TED-ED clubs give students a platform for sharing ideas

The clubs are fashioning the next generation of TED speakers one big idea at a time

One of Mitzi Stover’s biggest challenges as a teacher is convincing her students they have a voice. Stover teaches speech and English at North Torrance High School in a working-class area of Los Angeles where kids seldom travel or even leave the neighborhood.

“Their world is very small geographically,” Stover said during a recent presentation at the CUE 2016 national conference in Palm Springs. “And teenagers are already so dismissed most of the time.”

From her years of teaching, Stover knew that having students delve into their interests and personal experiences was one of the best ways to develop their passions — and in turn their public speaking. But presenting to the same classmates they saw every day was decidedly low-stakes and hardly helped her convince students they had a voice, let alone a global reach.

That’s when she turned to TED, best known for a series of conferences centered around big ideas and engaging 15-minute presentations called TED Talks. Recently, TED has started an outreach of sorts to help mold the next generation of confident speakers, primarily through its education-focused arm — TED-ED — that features a lesson designer, original animated shorts inspired by teachers, and public speaking clubs.

While teachers have been cribbing the TED format for years, letting students deliver fast-paced talks on big ideas, Stover took it a step further, applying to start an official TED-ED club, a process that involved an application and a live video interview. Stover has taught speaking for years, but even she came to dread the interview part with open-ended questions she couldn’t anticipate. “I try to push my students to take risks and get out there, but we teachers also have those moments of being intimidated,” she said.

The interview went fine and Stover now runs TED-ED clubs in her two speech classes and an out-of-school club, where students meet during lunch or after school. The clubs give teachers like Stover access to a wealth of curricular materials, including 13 suggested lessons that cover everything from how to structure a talk to picking a good topic (although she can’t share lessons with colleagues unless they, too, complete the application process).

Since she was already working with a curriculum she was comfortable with, Stover has only dabbled in the TED-designed materials. To her, the real perks are in the global community of educators it lets accredited teachers — called facilitators — tap into. Since TED-ED clubs began in 2014, around 2,200 clubs have sprung up in more than 115 countries. About 500 of them are currently active, some with students as young as eight, although most are at the middle and high school level.

Facilitators and students can connect with each other via private Facebook groups and arrange for their students to practice speaking together or just get to know one another. Already, her students have chatted about the weather with peers in New York and waxed ecstatic on the virtues of Taco Bell with a class in Canada.

At the end of every year or club rotation, facilitators are encouraged to record their students giving TED talks of their own and submit it to TED directly via unlisted YouTube videos.

TED also wants teachers to share student progress in regular updates, complete with photos and video. Some students were game, but others were wary of the exposure. To ease their anxiety, Stover struck a deal. Every student would have to present, but “I told them I won’t upload their video if they don’t want me to,” she said. “They can see it at the last minute and decide they don’t like and that’s OK.”

The first year she tried it, Stover reported mixed results, especially when it came to the final talks. “Some were good, some were terrible, some were rambling,” she said. “I didn’t have visuals or a microphone.” Last year she worked with students on activities to sharpen their presentation skills, had them prepare slides, and bought a wireless microphone. Already she’s seen the improvement — and so has TED.

When facilitators submit their class talks to YouTube a TED staffer watches every one looking for standout speakers. One girl in Stover’s class, who spoke about how young people can combat climate change, was flown to New York to speak at the TEDYouth conference. Three others had their talks featured on an official TED YouTube channel.

Such successes are rare, Stover admits, but they go a long way toward convincing students that someone is listening to them. Now, even within the walls of their classroom, students are starting to feel that way. One boy, who struggled in school and hadn’t completed any of the writing assignments or pre-talk activities, wasn’t even expected to give a talk at all, but ended up bringing the room to tears with his heartfelt plea for why boys should show more emotion. Another startled his classmates by eloquently recounting his hidden experiences in overcoming depression.

“I tell the students, ‘I just care that you have a message,’” Stover said. “I tell them, ‘This is your megaphone. What’s your view? What’s your message to the world? What’s important to you? It’s not about the grade, I just want you to give a great talk.’”

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