Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 26, 2010

Local students unleash 'ideas worth spreading'

Paly, Castilleja hear provocative messages from CEOs, activists, professors and teens

by Chris Kenrick

Palo Alto students unleashed some "ideas worth spreading" last weekend by mounting their own thought-fests patterned after the well-known TED conferences — which feature provocative talks on a host of subjects later made available on YouTube.

In separate events, students at Palo Alto High School and Castilleja School hosted dozens of speakers, including a convicted felon who now runs a legal-services organization, founders of Silicon Valley start-ups, a famous chef, an array of Stanford professors, and even a few celebrities.

The events were described as "TEDx" conferences — licensed by TED, but independently organized. TED is a 26-year-old conference series sponsored by the nonprofit Sapling Foundation, whose goal is "to foster the spread of great ideas."

The two Palo Alto events were among 60 such gatherings held this week in venues worldwide. The Paly-organized event was held at the law offices of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

The local TEDx speakers — some students, but most invited adult speakers — generally offered non-traditional approaches to old problems.

Author Blake Boles even promoted the idea of "un-schooling," telling stories of teens who left traditional schools and found pathways to college or careers by pursuing their passions through independent study, apprenticeships and internships.

Test-prep company CEO Ramit Varma, in a talk titled "How We Learn to Hate Math," urged math-phobic students to "do the hard work of engaging with math," noting that online tools make it possible to personalize instruction to the level of any student.

Gunn graduate Trip Adler, co-founder and CEO of the publishing start-up Scribd, told students, "There's a major shift happening in the world right now," adding that "reading is going to become a lot more social" as digital publishing edges out the traditional printed page.

"What I noticed was how brazenly most of the speakers spoke to the audience," said Linda Wang, a Gunn High School senior who attended the Paly-organized event.

"They seemed very candid, very frank and they set things up for a good dialogue."

Wang said she was particularly impressed by a speech from former Stanford provost and retired Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell, who told students their "responsibility to lead" and to speak up for those who are suffering "begins right now."

Cordell is "so moving, so powerful," Wang said. "She's got a lot of faith in youth, and there's a lot to be said for that."

Some students said they previously had attended TED conferences with their parents, or watched them on YouTube.

"My dad has had me watching TED on the Internet every Saturday since seventh grade," said Jordan Lim, a Monta Vista High School senior who attended the Paly event.

"This (Paly event) really did reflect the spirit of a real TED — that sort of brainstorming was accurately portrayed through this. The creative, off-the-beaten-path ideas — not the usual thing you run into — get introduced here."

Paly student Grace Harris, one of five "co-editors-in-chief" of her Paly's "Campanile" student newspaper, said she easily identified with the message of one of the presenters, Stanford Senior Lecturer Denise Clark Pope, who urged students to achieve balanced lives by challenging the "narrow notion of success" defined by grades, test scores and college acceptances.

"Four hours of homework and six hours of sleep a night — that's the story of our lives," Harris said.

"That's one of the primary reasons Campanile is so important to us — it's one of the only opportunities for us in our days to take control of our own education."

The other four Campanile co-editors helped Harris describe the Campanile's production cycle.

"Our advisor takes a very hands-off approach," senior Nadav Gavrielov said.

"She advises and observes, but she puts trust and faith in us the editors, as well as the staff. She knows we can do it."

Co-editor Rachel Mewes said she was particularly struck by Boles presentation on "un-schooling."

"Sometimes school can almost get in the way of learning," she said. "I've had times when I really wanted to read this book and I can't — there's literally no time. I have to do college applications or AP English homework, and it interferes with what I actually want to be doing."

The Paly event was organized by the Student Equity Action Network (SEAN), a group seeking to address the well-documented achievement gap between African-American and Hispanic students and their Caucasian and Asian peers.

Chief organizer, Paly junior Tremaine Kirkman, said he was not particularly interested when his mother told him a few months ago that TED was licensing youth-organized conferences. But he later became intrigued — and signed up — when one of his Paly teachers showed a TED video in class.

"I thought at first the main challenge would be finding people to speak," Kirkman said.

"We were shocked by how many people responded and said they wanted to come. I never thought we'd get (actor and director ) LeVar Burton to come, Dorsey Nunn, LaDoris Cordell.

"I didn't realize how big of a thing TED is."

Formerly incarcerated felon Dorsey Nunn, after taking the podium, called Kirkman and other conference organizers — mostly African-American students who kept to the sidelines — back into the room.

"You are people of color — come back in here. I came here to speak to the organizers in a real profound way," said Nunn, who is executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.

"You should have an opportunity to enjoy this event," he said, saying the student organizers reminded him of his father.

"My father waited tables at Stanford. He went to Stanford every day, but he didn't get an education out of the deal.

"I want to talk to you about being able to pick yourself up when you don't have cues. As you get older as a black person, the cues get fewer and fewer, more limited. You see more failures than successes, so how do you stay the course?"

Recalling his time as an inmate in San Quentin State Prison, Nunn said, "I came to the conclusion that I was the change I was waiting for because there was no other change."

Actor-director LeVar Burton, whom many of the students remembered from his roles in "Reading Rainbow" and "Star Trek," told of being inspired by his mother, who raised him and his sister as a single parent.

"Not only did she read to us, she read in front of us. She was always reading at least one thick novel for her own enjoyment, and we got that all-important message that reading was like breathing.

"In our mom's household, you either read a book or were hit over the head with one."

Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Kevin Skelly sat through the entire, five-hour TEDx event.

In introductory remarks to kick off the proceedings, Skelly told the group, "We live in a time when parents hover over their kids. We have a lot of helicopter parents, and the future really lies with our children.

"No offense to the adult speakers, but I'm actually more interested in hearing what the kids have to say."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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