Local students unleash 'ideas worth spreading'

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

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."

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Like this comment
Posted by good parents
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 26, 2010 at 11:13 am

We live in a time when the world has never been more confusing or difficult to navigate successfully -- and a time and place (less than the blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things) with an expectation that most children should survive into adulthood. That's just not an "expectation" we could have had even 100 years ago, when so many children did not survive into adulthood.

This world comes with a confusing and uncompiled handbook -- to take a child anywhere, you have to navigate a world full of barriers and rules, or you must put the child in a vehicle with its own set of barriers and rules: You have to put a baby in a rear facing car seat in the back (and not in the front or it could be deadly, unless you know how to turn off the air bag), at just the right angle, with just the right restraints. A child should wear a helmet when riding a bike because of the head injury risk, but should take it off to climb on playground equipment because of the risk of strangulation, etc.

To successfully navigate this entirely new world without a guide, many parents have developed a sense of watchfulness that has been dismissed as "helicopter parenting". That statement from our superintendent comes across as the old educational power play: You parents are too neurotic, we administrators are the ones who should be dealing with your kids and you superfluous parents butt out.

If Skelly had simply said that last quote, that he was more interested in what the kids have to say, I would have respected him more for that. But the line about "helicopter parents" betrays such a dismissive attitude toward parents and their important role in their children's lives and education in this community, I think he should consider whether he wouldn't be a better fit somewhere else where he can be the autocratic leader and avoid the distasteful business of dealing with parents of close families.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve C
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 26, 2010 at 11:49 am

What a great opportunity for these students and adult attendees. Wish I had known this was going to happen. Watched LeVar Burton many times when my kids were growing up and watching Reading Rainbow, and also on Star Trek and Roots. Also would have liked to hear Dorsey Nunn speak, someone who obviously knows a thing or two about redemption and motivation. I'm sure every speaker and presenter brought something special to the conference. TED is clearly one of the great forums for exchange of information and ideas, a real class act. Thanks for running this article, and also to Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati for hosting the event. I'll be on the lookout for the next TEDx conference.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve C
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 26, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I was remiss in my previous comments to not give kudos to all the student organizers of this event, and to the students who presented as well. You really are the future of this country, indeed, of the entire global community. Great job!

Like this comment
Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 26, 2010 at 12:52 pm

What a great event. Wish that my kids had known about it - hopefully we can find on Youtube.

So the Skelly-hater poster above, while you may disagree, it seems sad that you'd suggest our Superintendent resign because he acknowledges that helicopter parents exist! Every generation has plenty of folks saying that their times was the most challenging, confusing, difficult, etc. for kids to grow up (remember the industrial revolution? the Depression and WWII? the 60s??) - I would say we are no different. You should certainly parent in the ways that suits your family best, but I support our Superintendent in focusing on developing kids, not just kowtowing to parents.

Like this comment
Posted by good parents
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 26, 2010 at 7:31 pm

To the person above who thinks any valid criticism means you are a "hater":

Apparently you think it's okay to obscure/defend Skelley's extraordinarily dismissive and negative attitude toward parents by calling us names for our comment (i.e., by being a “hater” yourself)?

We live in a community that values close families.
We live in a community where parents play an important role in their children's upbringing and in their education, and WE consider that a GOOD thing.

We're not saying other times haven’t been challenging. We're saying this is the first time and place in human history when we have the audacity to expect every child to survive and thrive into adulthood. In every challenging time you mention, not only was that not the case, but the rules and instincts for survival weren't that different from times past. The rules of surviving and thriving are changing rapidly and becoming less intuitive all the time.

We honor parents for their instincts, we don't see cause to tear them down just because we might find it inconvenient.

Especially given the soul-searching Skelley claims to have done about how to provide supportive environments for our children given recent tragedies, this comment - and yours, that the idea of parents being involved in their children's well-being, that the idea of listening to parent input, is "kowtowing" to "hellicopter parenting" - is dismissive, negative, by your parlance, parent-hating.

We'd actually developed a better opinion of Skelley recently for doing better than just pretending to take parent input for once. He seemed actually willing to deal with the messy business of taking different inputs and adapting, maybe even problem solving. For the first time since he arrived here, we had hope for him.

Acknowledging that "helicopter parents" exist is not what the forum was about, and you know it. He could have simply asked parents to let the kids speak -- if he had an inkling that those parents had the kids' best interests at heart, he might have realized he could simply make a respectful request, but instead he had to insult them.

You are justifying an insult to parents, plain and simple, by the Superintendent of Schools, who is a public figure. His insulting parents and taking such a negative attitude toward their involvement is at best a power play and at worst evidence of a completely inappropriate mindset for a superintendent of education.

If Skelley dislikes dealing with parents so much, yes, he should go elsewhere. There are communities where such autocratic views are accepted for school administrators, where he wouldn’t have any of that nasty negotiating, compromising, problem solving, and taking input that you see as kowtowing. If he is so resentful of parents and close families, this is not the right place for him. You don't have to hate him to see that.

Sorry, but unlike Skelley, you won't silence these parents by calling us hateful names.

Like this comment
Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 26, 2010 at 7:58 pm

Hmm, helicopitering AND over-sensitive parents ;-) Like I said, you can and should parent your kids any way you like. But I think the superintendent can and should call it as he sees it, and I'm glad that he does. There are plenty of parents who try to tell him how to do his job. While I think it was just a throwaway line, I happen to agree with him on this one.

As to being a "hater" - so far you've accused Skelly of a "negative attitude," being "autocratic," "resentful," "completely inappropriate," "insulting" etc. Sounds like "hater"-speak to me! You seem to get upset easily ;-)

Here's the wiki article on helicopter parents - take a read and see if it fits. Web Link You can change your parenting style if, on reflection, you think it right. And who knows, maybe you'll change your opinion on school administrators do their jobs and speak their minds.

Like this comment
Posted by honest
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Nov 27, 2010 at 9:01 am

dr.Skelly was just being honest, there was nothing more than that.

Like this comment
Posted by GPS_Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 28, 2010 at 4:02 am

I don't care for the term "helicopter parent" or for that matter any broad-sweeping term that gets overused and overapplied. Before I read the wiki links article (ref. above), I even called myself a "helicopter" parent but now I am relieved to find out that my actions are not that extreme. I think I am more of a "GPS parent". I like to give my kids lots of directions but if they take a surprise turn, I just "recalculate" and come up with a whole different set of directions... which my kids may or may not follow. Which leads to another point: kids, in general, don't want to be "hovered over". So good luck to the real "helicopter" parents out there. I hope you have a good navigation system because the more you hover, the more turns your kids are going to make to throw you off their track.

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