trust through self-disclosure. Provide feedback that will reinforce a sense of trust and respect for your classmates.  Being specific will be most effective in engendering trust.  ‘Good Job’ is unhelpful.  ‘I enjoyed the humor in your poem’ is better.  ‘I was moved by your feelings for your sister” would be best.”

8. The Gallery Walk continues until the end of the class session.  Often students choose to continue to give feedback after class and during the next class period.

9. When the Gallery Walk ends, I ask students to take their poems down and spend time reading the comments. Then I ask them to write a journal about the experience. The prompt is, “How did you feel as you read the comments from your classmates?”

EXPERIENCES:

I have had some amazing results with this activity.  Students who normally hate poetry often write expressive, funny, and revealing poems.  Often the poems are sad, witty, bittersweet and personal.  Students reveal things in this exercise about their past exploits, their current challenges and joys, and their anticipation about the future.

As the students consider the prompts and craft their poems, I am available to coach them.  Frankly, it is rare that students experience writers’ block with this type of exercise because of the prompts.  When a student is stuck, I gently coach them to take a risk and think about how things could be in an ideal life.  A sample prompt might be: “If you could live exactly the life you want today, what would it look like?”  “How would you see yourself in that life?” “What would others think/say about you in this life?” Thinking about what they would like to be often prompts them to write openly. Extroverts love this exercise because they love to share.  Self-disclosure isn’t a problem for extroverts, but honesty sometimes is.  I often remind students that the exercise is one in self-disclosure not fantasy.  Students who are introverted tell me they feel freed by the fact that peers don’t know who wrote the poem. And they love reading one another’s poems. 

I often hear laughter from some as they consider what to share about themselves.  I remember one person who was giggling all the way through the writing of her poem and then when it was posted, I discovered that she had written about her relationship with a boy that had just ended.  She indicated that writing the poem was cathartic for her, and helped her realize how silly her crush on the boy had been. Another student, who was on the baseball team, initially felt that the assignment was “too much like middle school.”  After he completed it, he said, “I feel that people won’t just define me as a jock now. I have a lot of things in my life for people to see.”  Another young man, who was experimenting with many things in his young adulthood included examples of his experimentation in his poem.  This was a bit shocking, but he received such an outpouring of support and positive feedback during the Gallery Walk that his self-confidence grew considerably.  In his journal he wrote, “I was afraid that no one here would accept my differences, my piercings and tattoos. But now I know that these people are cool with my strangeness.”

OUTCOMES:

Perhaps the strongest outcome of these two activities is that building self-confidence is begun.  Students report in their journal entries that they appreciate the positive nature of the feedback and that they expect more of the same from one another.  One woman wrote, “I’ve never gotten positive feedback in written form like this before.  All I’ve ever seen is red ink telling me what a bad writer I am.  This feedback makes me think I can write anything.” Some people wonder what some of the comments mean.  Others write a second poem in their journal revealing even more about themselves. I give extra credit for such self exploration.

One young woman who was very vocal during the first class period about feeling high anxiety found this to be a pivotal exercise for her.  She had never written about herself before.  She took risks with her poem, revealing many private and delicate things about her childhood.  She was afraid to post it on the Gallery walk even without her name showing.  She asked me to post it for her so no one would know it was hers.  Afterwards, she wrote to me in her journal, “I’ve never had anyone compliment my writing before.  I was always told that I was a poor writer and I didn’t try to improve because I knew I was terrible at it.  Now I felt like I had communicated something important to me.  It didn’t matter if it was well written by some old teacher’s standards, my peers got it!”  This student ended up being one of the top speakers in her class.  Her commemorative speech to her adopted mother brought us all to tears.

Another outcome is the development of respect for the diversity of experience, feelings and aspirations the members of the class have. They report feeling more confident, and, tellingly, they do not drop the class. In fact, about 96% of my students now complete the course. Keep in mind that these are two exercises out of many designed to foster an atmosphere of trust, support and respect. They serve as the beginning of a semester-long journey.  As the first step it is essential that it be taken with clear guidance and in a controlled environment.

The PRCA survey is once again administered as a portion of the final exam.  They take the survey and score themselves.  Then I return their original survey with their scores in a sealed envelope.  As one of the test items, they are asked to write a response to this prompt.  “How does this most recent PRCA score compare with your original score?”  “If the scores are different what do you think accounts for the change?”  Most of the students see a reduction in their scores over the course.  Some reductions are only a few points; some are much more significant.  The average reduction is about 5-10 points. Typically, the students who had the highest scores and more room to lower their anxiety, see a more dramatic change. I’ve seen students with initial PRCA scores of 89 change to the mid 60’s.

