Their Voices Matter

Their Voices Matter

Writing a TEDx talk is on my bucket list…and I’ve finally landed on my topic.  Here it is in its infancy – I’d love to know your thoughts!

Their Voices Matter

It never ceases to amaze me the things my third grade students have been exposed to.  Not a day goes by when I’m not asked something that forces me to respond to their worry.  “Where do homeless children eat?”  “Why do cell phone companies destroy rainforests to mine for tungsten?”  “Will we all die if fossil fuels continue to be used?”

Lord have mercy.  What happened to childhood?  But my students’ voices shake with anger and confusion, and I must respond.  Does anyone at home ever listen to them?

Recently I ditched my lesson plans in order to better teach ‘opinion’ writing – while harnessing their anger.   We call it a teachable moment – and this was one of the best I’d ever experienced.  I decided these kids would write and perform their own TEDx talks, and they’d perform them in front of parents and administrators.

That first day the students brainstormed a topic that fired them up – something worth sharing with the world.  Several children had so many things on their minds, I knew that choosing just one might take some time.

The next day I showed them TEDx talks by children from all walks of life, from Malala Yousafzai who received the Nobel Peace Prize after being shot in the face for daring to go to school…to a brilliant and captivating 12-year-old app designer.  We watched a petite fourth-grader speak about the power of kindness, and a teenager who eloquently shared the difficulties of his disease and his decision to lead a happy life.

There was silence when we finished viewing the speeches.  All of my students recognized right away that they were about to write something important – something that might change the world.  Each dug deep and discovered their nugget – that thing they knew a lot about and wanted to share.

I sat and watched as they wrote – my brain whirling.  Would all of them land on a topic and stick with it?  Would they be able to support their idea with facts and sustain a speech in front of an audience?  Was I crazy?

When they needed help, we conferred one-on-one at my little round table, and I fielded a cauldron of questions.  “What if what I want to say upsets my dad?” “What do you call it when someone is made fun of because of the color of their skin?”   “Is it okay if I write about stress?”  “I’d like to write about something positive – about how a pet can transform a family.  Is that okay?”

I introduced the importance of body gestures in public speaking, and explained that movement on stage – showing your palms in particular, tended to gain the trust of an audience.  To demonstrate, I replayed two Tedx talks – those with plenty of hand movement, and my students were convinced.  They incorporated body language into their speeches, just like that.  We giggled together at their first attempts to copy what they had seen, but in the end, all students settled into gestures seamlessly woven into their four-minute talks.

And you know what?  Every single student completed this task, even those who had never ever completed a writing assignment before.

I scheduled the performance for the first thing on a Friday morning, and crossed my fingers that we’d have an audience.  The night before I had decorated the classroom with stage curtains, pushed the desks back against the wall and arranged the seats theater-style, to accommodate everyone we’d invited. The children gasped as they filed into the room, staring at the transformation, and I called out, “Breathe…and break a leg,” opening the door to dozens of parents and administrators.

Students shared fears and concerns on a myriad of issues, both global and personal: the realization that skin color seems to dictate who has power; the outrage when discovering that not everyone has affordable healthcare; the joy of teamwork while playing hockey.

Then the littlest boy, the one who rarely engages, the one who at every recess  has stood on the edge of the playground and watched others, padded over and took the stage, his dark hair falling into his eyes.  I swallowed hard, clutching my Kleenex.  I knew what he was about to say.

“I’m here today to talk about loneliness…something I know a lot about.”  His voice was soft.  The audience leaned forward in their seats, catching every word, their eyes riveted to his face. “Ever since I moved here I have hoped to make a friend, but nobody seems to notice me.”   I wanted to leap from my seat and hug him.

He had done it.  They ALL had done it.  It was the end of my final year of teaching, with just 26 days left of school, and I had finally gotten to the core of what I love most: students inspired to change the world; students knowing they can make a difference; students writing their hearts out and being heard.


  1. Cathy Krizik on May 8, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    Can I be that little boy’s friend? I love him! It’s the vulnerability that jumps off the page.
    26 days left? Wow. I’d remind you to walk each remaining day with your eyes and heart wide open except I know you already are.

  2. Margery Eriksson on May 8, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    Words fail me, dear Vanya. THIS is brilliant and your students will never forget their moment giving that speech. Wow! Forwarding this to everyone I know who has ever been a teacher. I’d love to know how the administrators and parents responded. Did the little lonely boy find a friend?

  3. Mona Halaby on May 9, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Vanya, you are an amazing teacher! You empowered your students in ways very few teachers do. I am so impressed with their abilities to hone on what’s most important for them and for the world. You have taught them that their voices count! Bravo!

  4. Jen Fraisl on May 30, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    Thank you for choosing to be a teacher, for in your many years of sharing your talents and your heart with children, you have masterfully guided their lives. I feel so fortunate that both of my kids had your loving guidance in their school years. I am deeply grateful to you.

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