A group of eighth-, ninth-, and 10th-grade students at Schenectady’s Brown School are preparing for their own TEDx event Friday.
Tucked away in a colorful classroom with a large, cardboard TEDx sign, 11 students are mid-workshop with Mopco improv teacher Alex Timmis to “stretch” their performance muscles. Competing in pairs, they count to three with interrupting claps and snaps, until the sheer confusion of it all forces them to mess up – and celebrate it. Timmis says the exercise is an icebreaker to offset stage fright.
“If you’re going to the gym, you want to do some stretches and things like that to sort of get into the mode to be able to perform the harder tasks," explains Timmis. "So some of this, the beginning of just, like, celebrating failure – part of that was just to get into the mentality going further into the workshop that like ‘Mistakes are OK, I’m trying a new thing. If I make any mistakes during this time, that’s alright, it’s growth, it’s learning, it’s a stretch.’”
Ultimately, Timmis is trying to get the students into a performance mindset for the TED talks they’ve been writing all year. TED – which stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design” – is a non-profit known for showcasing short talks from Nobel Prize winners, scientists, and authors with “ideas worth spreading.” (You’ve probably heard the TED Radio hour on WAMC Tuesdays and Saturdays at 1 p.m.)
Many groups have held their own independent “TEDx events,” too, but having students take the stage is an idea worth spreading itself, according to Dr. Cristina James. The Brown School English teacher says this is her fourth year incorporating TED talks into her curriculum, for the sake of “uncomfortable learning.”
“So if you go to a real TED conference, and the curators call on you to give a TED talk because you’ve done something super-duper – you already have an idea worth spreading, right?" James notes. "What’s different about doing this is we say ‘You’re gonna be in the TEDx event – now how do we find your idea? So I think it’s almost harder in that respect.’”
All year, James’ students have been journaling to identify a topic they’re passionate about and apply it to everyday life. With the help of James, their peers, and family, they’ve written quite a program.
“My talk is about elephants, actually. It’s about relating them to how me and my friends act, and comparing them to elephants – because I love elephants," says Amanda Jasmin.
“Mine is educating people on synesthesia – it’s a mental condition," Natalie Mandel explains.
“My TED talk is about art, because my sister lost her eye," says Keziah Dunn. "So I’m incorporating art in a personal story.”
More specifically, Jasmin argues that, like elephants, teenage girls are an endangered species. Mandel’s TED talk looks at how synesthesia can be used in the classroom, and Dunn shows that “art is everywhere.” Others in James’ classroom are tackling how camping ties to white privilege, and how “strong” female characters in popular fiction may be more problematic than they are feminist.
Of course, the students are actually learning English in their English class as well. James says TED talks and videos are incredibly helpful in getting students to better understand texts.
“We also use TED talks just as critical text to amplify and contest the themes and motifs in our literature," she notes. "So we’d read like Dr. Jamila Lyiscott’s TED talk about praising her vernacular language and not worrying about dominant American English, and we read that against Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird.”
James especially wants her students to know that their vernacular language – and their ideas – are just as important as the formal English they use in critical essays. Citing the 2018 Parkland shooting and the Trump administration’s border patrol policies, James says the United States is “not taking the best care of [its] children in the world” – and that makes public speaking all the more important for young people.
“It used to be we had the luxury of saying, ‘Oh, we’ll teach you to speak in this classroom, because then you’ll be prepared when you inherit the world to go out and speak it,'" James shakes her head. "Well the world is knocking on their door, and it’s not too pretty – they need to know how to advocate for themselves.”
And that’s where Mopco’s Timmis comes in. Now that the class has its speeches down, James invited Timmis to teach them how to play with volume, walk about the room, and move their bodies as they speak. He says the best TED talks come from a place of authenticity.
“I’m not gonna tell you like ‘Do what Tony Robbins does!’ or something like that, because that’s not maybe gonna be effective for you," Timmis explains. "But I think there’s a way to sort of bring out that someone has a great sense of humor, or someone is just very naturally engaging, or someone [has] great movement on stage.”
James’ class will deliver their TED Talks at Schenectady’s Brown School on Friday at 6 p.m. Established in 1893, the Brown School is a non-sectarian and independent school with roughly 300 students from nursery through grade 10.