Informed performance: Mr. Zahn’s presentation training

My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Zahn, passed away over the weekend. As I was remembering his class, two things stood out. First, he led our choir and always included Beatles’ songs, even at Christmas. We must have been a sight, a group of 11 year-old girls singing When I’m 64. Thanks to him, I’ve always wondered about the Isle of Wight, but I digress…  Second, and actually more importantly, he taught us presentation skills.

The major project of our sixth grade year was a presentation on a European country. Mr. Zahn eschewed the standard pre-Powerpoint presentation format of reading from a ragged notebook page. Instead, he taught us to use notecards, to practice, to incorporate color, visuals, costumes, food, and stories into our presentations. The next year, our school would get their first computers and the following year, my parents purchased our first home computer. Powerpoint would first be released, in black-and-white, a year later. At this point, we had posterboard and our imaginations.

In preparation for our presentations, he first discussed the content. We needed to know our countries backward and forward. We should thoroughly present details of the country following his guidelines (history, traditions, major cities, population, etc.). Then he educated us in the need to engage our audience. Mr. Zahn’s background was in theater and music. He discussed the importance of visuals. At the very least, everyone should include a map, flag, and some representation of traditional costuming of our chosen country. “A” students, he said, wore costumes and transformed the classroom into the country for the day. He said we shouldn’t just rattle off facts about the country, but instead tell its story.

The popular countries — England, Ireland, Scotland, and France — got picked quickly. I chose the USSR — in the late 80’s a controversial choice, but my grandmother had just traveled there, so I knew I’d have plenty of visual aids. It was rumored impossible to receive a 100 percent score on the country presentation — Mr. Zahn didn’t even give one out each year, so the bar was set high. In addition to using an entire red posterboard for the flag (some kids brought in homemade flags and costumes), I borrowed some of my grandma’s photos and created a collage. We ordered pumpernickel bread with honey butter from a local bakery (not quite borscht, but more palatable to 6th graders!). As I was preparing, Julie Phillips delivered her presentation on Ireland.  She arrived dressed in costume, with a wand-like pointer. She was well-practiced and delivered a highly polished presentation. Her posters were impeccably designed and featured cut-out pictures from travel magazines. Julie received the coveted perfect score.

As we watched the presentations, Mr. Zahn would point out what made the use of visuals strong — how color maps were more effective than black and white, how labeling the capital helped us see it better. He commented on students’ use of notecards or memorization. He used Julie as an example of memorizing her presentation, but practicing it enough that it sounded natural and not like a recitation.

My dad and I kept brainstorming about ways to make my presentation unique. We wanted to show the richness of Russian culture despite the Cold War tensions. We decided we should play music in the background — something none of the other students had done (my presentation was last, since I’d chosen such a large country). So, on the day of my presentation, I passed around food and brought in Russian dolls and wooden cart-type toys for my classmates to check out. When I started discussing the Russian Revolution, I played music softly on the record player and discussed, as students were avoiding eating the pumpernickel, the lack of food, the cold winters, etc. In hindsight, it was my first multi-media presentation!

Before Powerpoint, Mr. Zahn taught our sixth grade class the importance of presentations, with an emphasis on engagement. He said that presentations were mostly informed performance…we needed to know our content and thoroughly prepare, but also engage our audience through story and visuals. Mr. Zahn followed a social constructivist method of teaching; empowering us to own our content by teaching it to others. We actively participated in the subject matter of the class in nearly every subject. He modeled for me what good teaching is: engaging students and empowering them to take control of their learning experience. Without realizing it, I’ve carried those lessons into my academic career and shared them with colleagues and students.

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