TED Talks for Back to School (And the Rest of the School Year)

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Oh, no! It’s back to school, and time for teachers to greet their new students, create routines, complete team builders, and make their classrooms welcoming. But with the pressure to cover extensive curriculum in a short amount of time, secondary teachers may feel tempted to skip the process of creating a positive classroom culture and delve straight into their content.

It’s a mistake, however, to ignore the importance of building safe and inclusive classrooms that encourage students to participate actively in their learning. This is more important than ever since students, educators, and family members are all facing back to school with uncertainty in the face of the pandemic.

Even though you may not think you have the time, these TED Talks from diverse speakers are great filler activities for those days when a lesson finishes early or when you need an activity to get all of your classes on the same schedule. Best of all, they’re a meaningful way for students to practice their listening and speaking skills. Furthermore, they develop students multimedia literacy skills and they spark student interest. These talks teach important lessons for the beginning of the school year, communicating life lessons such as overcoming obstacles, having gratitude, and being productive.

Back to School

Aimee Mullins: The Opportunity of Adversity (21:27)

Life isn’t fair, but Aimee Mullins has never let that interfere with her success even though she was born without shin bones and labeled “disabled.”

In this talk, she shares some of her struggles and the positive influence of her childhood doctor, Dr. Pizzutillo, from AI duPont Institute in Wilmington, Delaware. He empowered her and helped her see her own strengths. As she notes, humans can adapt and have “the ability to survive and flourish…by the struggle of the human spirit through conflict into transformation.” Her inspiring talk may help empower some of your own students as they navigate this difficult time period in our country.

Megan Washington – Fear of Public Speaking (12:58)

Lots of people, including students in all of our classes, are afraid to speak in public – even if that’s just in the classroom. This talk by Australian singer Megan Washington may inspire more willingness in your students to speak up. In the talk, Washington shows how she converted her speech disability into her passion and success in life. Students will love hearing her sing, also!

Secondary English

Mac Burnett – Why a Good Book is a Secret Door (16:59)

Motivate your students to seek out “wonder” in the reading of books with this funny, entertaining talk by children’s author Mac Burnett. He reminds us that reading provides avenues for imagination, art, fiction, and reality. His talk is perfect for motivating students in English class right before they visit the school library for selecting novels during choice reading units.

Julian Treasure – 5 Ways to Listen Better (7:43)

How much of what you say do your students remember? In a world that often assaults our senses and distracts our attention, Julian Treasure argues that we are losing our ability to listen to one another. In this talk, he offers strategies to improve our listening skills, and most importantly, the listening skills of our students.

TED Talks

Shonda Rhimes – My Year of Saying Yes to Everything (17:25)

Shonda Rhimes, the producer of hit television shows such as Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, calls herself a “titan” and brags about her impressive success in this talk. She also shares how she confronted burn-out and learned a valuable lesson while saying “yes” to everything she was asked. Her daughters unwittingly taught her to seek out joy in life. This talk helps students keep perspective and is especially beneficial for high achievers.

TED Talks

Jonny Sun – You Are Not Alone in Your Loneliness (10:21)

In this short and honest talk, artist Jonny Sun talks about sharing his feelings of loneliness when he is online. He thinks that by discussing his sadness, it has helped connect him to others. And while he admits that the internet can feel unsafe and intimidating at times, it can also provide a platform for building supportive communities. In fact, he feels that having conversations about feeling isolated and insecure can normalize discussions about mental health.

I think this talk would be fantastic for my high school students, but I would make sure students understand that sharing their unhappiness online is not the same as sharing severe emotional trauma or suicidal thoughts. I would provide resources for seeking out help from their friends, families, teachers, and counselors if they think they have major depression.

Jarrett Krosoczka – Why Lunch Ladies Are Heroes (5:14)

This children’s author who wrote books about superhero lunch ladies tells his audience about the importance of validating everyone – even those who don’t usually get recognized. It would make an effective video at the beginning of a kindness activity, and students may want to thank a variety of school staff members – custodians, school nurses, library staff, etc.

Olivia Remes – How to Cope with Anxiety (15:15)

With student anxiety increasing at alarming rates, this recent TED talk will be helpful for many kids in your classrooms. Olivia Remes, from the University of Cambridge, explains the science behind anxiety and discusses the importance of gaining coping skills. She also describes several ways students can take charge of their anxiety.

Jia Jang – What I learned from 100 days of Rejection (15:31)

Using humor and personal anecdotes, Jang talks about how he remembered experiences from his youth and, thus, decided to take chances that led to 100 days of rejection. He learned to be a stronger, more courageous person in the process, and acquired valuable lessons such as turning a “no” into a “yes.” This talk will teach students the power of perseverance and to embrace rejection.

Amy Cuddy – Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are (20:48)

Teach students to use “power poses” to build their confidence with this authentic talk from Amy Cuddy. In this talk, Cuddy, a social psychologist, uses scientific research to show that both humans and animals demonstrate power and dominance through their body language. She explains that physiology affects psychology, so she teaches people the importance of the mantra, “fake it till you make it.” She also supports her claim by sharing her personal experience of overcoming a brain injury after being in a horrible car accident.

TED Talks for Teens

Cameron Russell:  Looks Aren’t Everything. Believe me, I’m a Model.

Often, teenager girls dream of being models, or at least, conventionally pretty.  However, supermodel Cameron Russell provides an honest and critical assessment of her job in this talk.  She admits that she received advantages as a model but notes that she always feels insecure about her appearance.  She also critiques the lack of diverse representation in the model world and encourages girls to become leaders and women in positions of power.  Although girls may relate to the talk the most, she has an important message for all teens about the superficiatlity of physical appearance.

The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Our students have stories.  Sometimes they share these stories, and sometimes they simply read the stories presented to them.  Whether these tales are used to stereotype people or to enlighten people, stories have power.  Educators can broaden student horizons by sharing Adichie’s message that readers should search out mulitple stories that reveal myriad human experiences.  Her talk reminds students to read and think critically- essential skills for high school.

Of course, it’s important to preview these talks to ensure that they will be appropriate for your students. Most should appeal to secondary students in any content area. If you teach American Literature, however, I have written other blog posts with recommendations that connect to many American Literature texts.

Now that I’ve shared some of my favorites, do you have TED talks or other videos that you recommend for BTS? Please share about them in the comments below.

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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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