Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Choosing a Topic for our Ted.com Speeches

By on November 21, 2011

I’m currently prepping my classes for another research unit, this one a blend of Memoir, Advocacy, and Speech Writing. After all, never in real life are genres categorized. They blend together; and the Common Core assessments to come recognize the desegregation of writing genres and the need for performance based assessments.

I’m basing this blended unit on TED.com, and the plan is to host a middle school TED-esque conference, combining it with a book drive for our media center. So, in a series of posts, I am going to describe some key steps I’m using with my 8th graders in order to scaffold our way towards our TED conference. On my Edutopia.org blog, I will describe how I introduced the concept of the project and the development of our student-created resource library, a tool that helps everyone to research more deeply.

On this site, you can learn about how students chose topics and you can download the worksheet that I used to guide them towards their choice. So follow me as I describe real-time writing in a real-world classroom. Hope this helps in your own possible blended genre unit.
As a Language Arts teacher, I don’t think my role is to teach my students how to fill an essay, but it is my responsibility to teach them how to recognize a great topic, how to research that topic, and how to present that topic. It’s called teaching something you know nothing about, and it permits me to learn from them as much as they learn from me. That way, I’m not the only teacher in the classroom and they aren’t the only learners. My job, as I see it, is to also model a joy in learning.

We started by watching some key videos throughout the first quarter on “TedTuesday,” and I’ve been asking simple questions like:
“What’s the theme?”
“Where did she get this idea?”
“What is the call to action he is asking his audience to do?”

In other words, we’ve been casually analyzing the speeches that we have watched. But now, with persuasion being the focus of this quarter and having just finished narrative, I feel we are able to jump in further.

What I needed to do was scaffold a way for the students to be able to choose their own topics. Furthermore, their topics had to be stated in such a way that the statement itself aided in uncovering the research the students would need to cover the topic.

I first threw together a checklist of assignments and key deadlines that the students would be responsible for this quarter as we lead up to our presentation days. Deadlines for responding to videos posted on my classroom website, when bibliographies were due, rough draft deadlines, etc…

Then we started full-force exploring possible topics about which to research, write, and speak. I told them that it was their choice to be excited by their topic because I wasn’t assigning topics to them; they got to choose. Now, this option, while it can bring out the highest quality in the end product can also shut some students down if not given some guidance. So to do that, I had Jr. Scholastic magazines, newspapers, and printed out articles strewn in duplicates on every table. In a timed activity, the students would grab a resource and skim for headlines and topics. After 3 minutes, they were told to switch resources, and so on. Additionally, we also had the classroom computers on the Ted website where students could skim through the titles of the speeches to be inspired by the names, many of which are clues to the themes, problems, or solutions posed by the speaker.

Then we created five posters and stuck them up all over the room with the following titles: School Site, Local, State, National, and International. We brainstormed lists for each of the posters with students going up to the papers and writing a topic for all to see. In the end, we had a list of around 200 topics.

Nevertheless, just listing a topic like “Animal Abuse” is not enough to begin writing a great speech and it isn’t enough to begin an efficient research necessary to inform an audience.

We needed a problem statement. A problem statement is a paragraph that explains what they wish to write and speak about, and by following the paragraph outline, it also helps them narrow down their topic to sometime manageable, more specific, and ultimately easier to research. When we think about college and career readiness, a problem statement is used to prepare for a doctorate dissertation as well as with business proposals. So the trick for me was in scaffolding it down to the middle school level. In a sense what they did was write an abstract from the get-go rather than a summary after the fact.

The end result was a guided worksheet that you can download here.

It breaks the Problem Statement into 4 parts:

1. States the broad problem/topic about which you are interested in researching

2. Defines the problem you will be solving by narrowing the issue

3. Describes why it needs to be investigated by giving background information and context

4. States the goals in writing and researching this problem (I will…., I plan…., I would like…, I propose…, etc…)

Then after writing the initial paragraph, they also developed 3-5 questions to help hone in on more specific research. After all, there’s no way a broader topic can show expertise. It would just cover things in too shallow a manner. Instead, honing in on a particular aspect of a topic and diving in deeper will undoubtedly make for a more interesting and more educational speech. And remember, these speeches are meant to inform an audience of a problem that exists and propose a solution to that problem. Advocacy: it’s a 21st Century Skill.

Next up after Thanksgiving vacation is to examine the various visuals TED speeches use as inspiration for our own. Will the students chose to use a digital camera like Terry Moore, produce a Powerpoint like 12 year-old Adora Svitak, or weave in video clips like Derek Sivers? We’ll see what the students chose and I’ll report back soon!

Share Button