George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

How to Tap Into Students’ Interests With a TED Talk Unit

Creating a presentation about their interests can boost students’ engagement as they develop communication and tech skills.

February 22, 2022
Student filming a class project
SDI Productions / iStock

As an educator, I find there’s nothing better than witnessing my students becoming completely enthralled with a class project. Their eyes light up, they share their ideas excitedly with peers, and working on their masterpiece makes time fly by in such a way that when I announce lunch break, they collectively holler, “What? Already?”

Projects such as these bring exhilaration and passion into the classroom and breathe new life into antiquated curriculum. One such project that has sparked joy for my students and me has been our TED Talk unit.

A Way for Students to Share Their Passions 

TED Talks provide a glimpse into students’ lives, as they hone their energies into topics they’re truly passionate about. I’ve had a student who elected to speak about finding her passion by sharing how ventriloquism inspired her to persevere when trying new things, another who spoke about the dangers of too much screen time, and one who taught us all about the fascinating history of the yo-yo, wowing us with his skills as he spoke.

These “ideas worth sharing” are entertaining, informative, and often heartfelt. In project reflection discussions, my students report feeling “validated” and “heard” and that a project highlight is learning from and gaining inspiration from their classmates’ talks. In fact, last spring, after our talks, yo-yoing became a new favorite recess activity, and a student reported that she had requested a ventriloquist’s dummy as a birthday gift.

For the past few years, in our fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms, our final informative writing piece that we take through the full writing process has been our TED Talks. These projects serve as excellent real-world opportunities for my students to put writing skills we’ve developed all year into action. Embedded in the assignment are opportunities to brainstorm, organize writing, add supporting details, focus on word choice, draft strong introductory and concluding paragraphs, and more.

How to Get Started

When you register as an educator with TED-Ed, you’ll have access to lesson plans and resources that will help guide you through the process of developing student talks. The first material to dive into is the educator guidebook, a wonderful tool that takes all of the guesswork out of managing the project.

There are a total of 13 lessons broken up into three sections: Discover (choosing the talk topic), Develop (crafting a talk), and Share (getting ready to present). Each lesson centers around building a skill, such as creating a through line or talk arc. There’s a curated list of student TED Talks to watch that exemplify the skill in focus on that day, whether it’s using research to support your idea or applying visuals appropriately. There are also wonderful activities to complete as a class, such as the “Four Suits Method” of feedback, that transformed the way my students respond to peers’ work.

Another one of the key materials provided by TED-Ed is the Idea Journal. The first page of this printable student resource promises to honor your students’ ideas and guide them through the talk-writing process, and that’s what it does. Written in student-friendly language, the workbook seamlessly moves each writer from one step to the next, so that they go from brainstorming potential topic ideas to participating in a final rehearsal in just a few short weeks.

We take several weeks to move through the project, breaking it up into manageable bites, guaranteeing low anxiety and high success for all students. Students amplify intrapersonal skills as they meet with peers daily to listen to recent edits and give actionable feedback to their classmates. Sharing their work in small groups and then in front of a larger audience when they present their talk highlights their speaking skills.

Students think about elements of design as they craft visuals to support their talk, carefully selecting images, props, and video clips that underscore their words, while ensuring that the end result doesn’t become just another slide presentation. This past year, students even gained tech experience, as we filmed our videos in front of a green screen and had a larger audience made up of our island community when the students’ talks were aired on a local TV station.

Gone are the days of students battling boredom, mindlessly drafting research reports about countries or animals. Our students are unique, multifaceted individuals who have viewpoints and passions they’re eager to share. They are writers who are capable of developing strong informative pieces, when the project is scaffolded appropriately and meaningful to them.

Our students are collaborative and intrigued by technology, and giving them opportunities to develop their skills is relevant and motivating. The way that I’ve met my students’ needs in these areas is through our TED Talk writing projects. If you’re curious about engaging in this unit with your students, I encourage you to take a look at the readily available TED-Ed resources to learn more about this powerful project.

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Filed Under

  • Student Engagement
  • Communication Skills
  • Technology Integration
  • 6-8 Middle School

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