About implementing TED and TEDx in the classroom

Opening Remarks at TEDxTheBenjaminSchool

Too many English teachers have given in to the paradigm of having students repetitively read a book, discuss it in class, and then write another critical essay on it in a wash, rinse, repeat never ending cycle. Not only is this boring, it becomes, however inadvertently, an exercise in vocal suppression, and, at its extreme, colonialism. This is because when we tell students that the only thing they can talk about is the book they are reading in English class and the only thing they can write is a 5 paragraph critical essay about that book which must be in 3rd person Dominant American English (DAE) and avoid any opinion or emotion, we are not allowing our students any space to say “I feel” or “I think..” And when we shut down their vernacular voices we delegitimize those students and the ideas and experiences that are borne upon their voices. This dynamic is endemic particularly in classrooms where the demographic is very diverse, but we silence all students with DAE when, like Henry Higgins vigilantes, we pay obeisance exclusively to the conventions of the critical essay, as the “right” way to speak.

Dr. Jamila Lyiscott’s viral TED talk Three Ways to Speak English both exhorts us to honor all the different ways we speak and provides a pedagogical foundation for my TEDx curriculum. But, while Lysicott undoubtedly celebrates the vernacular, she is quick to qualify that her message is not “a promotion of ignorance” but a “linguistic celebration” in which we should honor our highfalutin voices alongside our vernacular ones.
This visionary philosophy becomes a reality in my curriculum that uses TED and TEDx talks as foundational texts to be watched, listened to, and studied in transcript form and which model for students that an individual vernacular voice can convey what TED calls an “idea worth spreading.”
The curriculum then invites students to invoke their own voices in a spirit of authority and authorship as they spend the year independently organizing their own TEDx event at which they will speak. Suddenly, student writing/editing is infused with passion because students recognize the very imminent prospect of their saying something real (their idea worth spreading) to someone real (the audience at their event and, when their talk is uploaded to TED, the world).
In class, all year, specific TED talks reimagined as critical texts are watched and subjected to close reading in transcript form. Some of these talks imbue students with practical and theoretical grounding in notions of resilience, individuality, and leadership which they will need as they go about the logistics of organizing their event. Other talks underscore the cultivation of voice and creativity so that students may not fear the exercise of either.

Still other TED talks provide a basis to underscore and contest the motifs and themes of canonical texts on the syllabus and are thus fodder for critical thinking and writing and annotation. For instance, as students learn listening and conversation skills so that they can work with each other and me all year to put on their event, they not only watch Celeste Headlee's TED talk 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation and Zachary R Wood's Why It's Worth Listening To People You Disagree With, they use the transcripts of these talks as critical texts to be read against Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants, Dorothy Parker's Arrangement in Black and White, and Tobias Wolff's Say Yes, all works of literature that grapple with listening and speaking and overspeaking.

In order to help students wishing to take the TEDx stage seek and find their stories and the ideas worth spreading intrinsic to these stories, they must be given the space and quiet to investigate the ideas roiling within them.Thus, techniques such as the poet’s Georgia Heard heart mapping, The Hawn Foundation’s MINDup , Natalie Goldberg’s journaling, Julia Cameron’s morning notes and common place idea notebooks are all employed to allow students the silence and reflection to access their stories.

Students learn autonomy by being on the ground floor of putting this event together. From designing the logo, to curating their event’s social media, to seeking out and formulating “asks” for local sponsors, to making commercials for this event, to auditioning adult speakers and subsequently collaborating with those speakers throughout the year, students come away from this learning experience with something of substance that they have created and thus is forever their own. As one looks ahead toward internships and college applications, there is no essay or enumeration of extra curricular activities that can offer the demonstrable proof of a student’s merit than the link or links (if he or she engages in this curriculum for several years) to the TEDx talk (s) he or she gave.
Finally, students who partake in this curriculum do not find just their voices, but their sense of themselves as diverse and nuanced and valuable human beings, as worthy themselves as the ideas which they spread on the TEDx stage. As we embrace, however reluctantly, the reality of present day America in which students are finding that the real world is quickly coming for them before they had anticipated going out into it, in a world where it is children’s voices like those
heard at the March For Our Lives who will make this world better, we must begin on the front lines now helping them to exercise those voices.

©SoulStoriesDna 2018

Dr. James talking about the soulstoriesdna curriculum
and its impact on student learning