Back Stage At TEDX: Reflections From a First Time Organizer

The 2014-2015 school year was filled with incredible opportunities and professional learning experiences, and I’ve blogged about all of them. However, the best learning experience of the entire year, the one I’m most proud to share, took place on my home turf of Burlington; it was the epitome of youth and adults collaborating to create something real and unforgettable. I’m speaking of the first ever TEDxYouth@BHS event. This post gives you a back stage look at what made our event successful and provides recommendations on how you can bring a TEDx Youth event to your community.

Get Students Involved in the Planning Process

TEDxYouth@BHS was initiated by a student. As part of the Individual Learning Endeavor (ILE), my Help Desk’s version of the 20% time, genius hour project, senior Nikhil Thakkar applied for a license to host a TEDx Youth event at Burlington High School. Nikhil had previous experience with TED as a member of the BHS TED Ed Club as well as TEDx, so I wasn’t surprised when he decided to pursue obtaining a license as his ILE. The application asked for a description of the theme and Nikhil selected Diversity. We later added Disruptive to more accurately capture the spirit of the event and the topics of our speakers. Nikhil completed the application independently and was notified on December 15th that TEDxYOUTH@BHS (TEDxYouth@Burlington was taken) was approved. Our event was held on Saturday, May 23rd. That gave Nikhil and I a little over five months to plan.

Student Leadership At Its Best

As an organizer, Nikhil worked with me behind the scenes on several important administrative tasks. The day of the event, he delivered a welcome message, introduced me as the host, and spent the rest of the evening back stage making sure every session ran smoothly. In the months leading up to the 23rd, Nikhil and I experienced several significant challenges, however we persevered through the obstacles and worked together to produce an event that honestly shattered my expectations. I wholeheartedly agree with Joe Mazza, as he stated via a Tweet during the event, that every school should consider hosting a TEDx Youth event. TEDx Youth provides young people with a global platform to share their voices, passions, and ideas. That being said, the amount of time, effort, and energy you’ll need to devote to planning such a large scale event is not something to be taken likely. Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 7.14.39 PM

Start Planning Early and Choose Your Date Wisely

Organizers are responsible for delegating a huge list of responsibilities, coordinating logistics, and recruiting teams of experts to handle the many moving parts of a TEDx event. As I mentioned, Nikhil and I had only five months to pull everything together. This was mistake number one. I strongly advise a minimum of nine to twelve months of planning time. We also held the event on a holiday weekend. Mistake number two. Our initial date was May 8th, but due to a scheduling conflict, we moved the event to the 23rd. It didn’t even occur to me at the time that was Memorial Day weekend. We did still manage to sell out of the 100 tickets we had available (our license only permitted 100 people in the audience; we did not charge admission to the event) and had over 1,000 people watching the live steam, from Alaska to Tel Aviv I might add! Next year, if we are approved to hold TEDxYouth@BHS again, we’ll start planning in September and avoid scheduling the event during a holiday weekend. Being in New England, we’ll also avoid the winter months in case mother nature decides not to cooperate.

Take Advantage of TED Resources and Your PLN

Once your license is approved (there is no cost associated with obtaining a license) you’ll gain access to the TEDx community where you can learn the rules of TEDx, pose questions, curate resources and ideas for your own event, and learn from other experienced TEDx organizers from across the globe. You’ll also receive a comprehensive planning guide, compliments of TED, that will walk you and your speakers through the entire process. I used these TEDx resources extensively, however I also reached out to TEDx organizers from my PLN; specifically Adam Burke and Nick Provenzano. Their advice and encouragement was invaluable.

Promote Your Event

After our application was approved, one of the first things Nikhil and I did to spread the news about our event was create a Twitter account and blog. I purchased through WordPress and after meeting Shane Hunt at TED Active back in March, used his TEDxYouth@Frankston as a guide when building our site. I liked the theme Shane had selected and decided to emulate what he created. Following his lead also ensured our site met the criteria established by TED. As each speaker was confirmed, I added their bio, headshot, and talk title. I would then Tweet out links back to the site in an effort to build awareness of our event. While I didn’t have a social media manager, Joe Mazza volunteered to help promote the event via social media, as did many of the other speakers, and this was a tremendous help. Next year, my goal will be to recruit a student, or team of students, who’ll be responsible for leveraging social media to spread the word in Burlington and beyond.

Build , Thank, and Recognize Your Teams

Organizers must see the event from a big picture perspective and accept the fact they can’t make it happen alone. Instead, you should recruit a team of talented experts, both students and adults, to turn your big picture vision into a reality. There are many people in the Burlington community who volunteered their time and worked hard to make TEDxYouth@BHS a success. The production crew from Burlington Cable Access Television (BCAT), my colleagues in the BHS Music and Art Departments, members of the BPS IT staff, and the Burlington Public Schools administration were instrumental leading up to and during the event.

