Brown School teacher Cristina James, left, and Mopco coordinator Alex Timmis, top, walk high school students through the basics of improv and the TED talk platform. Michael Hallisey / TheSpot518
SCHENECTADY — Anyone who has taken a public speaking course understands there are rules.
There’s etiquette. There’s expected behavior and mannerisms to ensure the audience listens to the spoken word. Don’t say “um.” Don’t move your hands. Don’t stray from behind the podium. Don’t look down. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Follow these rules and you will successfully emulate every brilliant orator since Daniel Webster.
Cristina James, an English teacher at Brown School has incorporated the popular TEDx speaking platform into her high school curriculum. The new style of public speaking fits them better.
TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) is an online global platform that allows speakers to give short talks on “ideas worth spreading.” TED allows local communities to put on their own TEDx events, and these talks are loaded to the TED platform.
James is new to Brown School as of this year. She is an educational consultant who has spent the past few years developing a curriculum which incorporates TED talks in the traditional English curriculum and which she brings to schools who consider student voice a priority. She has worked with the students all school year on their talks.
“As the tragedy at Parkland suggested, the world is coming knocking on our classroom doors, and our students must know how to speak up in the interests of their own welfare and shaping the world into one in which they wish to go forward,” James said. “Having students attend to all the traditional aspects of the English classroom but also having them spend the year organizing and preparing to speak at their own TEDx event, gives them the opportunity to experience autonomy, leadership, and a sense that their vernacular voices are important in spreading important ideas.”
This school year she had students view talks to steep them in the TED culture for lessons they offer in terms of rejection, listening and leadership. Students used mindful journaling and hours of writing and editing to find their ideas that are worth spreading. They are currently working on memorization and preparing for the performance aspect.
While some of the preparation has been challenging, overall the students have embraced the experience.
“I’ve enjoyed getting to share an idea that I really wanted to get across, in a way that will be spread to many people,” said Taryn Klein, an eighth-grade student.
Another student reflects on what this has meant to her personally.
“Since my subject is more personal to me, I’ve enjoyed sharing it and writing it and it’s helped me deal with my issue more easily,” said Keziah Dunn, also in the eighth grade. “After you actually talk about things that are really personal to you, it gets easier to deal with them.”
Student topics include problematizing the notion of strong female characters in young adult literature, reconsidering synesthesia as a tool to be used in the classroom and the downside of political correctness.
“I have seen students become comfortable with uncomfortable learning and take brave steps beyond their comfort zones, exposing themselves with courage and vulnerability not just by embracing this public speaking challenge, but by telling the world what is important to them,” said James.
Alex Timmis, an improv program coordinator with Mopco, recently worked James’ students through exercises to help with their performances. The first of which was to teach them the power of embracing mistakes.
Often times with public speaking, mistakes are made. Associating mistakes with failure creates fear, which is the underlying reason behind why most people bristle at the prospect of public speaking.
A few weeks before the students are scheduled to perform, Timmis has them stand in line to count off. But, as they count off, he purposely tries to throw them off count. It’s not long before a student fumbles through her words. The classroom cheers.
Timmis likens TED talks to stand-up comedy. Comedians stand on stage with prepared material, but they are nonetheless adaptive to the audience. And, unlike traditional speeches that often strip personality and individual mannerisms from speakers, TED talks embrace the performance. Gesticulations and movement from one end of the stage to the other is encouraged.
“It’s experiential and it gets you into exploring and trying new things,” said Timmis, “daring, and trying to get out of your comfort zone, try something new. Which is what I think is a great tool for presentation skill, because it doesn’t feel super scary.”
Brown School will host these TEDx talks on Friday, May 17.
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.