Arriving at Yokohama International School I was confronted, 2 weeks in, with our kick-off Back to School Night. The three of us second grade teachers crammed 50+ attending parents into one small classroom, on unfortunately petite chairs, and proceeded to stumble our way through a Powerpoint.
It felt stilted, like many of these sort of events. Being largely scripted by the content of our slides, parents left having likely little sense of who we -their children’s teachers- were. We certainly got no sense of who our students’ parents were.
While nights like these are framed as an introduction to the year, with a taste of its curriculum, philosophy and so on, in the end I believe most parents come wanting to get a sense of who the teachers are, and for teachers, the best takeaway possible is to begin building partnerships with your students’ families.
The next year was much the same. We added a few words and maybe a picture or two to the Powerpoint (as embedded below). But basically, we stood and fumbled along unsatisfyingly.
The next year a different directive came through. We were asked to meet with our students’ parents separately, in our own classes. The idea that the primary purpose of the night was actually meeting the parents had come to the foreground, and there would be no more hiding behind the Powerpoint, and the words of my peers.
At first I was intimidated. I hadn’t done it this way before and wasn’t sure how to play it. I took a look at our previous presentation and felt the weight of standing and reading through the slides.
Then I recalled a great talk I’d been to some months earlier. My friend Christine had invited me to an evening lecture at the Apple store in Ginza to see Garr Reynolds, author of the much-lauded Presentation Zen. Garr spoke at length about design principles, none of which were particularly new to me in and of themselves. Simplicity, contrast, line, balance… I remember a particularly notable comparison between images of a bento box and a sloppy joe, and his continued analogy of how you feel once you’ve consumed one or the other. What was new about his talk was the application of these same design concepts to presentations. He asserted that reading from the screen was neither necessary, nor effective. Instead he advocated, as I understood it, for the use of beautiful, resonant images with key words only or no words at all. Images which evoked directly or through juxtaposition the sense of what you were discussing. For me, it clicked.
Recalling this, I started to get excited about reinventing my presentation for the parents that night. I adored the way searching Flickr by conceptual tags, associated with the content I wanted to speak about, brought up suggestions of creative, nuanced and evocative images, whose indirectly associated content I would never have come up with independently. I felt like I was collaborating in my image selection with all the photographers who somewhat abstractly tagged their art works. Using these images, with key words written in color-tones drawn from the photos, I put together the following presentation, as a backbone for my talk.
What followed that night was undoubtedly the best such evening I’d been involved in. The key words on the slides were more than enough to scaffold my talking points, and the beauty and sometime humor of the images created a much more personal and casual tone in the room. I was able to speak to the audience, instead of reciting the slides, and react to their responses with far greater flexibility and sensitivity. Combine that with meeting only the parents of my students, and I’m sure we both came away with a much better sense of who each other were than in years past.
Having changed my tack to this style of approach, I will never go back to a conventional Powerpoint format. Go Zen.
That was Zen. This is now.
Many apologies for the title of this post.
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many hats by Jamie Raskin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.