Nikhil and I owe a huge thanks to Jenn Dodge, Executive Director of BCAT and Production Coordinators Kyle Ruffman and Mike Duval. The three of them handled all the technical aspects of the live streaming and recording of our event. They’ll also be editing the final videos which will be uploaded to the TEDx YouTube channel for public viewing. During the event, I watched the live stream back stage and it looked and sounded crystal clear. Also back stage and in the sound booth were BHS students (freshmen and sophomores) who managed the sound, lighting, and video like true professionals. Freshmen Owen Johnson and Sanjana Manghnani in particular were amazing throughout the duration of the event. They assisted speakers with their wireless mics, knew exactly when to open and close the curtain, when to lower and raise the projection screen and were available to assist me whenever I needed them. Fortunately, each segment of the event was preplanned and rehearsed several days in advance with the help of Burlington Public Schools Performing Arts Director John Middleton-Cox. Jose DeSousa and Eric Calandriello, members of the BPS IT department, also played key roles in the success of the event. They ensured our guest network was available and that the embedded videos in the Keynote presentation played without any glitches during the live event.

Jonathan Granger, BHS Chorus and Musical Theater teacher, directed the BHS Glee Club and members of the BHS Marching Band during the event’s four musical performances. BHS Art Teacher Keith Mistler, connected me with his student, freshman Syndey Hildreth, who designed our beautiful program as well as senior Daniel Connolly who designed our Disruptive logo and the introductory slides for each speaker. Keith devoted a substantial amount of time on the final edits of the program and made sure it was flawless. My colleague Dr. Rachel Gould also spent time proofreading the program before we sent it to the printer. Sophomore Arya Bhat designed the Diversity logo and Rosemary DeSousa assisted with the printing of the program. Burlington High School Photography Teacher Lexi Djordjevic connected me to junior Jenna Hobgood who served as our official photographer the night of the event (her photos will be uploaded to Flickr soon so stay tuned!). Peggy Allegretto, Administrative Assistant to BHS Principal Mark Sullivan, took care of the catering and my colleague Colleen Jenkins served as a hostess by welcoming attendees, and she made sure everything ran smoothly during our two intermissions. Our custodial staff also assisted with the set-up of the lobby area and helped me bring supplies from the Help Desk to the auditorium. It was truly a collaborative effort and I’m eternally grateful for the support and dedication of my colleagues.

Focus on Your Speakers

The majority of my time was spent coaching the youth speakers leading up to the big day. Most speakers met with me three times for coaching sessions. During these sessions, I helped speakers develop their outlines, worked with them on their introductions and conclusions and the mechanics of their public speaking skills. I also coached them on the development and design of their slides. As an organizer, you’ll need to build confidence in your speakers. You’ll need to communicate with them frequently leading up to the event, be available whenever they need you, and help calm their nerves the day of your event (although I think I may have been more nervous than the speakers!). In addition to your support, all your speakers will have access to a comprehensive speaker guide provided by TED. You’ll also want to think about the order of your speakers and how to design your sessions. Nikhil and I worked together to establish three sessions with five speaker in each session. We grouped speakers by topic and created three distinct themes:

1. Contemplating Cultures
2. Self and Science
3. It’s All About “ME”

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About an hour before our event started, I gathered all the speakers together for a “pep talk” of sorts and tried to articulate (without getting too emotional) how proud I was for what they were about to share. I also presented each of them with a certificate of recognition for serving as a speaker; this was a recommendation from other TEDx organizers mentioned in the TEDx community. Once the event started, I watched each speaker from back stage and was so impressed by their professionalism, confidence, and the content of their talks. Seeing them celebrate their performance with their family and friends after their talks was so inspiring and I know that being a part of TEDxYouth@BHS is something none of them will ever forget. I wasn’t the only one who was impressed by the speakers. Throughout the event, there were many people watching the live stream who were commenting on the speakers’ performances and sharing their thoughts via Twitter. Knowing the speakers were having an impact on people watching all over the country was incredibly powerful.

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Certificates for each speaker as a TEDxYouth@BHS keepsake

Working with the speakers was by far my favorite part of the planning process. Next year, should we host our second TEDxYouth@BHS event, I’d like to work with each speaker even more so than I did this first time around. I’d ideally like to hold auditions well in advance of the event. This was a recommendation made by Nick and it makes perfect sense. Auditions will not only help me determine how much coaching each speaker needs, it will also help accurately predict the length of the event. We ran about an hour and a half beyond the original end time, but overall the transitions between speakers were seamless and I believe the audience stayed engaged for the duration of the program.

Gain Administrative Support

Finally, gaining support from the leadership within your school is critical and will make your life as an organizer much easier. As usual, the “yes” mindset of Burlington’s leadership resulted in an unbelievable experience for our youth speakers and gave them the opportunity to share their voices globally. I’d like to give a very special thanks to Dr. Eric Conti, Superintendent of Burlington Public Schools, Patrick Larkin, Assistant Superintendent for Learning, and Mark Sullivan, Principal of Burlington High School for their endorsement of the inaugural TEDxYouth@BHS event from the start. I continue to feel fortunate to work in a future ready district where student voice is valued and supported.

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Serving as a first time TEDxYouth co-organizer was one of the highlights of 2014-2015. I’m motivated to take all that I’ve learned into 2015-2016 and hopefully be approved to organize a second TEDxYouth@BHS event. Thank you to everyone who attended live or watched the live stream and supported the speakers of TEDxYouth@BHS. We will be sharing the videos soon and we hope to see you again in 2016!

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