Dear TEDxRedmond Presenters (Adora, Adrianna, Alec, Austin, Brigitte, Cayle, Jason, Jessica, Jordan, Kelsey, Maddy, Madison, Maya, Noah, Oliver, Olivia, Perry, Priya, Sierra, Simone, Zach, Zoe),
As I write this, I'm still shaking off a bit of jet lag after this past Saturday's TEDxRedmond conference and have almost gotten back to East-coast time, but without a doubt my heart and thoughts are still back in Redmond, Washington as I continue to process all of your amazing presentations. In doing so, I wanted to reflect on some of my own thoughts and realizations with you in this open letter.
First, I'd like to thank you all for giving me one of the greatest experiences of my life. This was undoubtedly the most amazing and important conferences I ever had the privilege to attend. Sure, I was there as a proud dad (see Zoë Sprankle), but I was also there as an educator, a learner, and even as a podcaster, catching some of the most cherished interviews with students ever (it saddens me that I wasn't able to interview you all and I hope that opportunity presents itself at some future date).
The fact that this conference was entirely created, presented, and attended by students under 16 years old is a monumental accomplishment. Of course there were adult "fingerprints" of support abounding (big thanks to all the Sponsors who helped pave the way), but you all did the real deal. From the students who organized the event, to the presenters who got up there and "blew our minds," to the attendees who stayed for the entire day (longer than most regular school days), I tip my hat to you.
I've been to many education conferences and every time I go, I ask, "Where are the students?" Recently at the Building Learning Communities Conference in Boston there was a student presence (Adora, Zoë, as well as a group of high school students helping to run the conference), and the K-12 Online Conference has started a Student Voices strand this year, so it's not as if it hasn't happened before. But this conference was entirely "student-centric" and I applaud the fact that we adults were not even allowed in the main room and had to watch the event via telesync in separate rooms.
So Kudos and great Thanks to you all.
Secondly, I want to tell you that you have inspired my students and the teachers that I've been able to share TEDxRedmond with. So far, I've only showed them your pictures and accomplishments and told stories I heard from you or what I learned about your accomplishments. My students are chomping at the bit to finally get to view the videos recorded from the conference (I hope they get posted soon!), and all of your accomplishments and work have served as great examples of what doing one's best, following one's passions or dreams, and not giving up can look like. This is a great gift as we all start a new school year and set high goals and define what excellence means.
Thirdly, I want to tell you that I've revealed to every one of my students that you have no "magical, super powers," and that you are students just like them and that they can be great just like you. Students have identified what elements have added to your success in your endeavors, what it is that you all have in common. Here's what they came up with: that you have done meaningful work; that you are passionate about that work; that you stuck with it; and that you followed your dreams. From that conversation, it was an easy jump to ask students what they are passionate about; what change they want to make; how they're going to stick with it. All of you serve as undeniable evidence that they can accomplish their dreams, just like you all have.
And lastly, I want to tell you something that you might not have heard on Saturday as you were busy presenting, or listening to co-presenters in the green room. I got to talk to a lot of people during the short breaks we were given---parents and children alike. Some of these conversations will be presented on the podcast along with the interviews I was able to do with you. Here's the thing that I kept asking the student participants that I want you to know about. I pointed out to them that they had been sitting for hours listening to you all and that they had given up their Saturday to come to this learning experience that lasted longer than most of their normal school days. I asked them if they had had enough; if they were ready to get out of there (since it had been such a long day). And here's what they all said to me: "No way! I want more of this! This is amazing!"
I asked them a follow-up question: "Do you feel the same way about your school day?" And each one took a pause, gave me a quizzical look, and gave the same honest answer: "No way. Not at all."
I followed up by asking why this was so and got a variety of answers, but it was clear that many of them were still formulating a response, and some were not able yet to articulate what the difference was between your conference and their schools' offerings.
This is one of the biggest "take-aways" from the conference for me and I need all of you (as well as all those that are reading this open letter) to help answer that question. Please. Help us teachers, principals, superintendents, parents, board members, legislatures, president, etc. understand why you were all able to hold students' attentions for a very long day and have them begging for more, when most of our schools are struggling to keep students in them, or engaged, or even interested.
When Adora asked at the end of the day, "What have we learned?" a young students answered ---and forgive me if my paraphrase doesn't have it exactly correct--- that she learned that other students from around the world were thinking and worrying and talking about the same things that she was. That was one of the most salient quotes from the whole day, and it won't leave me alone.
I need to find out why she wasn't able to know this before. I need to find out how we can become better connected across the globe so students know we are sharing the same thoughts, goals, worries, passions. I need to work towards helping my students become even more connected with their own passions, with other students like them from around the world, and with the confidence and belief that they can change the world, just as you have all done.
You have laid a huge body of indisputable evidence at our feet. The success of TEDxRedmond proves that students want to and are capable of carrying off huge feats, able and interested in educating and learning from each other, and committed to meaningful and purposeful work, even if they have to go outside of their school's curriculum to make that happen.
You have given me an extraordinary burst of hope for our futures, as I am confident you have done to thousands of others.
Again, I thank you.