Lessons from our youngest teachers: TEDxYouth@WHRHS - RebooTED

Leanna Wellerding

Five impassioned and eloquent local high school students and one teacher took to the stage of the Watchung Hills Regional High School’s performing arts center on the evening of March 31st, 2022, joining the global movement that seeks to bring “ideas worth spreading” (credit: ted.com) to the forefront for general consumption and lifelong learning. This year’s TEDxYOUTH@WHRHS event marks the 6th year in which the high school has hosted this premier, self-organized conference. 2017 WHRHS graduate Vineet Parikh first proposed the inclusion of this programming in the district’s “2015-2020 Strategic Plan” and the event and its preparatory needs were added to the offerings that round out the high school’s student-experience through extracurriculars.

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Community members fill the auditorium in advance of the eventLeanna Wellerding

Following in the footsteps of TED, TEDx events are independently organized experiences under free licensure granted by TED, with the understanding that those participating will abide by the TED format and utilize the TED provision of guidelines for all areas of event preparation. Currently, more than 3000 TEDx events are hosted annually, spanning the globe.

Those students and staff members interested in participating in this year’s TEDxYouth@WHRHS event, “RebooTED”, were invited to apply to the program with an audition video and application. Selected students then attended countless after-school meetings with advisors in the following months, as speeches were written and edited and rehearsed. Advisors and student TEDx team members provided editorial review and coaching. With a full array of backstage crew to oversee production, staging, and recording, participants prepared for a night of individual-driven inspiration, connection and education.

Filling out the student panel of speakers for the evening (in alphabetical order) were:

  • Savannah Bellovin “The Space Between” - regarding misconceptions about autism in people assigned female at birth in an effort to inspire others to create a more accepting environment for autistic persons
  • Kaylin Davis “Can You See Us?” - commentary on the ever-present racial divide and the difficulties endured by students who don’t see themselves represented in their classrooms or communities
  • Sofia Minervini “The Stages of Acceptance” - a discourse on the relationship between the five stages of grief and the process of accepting one’s own sexuality
  • Samantha Ross “Understanding Mr. Negative” - the singular experience of meeting the challenge of mental health stigmas head on, and the importance of breaking down those barriers that bar students from seeking both diagnoses and treatment
  • Johannes Wellerding “Different vs. Divergent” - a firsthand experience of the fallacy of misappropriating diagnostic terminology, and a challenge to “reboot” the language and attitudes surrounding neurodivergence

As the author of this piece wrote previously in her efforts to encourage community members to attend the event, “What a perfect moment in time it is to sit silently, with open ears and open hearts, and to listen to and learn from those who are living in the world we've created. And those in attendance did just that, as the silence was filled up with the earnest voices of young people. Presenting through the unflinching lens of raw experience those lessons and insights that only come from enduring hardships. The very premise of TEDx, the intent to spark conversation and create community and understanding, was in full effect as audience members’ prior conceptualizations regarding the topics covered were rebooted.

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Student Johannes Wellerding presenting his TEDTalkLeanna Wellerding

WHRHS educator Michelle Lettington also took to the stage with her talk “Don’t Wait” emphasizing the importance of not only discovering one’s voice, but being brave enough to use it, and of the inspiration that creating a unique new opportunity for the school’s students in her new course “Social Justice” this year has provided her.

Behind the scenes, students Madeleine Barros, Melanie Barros, Juliette Cheng, Atharva Kalyanpur, Olivia Krutz, Emma Leung, Ronald Leung, Madison Moran, Alexa Speeney, Adithi Yellamelli, Ian Youngelson, and Arshia Agrawal served as this year’s organizing committee alongside TEDxYouth@WHRHS advisors Watchung Hills Business teacher Dianne Krutz and retired educator Elaine Chesebro.

The full event included not only the speakers' talks, introduced by a student presenter, but also a roundtable discussion period during a provided dinner following the talks. Students, parents/caregivers, WHRHS staff and community members commingled over a buffet-style meal to further discuss those subjects brought up in the TEDx talks and to praise the participants’ efforts. For WHRHS educators present, it was a rare opportunity to reconnect with students they had previously taught and not only encourage them in their future endeavors, but be taught by them, in keeping with the district’s motto to “Encourage, Empower, Explore, Excel”.

Individual talks from the March 31, 2022 event were recorded and shared with TED for future upload to the TEDx YouTube channel, where they will eventually be available at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/user/TEDxTalks/videos for global viewing.

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