CHATHAM, NJ – What happens when interest in taking a Public Speaking class falters? That was the quandary facing the district last year. While the high school has offered Public Speaking as an elective for many years, “over the past decade, however, in all but two of those years, we didn’t even run the course” because “one, two or even zero” people would register for it, said Superintendent of Schools Michael LaSusa. In the past dozen years, the two times the course actually ran, one year there were 11 students, one year 14.

That all changed when English teacher Christina McCabe suggested the Public Speaking needed to be modernized to make it appealing to students. LaSusa said she “decided she would reinvent Public Speaking into a class called ‘Talking the Talk’ and used the TED Ed curriculum” created by the TED organization for school districts like ours.” The results were nothing short of amazing, 53 students signed up for the course.

At about the same time, LaSusa said the Chatham Education Foundation held its annual fundraising event, Casino Royale, and while at the event he met Anne Devlin, who is involved in staff development and is a TED trainer. A few volunteers later, and a year’s worth of work and support of the Chatham Education Foundation, “We are on the cusp of holding our first TEDx event here in Chatham on June 14,” LaSusa said.

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His remarks were made at the most recent Board of Education meeting, during which McCabe, four students and the mother of one of the students, gave a presentation on “Talking the Talk,” and their experiences with the course.  The presentation can be seen in full on YouTube here.

McCabe said after teaching the “Talking the Talk” course she is “even more obsessed with it,” than she was. Her students were equally enthusiastic.  McCabe said that in the past three years, she has learned what things she has to do “to get the best out of my students.” Those things are:

1.       Ask them to be curious. There are those who think passion is important, but it is more important to be curious, because that is a kinder, more gentle approach.

2.       Their voice matters.

3.       Give Them an audience.

The Talking the Talk course teaches the students how to be curious, allows and encourages them to use their voice, and gives each member of the class an audience. They leave with what Chris Anderson, head of TED, calls “Presentation literacy,” which he wrote “isn’t an optional extra for the few. It’s the core skill for the twenty-first century.”

The course, which is a semester course, is composed of three units:

1.       Conversation, which is based on Storycorps on NPR. People sit down and talk to someone for between five and 40 minutes   who they want to learn more about. Students talked to someone in the building and someone in their lives. They learn not only conversation skills, but to be a good listener.

2.       Storytelling – this is built about the NPR program ‘The Moth.’ You tell five-minute personal stories.

3.       The presentation unit, TED Talks – ideas worth sharing. Students are asked “What is your idea worth spreading?” It is not just a research project.

Students who can take the course are in tenth through twelfth grade. Three seniors and a junior spoke to the board and audience.

Jackson Thorne, a senior, began his presentation with great enthusiasm and told the audience, “I am about to tell you about the greatest elective in the school!”  His comments begin at 9:59 minutes on the YouTube video of the meeting. Thorne described his journey as one in which he began the course as “a baby” in public speaking and ended the course as an adult. He called his TED talk journey “One of the most amazing experiences of my high school career and of my life.” Thorne’s TED talk was on “The Immense Power of Casual Conversation.” 

Collin Goldbach, also a senior, said he wasn’t supposed to take the class, but the course he wanted to take “Investments and Portfolios” didn’t fit in his schedule. He agreed to take “Talking the Talk,” which he said “has been the most impactful” course he has ever taken. His TED talk was on “Veterans and the Importance of Conversation,” and the course itself taught him how to “be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he said. Something that was essential to learn because he went to the VA, spoke to the veterans and “asked them quite personal questions,” he said.  Having learned how to talk to strangers, he realized you can “learn a lot about them in a short period of time.”

Katie Hauck, a senior, whose talk was on the “Importance of Between Students and Teachers Having a Relationship” said she learned how important it was to ask follow up questions if you wanted to have a meaningful conversation. She said she took the skills she learned in the class into her college interviews. The need to turn off phones and keep them out of sight for the entire class led to more and deeper conversations with fellow students, which in turn led to making connections with the people in the class, “people I normally wouldn’t talk to,” she said.

Matthew Sidorovich, a junior, said the first thing he noticed when he came into the classroom was “How nice the room was,” with high tables, adjustable chairs, bean bags and more. It was “so inviting and a great environment to get up and talk,” he said. His TED talk was on "Suicide Prevention and the Semicolon Movement."  When he confirmed his topic, “I was terrified,” but with everyone’s help, support, and working together, it all came together. When the talk was done, “I was ready for my next TED Talk … The course benefited me everywhere … I tell all my friends to take ‘Talking the Talk,’” he concluded.   

Lily Sidorovich, Matt’s mom, said she went to 13 of the 17 TED Talks – she missed four because she was out of town. “These kids, juniors and seniors, are more poised than the people I see in college.” She said McCabe is “the catalyst of what I see as the future.”  When Matt read her his TED talk the night before he gave it, “I had no idea he had been bullied for such a long time,” all mental abuse, she said. ““He read me his TED talk and I was sobbing … I’m so proud of you for being so courageous to be able to get in front of your peers and tell what was the most vulnerable thing in your heart. It was amazing.”   The best part of all the TED talks was when they finished, the applause would boost the speakers, who would smile and, after joining the class, receive hugs and congratulations from their peers.

Amanda Freeman, president of the Chatham Education Foundation, said of the course, “You have transformed the way we operate as an organization … When we went down the path to start this grant, we had no idea what this was going to become what it is … This wasn’t a curriculum, you developed a community.” 

Board member Sal Arnuk asked if the course should be “not an elective. Shouldn’t this be mandatory?”

LaSusa said, “Part of the plan is to move it down to the Middle School.” As for making it mandatory, “that’s a conversation” for another day. At this point, the presentation has “only scratched the surface” of what the class’ TED Talks are like. 

He reminded everyone that on June 14 they will see a sample of what “Talking the Talk” offers to students.