A pillar stands in the main hallway of Middletown High School South in New Jersey with a whiteboard on either side of it. Holding uncapped markers, students line up in front of the whiteboards to write notes of gratitude to people at their school. Some write one or two words; others pen paragraphs. While so much high school news coverage focuses on bullying and putdowns, this busy hallway features students clamoring to thank their friends, teachers and even random acquaintances. The installation was built by a group of 40 students participating in a TED-Ed Club in the fall of 2013.
Two students describe their first TED-Ed Club meetings
The club began by watching TED Talks. Club member Sarah Maggipinto remembers, “On the first day, we go in and [Mr. Seigel] is like, ‘Okay. Here’s [a TED Talk]. Watch it.’ And then he just said, ‘Okay. Now, talk.’ And in the first meeting, we didn’t know what to say. But by the second meeting, we were throwing ideas around; we were going off on tangents. We weren’t arguing with each other — we were just discussing the videos. We got into it, and it was really cool.”
High school senior Stephen Kalinoski says, “I like being in a room where you’re free to say whatever you want, and you’re not going to be judged. I feel like there’s a huge lack of that in this day and age, especially in schools. If you say the wrong thing, you’re not considered ‘in this group’ or people look down on you. But in the TED-Ed Club, I can present my opinions, argue against other people’s points, maybe present my own idea, and everyone is supportive. Everyone understands. And even if we argue, it’s just out of the fun of challenging someone — it’s not out of ‘I think your opinion is stupid.’ It’s more like ‘That’s a very valid point, but let me bring up my idea.’ I love that sort of feeling.”
From dialogue to doing
As the club members got in the swing of pursuing and presenting their ideas at each TED-Ed Club meeting, they began wondering how they might leverage their insights and skills to foster a stronger sense of community at their school. The club decided to launch a series of “community impact projects” — each inspired by a TED Talk, each fueled by the discussions and presentations happening in their weekly TED-Ed Club meetings.
Project number one, “The Thank You Wall,” was inspired by Drew Dudley’s TED Talk on everyday leadership.
When the club members conceived of publicly accepting and displaying their classmates’ thank you notes, they weren’t sure if many people would be interested in contributing. On the contrary, so many people were eager to share their gratitude that they had to build a second pillar on day two!
Maggipinto was thrilled by the reactions of her classmates. She recalls, “One girl read her name on the board, and she said, ‘I remember that! I said that to someone. I didn’t even realize it impacted them that much.’ It was a really cool experience to have and give to other people.”
Just before the winter holiday, the club members undertook an equally hands-on, but slightly more intimate project. Once again channeling Drew Dudley’s lessons on gratitude, the students decided to give the cafeteria staff the day off by offering to clean the tables and sweep the floors. Club Facilitator Marc Seigel caught up with one of the cafeteria employees after the holidays and recounted the conversation in an email to his TED-Ed Club. “[Charlie] wanted to thank all of you for helping clean the cafeterias on Friday. He said that when he was telling his family over the break what we did, it kept bringing a tear to his eye.”
The most recent project of Middletown South’s TED-Ed Club was sparked by Candy Chang’s talk, “Before I die I want to…”. After dissecting the motivations behind the various community art projects presented in Chang’s talk, they saw an opportunity to try out similar methods at school. Concerned with a lack of school spirit in some of the underclassmen in their school, the TED-Ed Club members devised and presented a method for boosting school morale and helping underclassmen feel more welcome and involved. They took the idea to the streets printing 3,000 stickers that said “I am… MiddSouthNation” (a nickname for passionate students at the school). They handed out the stickers to every person they saw. By the end of the day, hardly a freshman or senior, teacher or parent, cafeteria worker or bus driver wasn’t sporting a sticker. Their idea had worked. School spirit reached a new high.
Good ideas, especially those presented convincingly, can lead to any number of responses or actions. Next time an idea strikes you, try to imagine how you might apply it within your own community as the TED-Ed Club Members at Middletown South did. And if you’re interested pursuing your idea within the context of a TED-Ed Club, go ahead and apply here!