LESSONS LEARNED: 

I’ve learned that you have to give students a limited time to construct the poem.  I used to assign the poem as homework, but often I got great work from some and nothing from others who were “blocked.” With time in class and the built-in prompts, everyone usually completes their draft in 15 minutes.  I do prep them during the first class period by telling them to think about themselves and be prepared to disclose.

More important, I’ve learned that investing time in the development of the whole student is as important as or even more important than the content of the course. While this project takes much of the first week in my course, it has paid off in improved retention, higher course grades, and in my students’ understanding that the course requires them to take charge of their learning.

I’ve also learned that moving myself to the sidelines and coaching my students is a much more powerful way to facilitate learning than my lectures ever were. Activities like the “I Am” poem allow the facilitator to carefully design and control the experience and still allow the student to be fully in charge and engaged in learning.

SOURCES:

The source for the exercise is a long forgotten Interpersonal Communications Workbook called, Nothing Never Happens by Johnson, K., Senator, J, Leiby, M. and Milor, G. published by Glencove Press, 1974, Beverly Hills, CA. The book is apparently out of print.  Another book with the same title can be found on Amazon, but this is not the same text. 

RESOURCES:  

Two Examples of “I Am” Poems:

1. I am a nutty guy who likes dolphins.
I wonder what I, and the world, will be like in the year 2025
I hear silence pulsing in the middle of the night
I see a dolphin flying up to the sky
I want the adventure of life before it passes me by.
I am a nutty guy who likes dolphins.
 
I pretend that I am the ruler of the world.
I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders.
I touch the sky, the stars, the moon, and all planets as representatives of mankind.
I worry about the devastation of a nuclear holocaust
I cry for all the death and poverty in the world
I am a nutty guy who likes dolphins.
 
I understand the frustration of not being able to do something easily.
I say that we are all equal.
I dream traveling to other points on the earth.
I try to reach out to poor and starving children.
I hope that mankind will be at peace and not die out.
I am a nutty guy who likes dolphins.

 

2. I am a painfully inquisitive and joyfully positive teacher
I wonder if my mother can see me working
I hear the sound of my students performing
I see a people filled with nobility
I want our country to lead by example not by force
I am a painfully inquisitive and joyfully positive teacher
 
I pretend that I am world famous
I feel that I haven’t accomplished much in my life
I touch the hearts and minds of my audience
I worry that my children will be harmed
I cry at moments of loss
I am a painfully inquisitive and joyfully positive teacher
 
I understand that I have a lot to learn
I say why not?
I dream about the way things could be.
I try to positively affect the future by my actions today
I hope future generations can get it right
I am a painfully inquisitive and joyfully positive teacher
 

**Directions for Writing an “I Am” Poem

PURPOSE:  To disclose information about yourself in an effort to share and learn about one another.

DIRECTIONS:  You, too, can write an “I Am” Poem. How? Begin by describing two things about yourself. Special things that we might not know.  Avoid the obvious and the ordinary, such as “I am an 18 year old man with brown hair and hazel eyes.” Think of things about yourself that are distinctive.

“I am a woman who bruises easily and believes in astrology- when the stars are right.”  That’s better because it give a sense of the speaker and how she is unique.  Don’t be afraid to be different.

Once you have the opening line you are ready to take off.  Here is a line-by-line guide you can follow.  It may seem strange at first to write a poem this way, but give it a try.  You may surprise yourself.  Some students who have tried this approach have been amazed by the results.

I Am

I am (two characteristics about yourself)
I wonder (something you are actually curious about)
I hear (an imaginary sound)
I see (an imaginary sight)
I want (an actual desire)
I am (the first line repeated)
 
I pretend (something that you actually pretend to do)
I feel (a feeling about something)
I touch (an imaginary touch)
I worry (something you actually worry about)
I cry (something that makes you sad)
I am (the first line repeated)
 
I understand (something you know is true)
I say (something you believe in)
I dream (something you actually dream about)
I try (something you make an effort toward)
I hope (something you actually hope for)
I am (the first line repeated)
 

–Patrick Barlow, Staff Development Coordinator & Faculty, Speech, Madison Area Technical College, WI

Forum Image Option“I Am” Poem & Gallery Walk Forum