Better Than The Debate Club

Better Than The Debate Club

Silicon Valley public high school steps onto the TEDx stage

By Christina Quattrocchi     Sep 17, 2013

Better Than The Debate Club

In a world where sage-on-the-stage-like education is increasingly considered passe, a group of Silicon Valley high school students are working hard to preserve it. Are they simply craving a good lecture or did they miss the memo on education reform?

Instead they’re seeking inspiration and a window to the world beyond high school. Where they’ve found it is through TEDx--and not just streaming the videos. Instead this group of students in Palo Alto’s Gunn High School has become the first high school club to organize their own series of TEDx talks. And for them, these talks are filling in the gaps left in the wake left by their formal education.

The nub of the idea began oddly enough in the one place in the public high school where students seldom hear a lecture: the library. When Meg Omainsky was hired to be Gunn’s librarian in 2010, she thought it would be fun to stream TED talks over the library monitors at lunch to occupy the kids who sometimes popped in. It was a hit.

A year later, not only had students formed a club to watch TEDx videos: they wanted to run their own TEDx. From a distance, running a TEDx club might seem almost too easy: although Gunn is a public high school, it sits smack in the midst of Silicon Valley. Locally, it’s a competitive school where many students are related to famed entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

But what students found captivating about the TEDx talks wasn’t the discussion just of success--but of failure, courage and the willingness to take risks.

“Failure isn’t something that’s encouraged in our curriculum,” says the club’s co-director Maya Ram. “TED is about stories of people going for it, regardless of failure. That spirit would benefit our schools.”

For now-senior Stephen Watson, the 20-minute lectures inspire him to think beyond himself: “There are so many dreams that have been completed and shared at TED and so many half dreams that have been completed and need backing, I just want to go and help.”

In May 2011 the club made history by becoming the first high school to host its own TEDx event. Of the 15 talks, four were given by Gunn students. Other speakers included Shantanu Narayen, chief executive of Adobe Systems, who thrilled students with four simple truths he’d learned in life. Highlights in 2012 included Devon Koch, a Gunn Senior, along with Mehran Sahami, Computer Science professor at Stanford. Some potential speakers turned them down, including Hollywood celebrity, Joseph Gordon Levitt. A few hundred students--from Gunn’s 1,800 student body--attended that first year. Last year, over 350 students attended.

For the current school year, co-directors Jaimie Shen and Ram will lead their club to make history once again becoming the first high school to host a big league TEDx event with more than 1,000 attendees. It’s scheduled for January 2014.

While the school’s location is ripe with both financial resources and intellectual capital, it is the students who make TEDx happen, says Jennifer Hogan who now advises the club. Students do everything from recruiting speakers, fundraising, to promoting the event. The video production class integrates TEDx into their curriculum, from doing a whole unit on how to live stream, to how to use cameras, sound and editing. Malcolm Jones, a junior this year, created a registration system to track which students attend the TEDx sessions, so that their teachers would know they weren’t skipping class.

“The kids can do anything, we just have to let them,” says Hogan. “They make most of the decisions and just keep me in the loop. It’s really empowering to them and they don’t get a lot of that.”

This year’s TEDx coordinators plan to open up the event to local middle school students and raise enough funding to hire buses so that peers at East Palo Alto Prep can attend the January 17 event too. The team is still recruiting speakers, 25 percent of whom will be Gunn students. And they’re aiming to attract some adult headliners, too: Tim Brown, of IDEO, Cory Doctoro, science fiction writer. And of course, Joseph Gordon Levitt, the invitee who has yet to respond, is still on the list. Come on, Gordon Levvitt, do it for the kids!

As the event grows, so does its influence, even seeping into the mainstream school day. The club has developed substitute lesson plans centered around TED talks, which they encourage teachers to use, and sponsors “TED Fridays” each week. Shen hopes to see TED material even influence the school’s core curriculum.

As reformers look to re-imagine school, to get rid of desks, chalkboards, and lectures, let these students at Gunn be a reminder to them. It might not be that lectures are a bad way to go, but that kids are hungry to hear more than formulas and historical facts. They want an education about inspiration, new ideas, and courage to try something new.

For Shen, “TEDx is different from a classroom lecture. You’re not going because you’re listening to take notes for a test. It’s about opening your mind, saying something inspirational… it’s different from your typical education.”

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