Making the most of guest speakers in class

Washington Post reporter Anne Hull will be a special guest speaker in both of my lectures tomorrow. She is the Journalism Department’s Hearst Visiting Professional, which means we have her on campus for just a couple of days and want to have as many of our students as possible get a chance to hear her. She will be speaking to five different classes tomorrow afternoon.

I certainly want her to have a positive experience with my two lectures.

Here are some strategies for having guest speakers and the students have a positive experience.

– Determine what the format for class will be — and tell the speaker and the students. For Anne Hull, I’m going to ask her questions first, but I told the students I expected them to arrive with questions to ask. Once I get us all warmed up, I’ll ask the students to ask their questions. After having many different guest speakers talk to my classes, I’ve decided that the Q&A format typically works the best. Asking a guest speaker to prepare a 20- or 30-minute presentation makes some avoid making the presentation or to be very nervous. Or the guest speaker really doesn’t prepare and starts out by saying, “I didn’t really have time to prepare anything to say to you, but…” Or the speaker does prepare but doesn’t focus on what you need even if you’ve said what you hope to have discussed. One semester, a reporter spoke to my beginning writing course and spent his time discussing all the murders and dead bodies of his writing career. By the end of his presentation, only one or two of the 250 students ever wanted to be a reporter.

– Introduce the speaker to the students in the class meeting prior to the guest speaker’s visit. You want the students to develop some excitement about the speaker and also realize they need to prepare. And very importantly: Let them know WHY having the speaker in class is important to them.

– Provide a get-ready assignment. I’m asking the students to read at least two of her stories. I provided them with a handout posted on the course Web site with links to three of her series.

– Contact the guest speaker in advance – Your speaker will be more effective if you provide information about the students and the course. For my course, the vast majority of the students have never written news stories before this semester. Most have yet to conduct their first interviews. About a third are journalism majors, a third public relations majors and a third advertising majors.

– Consider your room setup – One of the auditoriums requires a mic. So that means I need two mics – one for Anne Hull and one for me – for the Q&A format. Last Thursday, Adam, my lecture assistant, and I discovered that one of the mics was broken. One of Adam’s missions is to make sure we have two working mics.

– Determine other potential learning opportunities – I have asked a photojournalist to take photos, and I’m recording the class on my iPod. I plan on making a Soundslides presentation. I have asked a particularly eager student to write a story for Quill & Scroll magazine based on Hull’s presentation in class. Both of the students are enthusiastic about this opportunity. I’ve prepared a “you try” challenge for all the students to take this on as a reporting venture – not for a grade but for the practice.

– Think of the speaker – Provide a bottle of water. Think about if you need to provide a parking pass. Another day I’ll tell the story of the speaker whose car was almost towed while she was talking to my class.

– Have a lesson plan ready to go just in case – Any guest speaker could have something happen to keep them from being able to speak to your class, such as a sick child. However, with people who work in the media, such reasons are multiplied, as they may get a story assignment at the last minute and have to postpone. So, be prepared.

 Sometimes, I’ve had students imply that having a guest speaker means that the teacher has the day off. That’s certainly not the case. But the effort is well worth it for the students, the speaker and the teacher.

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