When Kate Griffith brought a huge batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies into an 8th grade class, she was doing more than sharing her culinary talents with hungry kids. An 8th grader herself, Griffith was conducting an experiment as part of the background research for her upcoming TEDx presentation. The test was simple: anyone willing and able to wait an hour would be rewarded with three cookies. “One by one, the kids left,” Griffith says, until finally only five of the original 20 kids remained to claim their prize. “My research told me that we didn’t have enough capacity to delay gratification, and we weren’t striving for it.”
Two years ago, Griffith was one of 10 students at the Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School, in New Jersey, to be selected for the school’s first TEDx program. Modelled on the popular TED talks, TEDx allows community organizations, towns and schools to put on their own version of a TED talk, featuring local experts, authorities or even teenagers, rather than nationally recognized figures.
More than 10,000 TEDx events have been held around the world since the program was launched in 2009, including those put on by schools like the one in Summit. To be recognized as an official TEDx event, organizers need to apply online for licensing and agree to TED’s detailed set of by-laws. What’s critical to the success of a youth-run TEDx program is the active participation of a teacher, says Salome Heusel, Deputy Director of TEDx.
At Summit, Randy Wallock provides that support. A 7th grade Language Arts teacher, Wallock had directed the school’s previous afterschool enrichment effort, known as the Scholar Laureate program, which involved writing lengthy research papers. “It had prestige to it, but the kids didn’t love it,” Wallock says. He wanted to replace it with something more dynamic and interesting, and stumbled on TEDx. “I thought it would be a good platform for enrichment,” he says. After applying for and receiving the TEDx license in the fall of 2012, he recruited teachers from special education, forensics and technology to make the program happen.
Wallock recruited students that first year. “I wanted to take the kids who might not be getting A’s, but who might need a challenge,” he says. He told them that the TEDx club was a pilot program, and that together they would figure out how to develop their ideas, manage their time, and learn how to present a speech. “Collaboration was one of the biggest things,” Wallock says, “and giving kids autonomy, working at their own pace, and choice.”
Every Tuesday afternoon the group met for two hours or more to brainstorm and discuss their projects, and as the school year moved along, the meetings expanded to Friday nights and the occasional half day on Saturday. One constant: “we always had a ton of food,” Wallock says. Their work culminated in a June assembly in the school lobby, where every speaker got up and delivered a 10-minute presentation without notes, TED-style, before an audience of just 100, as the TED by-laws require. The talks were meant to be organic representations of the kids’ interests, and Wallock and the other adults overseeing the club were careful not to coach their public speaking styles.
Curran Stockton is now and a high school freshman, but she discusses her two years’ involvement in TEDx at Summit Middle School with fondness and enthusiasm. The social benefits of preparing for the speech came as a surprise. “I met some people who weren’t in my main friend group, but we all had creative ideas and liked to write and speak,” she says. “We were all so different, but everyone blended so well,” she adds. Like an athletic team or school play, the club nourished camaraderie and cohesion, this time around intellectual pursuits. “You really got to know other people through the collaborative work,” says Alexis Greenblatt, a high school sophomore, who took part in TEDx as an 8th grader.
Some students gained insight into learning itself. Griffith, who examined non-cognitive skills, valued the casual give-and-take among students and teachers, and credited it with deepening her understanding of the subject matter. “It was learning in a different way,” she says. “You asked more questions, you got to go deeper. And when you get to go that deep, you learn more and more,” she adds. Alexis Greenblatt brightens when she talks about her project on happiness, disputing what Epicurus considered its three prerequisites and explaining how her findings—that kids are more sentimental and less materialistic than our culture concedes—help her better understand her own friends.
The students gained emotionally as well, starting with a boost in confidence. The idea of speaking publicly, without notes, no longer seems formidable. “I learned that I’m capable of more than I think I am,” Stockton says. She also credits her TEDx experience with opening her mind and feeding her creativity. She used to think more straightforwardly, she said, but her deeper learning experience with the TEDx club changed her perspective. “My mind is more open to different ideas, and I have the ability to look at things in a different way than I did before.”
Wallock was stunned by the transformations he saw, particularly among kids whose intellectual identities hadn’t been rewarded in a regular classroom. Absent distracting social undercurrents for teenagers, the students involved in TEDx were able to cultivate their curiosities. “There was a cultural expectation of brains,” Wallock says, “and being smart and articulate was celebrated.” Students receive no grades or special commendations for their work, though their talks are archived in the YouTube universe.
Now Wallock is into the third year of overseeing his school’s TEDx club. The first year’s success inspired more students to participate in 2013, and this year about 25 students tried out for the 10 spots, requiring the adult supervisors to hold auditions. “We put a massive amount of work into it,” Wallock says about the commitment involved. Still, grappling with middle school students over big concepts like Schadenfreude and the Socratic Method is fun for him, he says. “It’s the most intellectual stimulation I get.”