To Speak, Perchance To Be Seen

Michelle Bulla, October 2018
To Speak, Perchance, To Be Seen

Regardless of your personal perspective on who is or is not truthful, how we present ourselves for public consumption is part of the much-debated, hotly contested, contentious, emotionally gut-wrenching, and highly significant events of this past week as many of us have been riveted to the testimonies and hearing for the open position on the Supreme Court.

Knowing how we appear to others, being conscious and responsible for how we come across and the resultant impact of our visual presence, and cultivating a presence that suits our purpose is part of what we need to teach our students. Their voices matter, and we are obliged to help them present themselves/their voices in ways their audiences will accept as competent and sincere.

Recently, I was invited to participate in a recorded video conversation with a dear friend and a group of others on a topic related to her most recent book. I was nervous – I had never done anything like this before. While I’ve grown used to hearing my recorded voice through various “home movies” made by my nieces, I have not been party to an extended, recorded professional conversation where not only did I not want to sound stupid or stumble on my words / ideas, but I also did not want to appear visually as anything but engaged and excited.

Women have learned to be self-conscious about how they are perceived, especially in work situations, and many will admit they’ve been told to “just smile more.” When smiling is not your face’s default expression (for me this stems from my adolescent self deciding I looked garish when I smiled), you find the voice in your head telling your facial muscles to move into a smile at what seems like inappropriate times because you’re having either a serious conversation, or no one has in fact cracked a joke.

I’m not trying to write about the contentious topic of men finding it difficult to work with women who are not bubbly and cheery all the time, but rather to set the stage for a discussion on self-awareness when speaking publicly.

This is relevant because it is partly why I was nervous about this video conversation, and while I think I managed to sound intelligent and focused and real, I realized I want to work on how I visually come across on all occasions, but particularly on ones where I may not have a chance for my audience to get to know me well.

The work of one’s image and presentation to the world is supremely relevant to our work in developing student voices, and thus to our teaching and to our students’ learning.

Here’s a case where I tried to do just that with my students.

Last year, I gave my AP Lit & Comp students an assignment to video record themselves reading a poem of their choice from a component of our year-long study of poetry. I asked them to post the videos to FlipGrid, a new teaching tool I wanted to experiment with. The assignment was in February, long after we’d already been listening to a different student each day read a poem aloud at the start of class (if you’re curious about this, read my blog post about this ritual), as well as after they’d all participated in a Poetry Out Loud in-class competition which, while ungraded, was mandatory.

One of my students, speaking for himself and his peers, sent me the following email in response to the assignment. I want you to know before you read it that I was thrilled to receive this email, despite not being excited about its content. Why? Because my student felt confident in using his voice even in an uncomfortable position. I felt I had at least succeeded in creating an environment where they could be honest and start using their voices.

Student Letter (both the letter and my response are unedited from their original “publication” :

Dear Mrs. Bulla,

I debated back and forth on sending this email to you and decided to send it. I think it’s important for you to know this for your future classes and even our own class dynamic. I don’t want you to see this as me trying to get out of an assignment or be lazy. Hopefully, you’ve seen for this year that isn’t my work ethic. This is me being honest with someone I respect greatly about what I see as a real issue.

I don’t agree with the assignment you’ve given us for Flipgrid. That isn’t me saying I won’t do it just that I don’t think it’s fair. Just recording our voices would be different, but it’s a video. That’s uploaded for not only a grade but for our peers to see. You can imagine the obvious self-esteem issues that this could drag up, but it goes deeper than that. In this day and age, there’s so many images were all inundated with. Everywhere we see shining perfect models of humanity. Social media has only made this worse, till there’s a real anxiety among teenagers to always look perfect. I’m going to be honest, I don’t feel like this adds anything to my education. I can see the value in recording just my voice for an assignment even if I still don’t like it, but a video isn’t something I can’t understand. I don’t feel comfortable in my body, most teenagers don’t. It’s not a great thing, it’s not a bad thing, it just is. It’s not an issue I want to have to address with myself right now. I’ll figure out a way to feel comfortable on camera if I need to, but forcing a situation where your students need to feel comfortable on camera, I don’t think it’s alright. If this was acting class or public speaking it would be different. I understand it’s your classroom, but as a student in it, I felt the need to tell you this. I’m not the only one who feels this way. I’ve discussed this with other student and they feel the same way.

It’s poetry. Even if you read someone else’s poem, poetry is inherently emotional. It’s feeling and life and music all moved into words, incredibly personal words. To have this assignment not only be a video, but a video of reading poetry, it’s an intimate thing to do. No matter how you view it, even if it’s someone else’s poem, or just a 90-second recording, it’s intimate. That’s a level of intimacy I’m not comfortable giving to 30 other people who I don’t know that well, and I’m not the only one who thinks that. This is different than saying a poem in front of the class. People eventually forget things that they watch in real life. Online it would be there forever. Maybe making it an extra credit optional thing, or letting us perform the poetry in class instead would be an option for future classes.

