TED Talks for American Literature

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TED Talks

Do you want to enhance your teaching of American Literature? Then use TED talks to teach valuable listening skills and make connections to relevant topics and themes. Of course, it can be time-consuming to select the best TED talks to use with your students, so I’ve selected a few that will engage your students and make meaningful connections to American Literature.

For each talk below, I’ve included recommended literature connections, but I’m certain there are innumerable texts that may apply to each talk. Be sure to add your suggestions in the comments below. Also, keep in mind that you can print transcripts of the talks to prepare for technology glitches or if you want students to take a closer look at the texts of these speeches.

1. Does Money Make You Mean? By Paul Piff
Date Given: 2013
Length: 16:35
Summary: This talk argues that the more entitled and privileged one is, the less likely a person will demonstrate empathy. Piff also discusses the detrimental impacts of the growing economic inequality in America. He uses interesting, relatable scientific experiments to provide evidence for his ideas.
Relevant connections: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and “The Devil and Tom Walker” by Washington Irving

2. Why I Love the Country That Once Betrayed Me by George Takei
Date Given: 2014
Length: 15: 58
Summary: The popular activist and former Star Trek actor tells his story of imprisonment in an internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In vivid detail, he describes the painful time for his family and explains how his experience was influenced by his youth. Despite being discriminated against and treated unfairly, he says that he learned that “democracy can be as great as the people can be, but it is also as fallible as people are.” Ultimately, he retains hope for the American Dream and works to ensure our government is a better democracy.
Relevant connections: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, Farewell to Manzanar by Jane Wakatsuki Hudson and James D. Hudson, Hiroshima by John Hershey, and “I, Too” by Langston Hughes

Real-World Learning

3. The New American Dream by Courtney Martin
Date Given: 2016
Length: 15:32
Summary: According to Martin, our country needs to redefine the American Dream and consider what makes it great. She argues that community and creativity are what contribute most to a person’s happiness, not the pursuit of wealth. In this thoughtful talk, she claims that “the biggest danger is not failing to achieve the American Dream. The biggest danger is achieving a dream that you don’t actually believe in.”
Relevant connections: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, and Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon

4. Can a Divided America Heal? By Jonathan Haidt
Date Given: 2016
Length: 20:14
Summary:  This talk deals with the vitriol and partisanship that has occurred in the most recent presidential election, and Haidt suggests that this behavior is reflective of our tribal natures. Taking a psychological approach, he suggests that to end some of the division, America needs to improve its capacity for empathy.
Relevant connections: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, “The Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln, and “Let America be America Again” by Langston Hughes

5. Meet the Women Fighting on the Front Lines of an American War by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Multimedia in American Literature

Date Given: 2015

Length: 11:25
Summary: In this powerful talk, Lemmon reveals that a band of female soldiers was recruited and trained by special operations to assist male soldiers in the war on Afghanistan. Even though they were officially banned from combat, these women fought on the front lines. Lemon shows how the women celebrated their strength and femininity and earned the respect of their male counterparts, ultimately paving the way for future girls and women.
Relevant Connections: “Ain’t I a Woman?” by Sojourner Truth and The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

6. Less Stuff, More Happiness by Graham Hill
Date Given: 2011
Length: 6:14
Summary:  Do we need material things to be happy? In this short talk, Hill claims that we need to edit our lives, freeing ourselves from stuff. He gives three rules for accomplishing this task and shows how he has simplified his life with his unique apartment design.
Relevant Connections: Walden Pond  and other transcendentalist essays by Henry David Thoreau, selected Native American myths, and The Great Gatsby

7. A Passionate, Personal Case for Education by Michele Obama
Date Given: 2009
Length: 12:29
Summary:  Obama makes the case that hard work and education help people to succeed, particularly women. Furthermore, women have a vital role in creating thriving communities and they must teach important values such as compassion and integrity. Obama uses herself as a role model and explains that education leads to control of one’s destiny.

Relevant connections: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass, A Raisin in the Sun, “The Story of an Hour” or The Awakening by Kate Chopin

8.  The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Love

Date Given:  2019

Length:  12:05

Summary:  This TED Talk has an important topic for teens – relationship abuse.  Inspired by the tragic murder of college student Yeardley Love in 2010, Hood identifies five signs of an unhealthy relationship.  She uses short animations and numerous examples to communicate her message in an entertaining way.  Ultimately, she makes a strong argument that relationship skills should not just be taught as soft skills.  Teachers have opportunities to bring this relevant lesson into their class with connections to American Literature.

Relevant connections:  The Crucible by Arthur Miller, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell

Are your interested in more TED Talk recommendations for American Literature?  Recently, I’ve created another post with additional suggestions.

And of course, please share your recommended talks in the comments below!  You may also be interested in handouts that help your students practice their listening and analysis skills as they watch.

Happy Teaching!

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I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher and curriculum designer. I like to make learning active, relevant, and fun while encouraging students to think critically about the world around them. With 24+ years of teaching experience, I also want to empower educators – in the classroom, online, and at home- so they can provide the best lessons to their students!

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