Ken George’s TED talks improving public speaking in high school

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Public speaking is the number one fear in America. In high school, teachers continuously try to find new and inventive ways to prepare students for speaking in front of crowds.  

“At the start of the school year, I thought to myself, ‘What do I really want my English 10 kids to do this year?’” English teacher Ken George said. “I decided I wanted them to be better speakers, better writers, and better readers.”

George has assigned a new project to better prepare his students for public speaking. Not only will this project expose his English 10 students to speaking in front of an audience, but it also informs a group on a topic that they are passionate about. His method? TED talks.

“TED talks are non-memorized (but highly planned), minimalistic presentations, and they are about new and interesting ideas that are in people’s brain opposed to someone reporting on a book,” George said. “Sometimes they are personal topics, but they are topics that make the audience think as opposed to informational presentations.”

Teaming up with George’s fourth hour, FHC’s American Sign Language teacher Kimberly Williamson has decided to have her level three students interpret the TED talks.

“I think if anything is going to spread awareness, it will be seeing our students working together,” Williamson said. “It is going to be something really unique for the school; we are always looking for ways to really put meaning into our learning, so this is something [that will be really eye-opening].”

While Williamson’s students are nervous, most of George’s are excited for the new experience, including English 10 student Charlie Krug.

“I’m excited; I think it’s going to be fun and I think it’s going to be a different way to test our English skills compared to what a lot of other teachers do,” Charlie said.

Even though most are excited, some students have mixed feelings about speaking in front of an audience.

“I am very nervous – I am not big into public speaking and I don’t like to be the center of attention, but I am excited about my topic,” sophomore Summer Wetherbee said. ”I’m also excited to get good experience in public speaking in high school instead of being assigned something in college when I haven’t had actual practice before.”

The nerves remain consistent between English 10 students and ASL 3 students. While English 10 students are nervous to speak in front of their class, the pressure is on for ASL students to follow along and interpret a speech completely unrehearsed.

“I haven’t done any interpreting with them throughout their three years; it’s mostly done in the fourth year,” Williamson said. “They got to meet with their speaker, and they had about 20 minutes to speak with them. They got a feel for how this person talks, how fast they are going to speak, and some background information about the topic so they can kind of be a little bit more prepared going into it.”

George’s TED talks are a unique way for students to be exposed to public speaking. This isn’t the only skill that will be advanced by this project, but organizational skills will be elevated as well. The goal, of course, is to make something like public speaking that is almost always uncomfortable a little more enjoyable.

“I told them that we are still trying to get better at things even though it’s late in the school year,” George said. “I want them to be better public speakers than they are, and I think it will be one of the most challenging assignments that the sophomores have done in their educational careers.”

“I think the initial exposure [is beneficial] because most people don’t get into public speaking at all until college,” Charlie said. “This is going to be the first real assignment to get people to know what to expect in the future.”

Each of George’s students gets to pick the topic of their choice, a topic that they are passionate about, one they feel should be shared with the rest of the school.

Topics can range from the benefits of eating organic foods, to 9/11 conspiracies, to simple changes that can be made in daily life that will make life more enjoyable, and everything in between.

Each of these topics is chosen by the students, with a little help from George. They are given time to prepare as well as time to practice their intros and outros.

“[To prepare for the TED talks], Mr. George is having several interviews with each of us,” Charlie said. “We have to make an outline for it and list our key points and do research, as well as cite some sources and approve everything by him.”

“We’ve studied TED talks, we’ve analyzed them, and we’ve talked a lot about public speaking skills and how to keep your audience interested,” George said.

On the other hand, Williamson’s students are given little practice to prepare for the TED talks. They must take what they know and use it to the best of their ability during the impromptu speech.

Williamson feels that this will help benefit her students as well as George’s. It will help those who want to go on and pursue the language, as well as let those who are continuing into ASL 4, so they can understand how much work they have to do.

“I’m doing it also because I think self-evaluation is really important,” Williamson said. “I think it’s really good, especially for my level 3 students, for them being as advanced as they are, to know ‘Oh my gosh I think I can do this.’ At the end, they can look back and think, ‘I did pretty well,’ or, ‘I’m not as good as I thought I was, maybe I need to work a little bit harder.'”

George’s TED talks will hopefully help his students with public speaking in the present, as well as in the future.

“My hope is that [for] future presentations, they won’t ever go back to the “read everything, memorize everything” method – the boring presentations that we’ve all seen,” George said. “I hope that for forever after this they will give TED talk-ish presentations in their classes that are much more personal and exciting,” George said.

TED talks could change the way high school presentations are performed. If used, the format of TED talks could diminish fears of public speaking, as well as make presentations more fun.

“I think change is good, so I just keep trying to do different activities and projects in class,” George said. “I’ve never done [TED talks] before, so I’m like a 9.8643 [out of 10 on the excitement scale]. I’m really glad [my students] are frustrated about it right now, because I think that means it’s stretching them as students and that’s what school should do.”

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