I want you to know I’m not sending this to disrespect you in any way. Actually the opposite, I respect you enough to do something that completely terrifies me- disagree with a teacher and tell them. It isn’t easy to tell someone in a position of power something like this, and I hope you can understand where I’m coming from. Thanks for reading all of this, even if it just manages to annoy you at least I let you know how I and others of the class may feel. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

~student name withheld for privacy, though this text is reprinted with his permission for the purposes of this blog

This student made great points! More importantly, his response taught me that I had not done my due diligence in explaining the rationale for the assignment I had given. Thus, I was lacking buy-in. I was grateful for the opportunity to garner that, and here’s my response, which I posted on our Google Classroom for all to read:

It has come to my attention that there are some concerns with the FlipGrid assignment to record and post a video of yourself reading a poem.

My goals with the assignment were quite the opposite of the sentiments of concern (it’s too intimate, it brings up body image anxieties, etc.). They were to see and work on how we present ourselves visually when we attempt to convey a matter of personal importance, and to work on the physical demeanor of that. While it might be uncomfortable to crystallize that in a video, recording of “voice only” does not address the visual, physical reality of how we present ourselves. Is a recording a valid exercise? Absolutely. And it addresses related and significant skills. Is an in-class presentation a valid exhibition of this? Absolutely. But it doesn’t afford the personal reflection that actually seeing one’s own self does.

I had hoped / wanted for this opportunity to be one where we could take the myriad experiences of speaking in front of class (acting out Hamlet, participating in discussions, reading a self-chosen poem 2-3x) to another level. The uncomfortable reality for us all is that when we look out at the world, we are only viewing it from one perspective – from the inside looking out. We often forget / don’t realize that in order for us to interact with the world, the world is, quite bluntly, always looking at us. It sees us, for better or worse, on our good days and our bad days. And when we share our thoughts, our emotions, our joys / miseries / triumphs / failures, we are demonstrating to the world that we not only want to be seen, but that we deserve to be seen and acknowledged. This is what it means to integrate and to be social; which, incidentally, is scientifically connected to longevity. Additionally, when we step up to the microphone to be heard a little louder, we have to do that in a visual world because that’s the world we live in. Do some choose not to step up? Of course. And they’re entitled to that. But that doesn’t mean they’re not being seen. Even those who say little or nothing are still seen, regardless of a potential desire to be invisible.

Some concerns center on the “it’s there forever online” aspect. The FlipGrid requires a password to get in, and the videos are not published publicly. However I do realize that there are likely nefarious ways I don’t know about to copy / transpose a video to then re-publish it in some way should an individual possess malicious or mocking intent. I would hope that would not occur, but it is important to be truthful about the world in which we live with cyberbullying playing such a rampant and sadistic role.

Some concerns center on the goal of the course, and the educational value of presentation outside of a dramatic or public speaking course. Speaking is in fact part of each English course as it is part of the NYS Learning Standards. So, while students don’t typically think of English as a class where speaking / oral presentation skills are more than a vehicle for presenting one’s learning and actually a goal in and of themselves, they are, and students are actually supposed to do just that.

Take a look at the 11-12th grade level of the Speaking and Listening strand relative to Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

• 11-12SL4:
Present claims, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective; alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed; organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

• 11-12SL5:
Make strategic use of digital media and/or visual displays in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence, and to add elements of interest to engage the audience.

• 11-12SL6:
Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating a command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

So, I do still stand by my rationale and thus decision to incorporate the assignment in the course. However, I will alter it in this way, to include the following options, and extend the due date to accommodate the change:

  1. Participate in the original assignment by posting a video.
  2. Record and post a video in response to the new Google Classroom assignment, which I only will be able to view (if you can’t figure this out, you can email me a video).
  3. Type your poem into a Google Doc and share it on the Classroom assignment with a reflection discussing how it should be read aloud and why.
  4. Type your poem into a Google Doc and share it on the Classroom assignment with a reflection on your public speaking abilities, noting weaknesses / strengths / concerns / anxieties, etc., identifying one strategy or practice or exercise you will undertake in order to work on your speaking and presenting skills.

Either way, I hope you will recognize the value in the assignment and my rationale, and understand that you will encounter moments in your education – and I use this term broadly to include LIFE – where you will, in retrospect, realize you grew as a result of a challenge that was uncomfortable. Growth and change and progression only happen in the space between our zone of comfort and our zone of potential.

The Result

I spoke with this student as soon as I saw him next to ask him if he’d read my post and what he thought. He smiled shyly, shrugged his shoulders, laughed and said, “You’re soooo right. I hate that you’re so right!” He and I had had a great rapport prior, and we continued to have one for the rest of the year. And incidentally, he chose the original form of the assignment, recording and posting his video though he told me he made a zillion versions of it before finally “publishing” it. Most students chose the original format as well, though some chose the others, which was fine.

This student learned that he’s being seen daily no matter that he is self-conscious of his appearance. He came to admit that he certainly knew this consciously, but in his heart was wanting to be invisible anyway.

Regardless of what ultimately happens with this Supreme Court nomination, this week’s news provides us much to think about relative to how we present ourselves.

I hope none of us is invisible, and that we dedicate our teaching work to helping our students be comfortable being visible. Whether any of us chooses to step to a microphone to use our voices or not, we have to know we can be seen either way, and we are thus being judged – fairly or not – by others.

I believe it is my job to help my students cultivate an authentic, informed voice they can be proud to use.

If you are working explicitly to cultivate your students’ voices, I’d love to hear about it. Please email me at


Very powerful! As the high school kid who hated speaking in front of the class, this strategy would have worked well for me. Brava! ~J.H.

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