Engaging In the Topic of Speeches/Talks

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SWBAT engage with the topic of speeches and talks by watching and discussing two excellent talks written and delivered by teens.

Big Idea

Getting inspiration from two excellent models of what I am asking students to do for their final assignment of the year.


10 minutes

I communicate to students that we are beginning the last unit of the school year and they receive this with a huge smile. I announce that the final assignment of this unit, and consequently of the school year is to present an original speech/talk. I distribute a copy of the directions for the final speech/talk and read it to students. There are mixed feelings about the total freedom over the topic. I tell them they will see plenty of examples and will get time to think of a good topic. There is more concern over memorizing their speech/talk. I tell them that this is not the first time I assign this and that I can assure them they are perfectly capable of doing this. To lighten the mood, I tell them that I have assigned this to students not much different from them and that nobody got brain damage. Giggling, they relax a bit and I tell them that I will be helping them with this task and that they will get time in class to work on memorizing.

I actually plan on allowing students to use flash cards and to partner with someone who can help them get unstuck when they get stuck so they don’t have to memorize the entire thing word by word. My plan is to prepare them for a formal, mature presentation of an original speech/talk. I know that if I let them present from their paper without any memorizing, most will bury their head in their paper and mumble a poor reading of their speech/talk. I don’t let them know they will be getting some support when they present because I don’t want to encourage any of them to try and find ways of avoiding becoming familiar with their speech/talk before presenting, which is ultimately what they will be doing when they try and memorize as much of it as possible.

I tell them that we are spending the rest of the period getting some inspiration from a couple of good models of this genre, two TED talks.

One TED Talk

20 minutes

I selected two TED talks delivered by two teenagers. I specifically selected talks delivered by teens so that students could get an idea of what other kids their age are able to produce.

The first one we watch is a talk delivered by Tavi Gevinson, a young girl who started a web magazine at the age of 12 that became incredibly popular. In her talk, titled “Still Figuring It Out,” she makes the following points:

  • I'm a feminist.
  • the question of what makes a strong female character often goes misinterpreted, and instead we get these two-dimensional superwomen who maybe have one quality that's played up a lot, like a Catwoman type, or she plays her sexuality up a lot, and it's seen as power. But they're not strong characters who happen to be female. They're completely flat, and they're basically cardboard characters
  • in actuality, women are complicated, women are multifaceted -- not because women are crazy, but because people are crazy, and women happen to be people.
  • So the flaws are the key
  • there are some types of women who are not represented that way, and one group that we'll focus on today are teens, because I think teenagers are especially contradictory and still figuring it out,
  • I was trying to reconcile all of these differences that you're told you can't be when you're growing up as a girl. You can't be smart and pretty. You can't be a feminist who's also interested in fashion.
  • and I said that I wanted to start a website for teenage girls that was not this kind of one-dimensional strong character empowerment thing because I think one thing that can be very alienating about a misconception of feminism is that girls then think that to be a feminist, they have to live up to being perfectly consistent in your beliefs, never being insecure, never having doubts, having all of the answers. And this is not true,
  • So I'm not saying, "Be like us," and "We're perfect role models," because we're not, but we just want to help represent girls in a way that shows those different dimensions.
  • I still really appreciate those characters in movies and articles like that on our site, that aren't just about being totally powerful, maybe finding your acceptance with yourself and self-esteem and your flaws and how you accept those

I give students a few minutes to jot down notes on this talk. Specifically, they are to identify the central points of her talk. This is necessary for students to digest the information and gain better understanding of the speaker’s argument. This is followed by a discussion also meant to help them gain better understanding of the talk. It is also meant for me to gauge their understanding. I ask, “What is the point of this talk?” Students work as a group to summarize some of her points. They are a bit confused about the point she is making regarding feminism so I have to explain that she is questioning the idea the a strong female character or person has it all figured out. She is advocating for the freedom to embrace contradictions. Some wanted to narrow her argument down to “you should just be yourself.” I address this as a misinterpretation pointing out that her argument is much more than that. Sure, you can begin to explain her argument with these words, but you must add that this “self” can be filled with flaws and contradictions and that too many of the model of a strong feminist fail to include this and end up portraying a false image that young women should not aspire to. It is important for me to get them to see that her argument is not as simple as “be yourself” because I do not want students to move on and create clichés in the speech/talk they are going to be working on later in this unit. I want to set up the expectation that they are to present a thoughtful discussion of the topic they select, in line with the expectations of Common Core standards.

I also ask students to give the talk a rating using a scale from 1-10. Evaluating an argument is an important skill. We do it briefly today by assigning a score to each talk.

Here is a sample of the notes one student wrote.


Another TED Talk

20 minutes

We then watch a second TED talk. This one is by a 14-year-old Princeton Physics student who was diagnosed with autism as a very young child and was not expected to learn much. His name is Jacob Barnett and the title of his talk is “Forget What You Know.” These are the points he makes in his talk:

  • You have to look at everything with your own unique perspective.
  • When you think, you must think in your own creative way.
  • Cambridge closed because of th plague in 1665 and Isaac Newton, who was a student there at the time, didn’t have a way to learn so he had to stop learning…but he didn’t want to stop thinking.
  • When he stopped learning he started thinking and he crated science…now we have a theory of physics!
  • Are they (Newton and Einstein) really geniuses? Absolutely not! All they did was make the transition from learning, to thinking, to creating
  • What I want you guys to do…for the next 24 hours…don’t learn anything! However…you guys have some passion…I want you to think about that field instead of learning in that field. 

I also give students time to write notes on the argument made in this talk and engage them in discussion. Students feel they have a better understanding of this kid’s argument. They particularly appreciate part of his message, “stop learning,” and jokingly say that they are ready to follow this advice now. Of course I point out that something important follows these words, “start thinking and creating,” and they acknowledge they understand.  

Students express awe over the fact that this kid is so young and accomplished. I suspect that they are thinking that their final assignment, an original speech/talk, is going to be nowhere near as good as this one. I address this by explaining that these are models of excellence meant to inspire them. I remind them that their speech/talk is only going to be 3 minutes long, at the most, so that they will be working at a much smaller scale and thus they can produce a pretty powerful speech/talk.