My Very First TEDx Talk: It’s MY Education!

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It’s MY Education!

Timmy SullivanOn March 23, 2015, Burlington High School was the site of the first ever TEDxYouth@BHS TEDx conference. An event co-created by Nikhil Thakkar and Jenn Scheffer, the TEDxYouth@BHS conference brought students, educators, and professional speakers from across the country to present their ideas worth spreading.

In my talk, “It’s MY Education,” I discuss the need for public education reform, the changing role of today’s educator, and the benefits of creating personalized learning experiences for students. Sharing my passion for languages, culture, and communication, advocate for integrating technology across the curriculum to expand the walls of the classroom and to further personalize the learning experience.

My talk can be found in the YouTube embed below, as well as the manuscript, just below the video. Feedback, as always, is welcome!





About a month ago, I was at an academic competition when I got into a bit of a debate with the dean of undergraduate admissions for an ivy league university. For the sake of privacy, I will omit the university’s name.

It started off as a very casual conversation. She was interested in what classes I was taking, my extracurriculars, and, of course, my plans for the future; a very normal conversation for a junior in high school. Then, the conversation began to change when she asked me which science course I was taking next year. She was surprised to find that I am not taking a science course next year, but instead intend to double-up on a language class. The look on her face was a mixture of shock, and a little bit of pity. And this hurt me.

Language has always been something that I have been passionate about. Since I was a little kid, I have been fascinated with the noises I can make with my mouth, and your ability to understand them; my ability to draw signs with my hands, and to be able to read them. Then this fascination grew into an obsession with grammar in middle school. I love grammar. I love knowing rules that no one else knows exists. I love knowing how to construct a sentence. I love looking for mistakes in pieces of writing. In high school, I fell in love with syntax; with word placement and word choice; with how to make an argument.

Then I realized that I am not just limited to doing this in English, but I can do this in other languages as well. That is where I began my journey with Spanish; and I have deeply immersed myself in the Spanish language and culture. Because of my involvement with the Spanish language, I have had the best experience of my life, participating in an exchange trip to Collado-Villalba, Spain. Without Spanish, without my passion for language, I would not have had that experience.

And after studying Spanish in school, I go home and teach myself Arabic, because my best-friend’s family is from Lebanon. And while they are all fluent in English, I want to communicate with them in a more intimate way. Because that is what communication is. Communication is intimacy. Communication is my passion. And for her to make this face at my passion was jarring to me.

I questioned her about it, and her response was, “We only accept prestigious students.”

Why are my passions not prestigious?

John Dewey, a philosopher and education reformer, says that “Education is not the preparation for life; education is life itself.” Therefore, why, when I am constructing an education based on my passions, is my life not prestigious?

I told her that the current system that we are employing and mandating, this education model, is not producing individuals, but it is producing cookie-cutter students with the same set of skills and the same set of knowledge. And if you do not have that same set of skills and same set of knowledge, then you fail. She did not like that.

What I am here to present to you today is a personalized learning system; how to reshape and reform the classroom to include all students and their passions. I would like to clarify what personalized learning is, because it is often confused with individualized learning. Individualized learning is giving students the same materials and letting them go at their own pace. Personalized learning is letting students create. It is unique. Students have different starting points different ending points, and different procedures. Personalized learning is different accommodations for different students. Personalized learning is the theme of today’s event; because personalized learning is diversity.

And often times personalized learning is combatted with common core. I am not saying that we should abolish common core, and get rid of history class or get rid of science class, because without those common core courses, I would not be where I am today. Without having to take a Spanish class, I may never have found that language. But what I am saying is that we tailor the classes.

For example, every year in history, we learn the same things, over and over. We learn the order of the presidency, what each one of those presidents did, and what battles they fought in. Should you ask me the order of the presidency, what each of those presidents did, and the timeline of the battles, I could probably tell you none of those things. But, should you ask me, I can tell you everything you want to know about the underground railroad, I can tell you everything you want to know about the oppression of Latinos in zoot suits, and I can tell you everything you want to know about the irrational fear in America with the internment of the Japanese-Americans in World War II. Why? Because that is what I am passionate about. Because that is cultural. And that is history. So why are those lessons that I like learning limited to two days? Why do I have to spend the rest of the year learning material that is not helping me?

The next thing that comes up is, how do we shift into personalizing learning? The first way is a culture shift. When I talk about culture shifts, I am really talking to teachers here. Unfortunately, the problem preventing personalized learning in classrooms is not the students, but the teachers. This is because the role of the teacher changes from content provider to coach. Teachers need to learn that it is okay to say “I don’t know.” They do not always need to have all the resources, but they need to be there with the student to say, “this is what you want to learn and here is how we are going to do that. Here is how we are going to accomodate for you.” To do this, we need to reshape the classroom and reshape the curriculum so that it does not fit every student, but it is unique to each student. Do not drown students with content, allow them to create their own.

The second step is the integration of appropriate technologies. You must remember that the main focus here is not the technology, but the students. Allow students to have access to rich content. Allow them to find what they love and to pursue it with endless resources online. Accessibility is the key. Students will be learning beyond the classroom, and the learning they do outside of the classroom is the learning they should be doing in it.

The last step is to promote student agency, to promote student voice and student choice. Students know what they want to learn, and every student wants to learn something. Help them with that. Allow them to chose what they want within each subject matter and so it feels relevant to them and they continue to feel motivated throughout the year. This allows students to grow within the context of their own environment. We will be producing individuals.

The outcome will ultimately unify the school day. For me, as a student, as I feel many will agree, the school day feels cut up. What I am doing in history class is unrelated to what I am doing in math class, which is unrelated to what I am doing in Spanish class, which is unrelated to what I am doing in English. When students can chose the material and the content they are learning, the school day will be more cohesive.

I mentioned that I am passionate about language and culture. Allow me to illustrate to you what a typical school day would like for me in a personalized school:

I would start off in math, examining the numbers of various cultural groups, various things that affect them, looking at the logic of how those things come into play in their daily life.

After looking at the statistics in math class, I will go to language class to understand the core of the people, to communicate with them, and to better understand their culture.

I will then go to history class, where I can examine that culture and read about different cultural oppression and empowerment.

Following history, I would go to English class, where I would read literary works, satirical pieces, and primary source documents to better understand the direct voice of the people.

Then I would go to technology class to connect firsthand with the people, to talk with them online, to hear their stories, to converse with them, and to practice my language.

I would ultimately end up in business class to learn how to construct an organization around my passion, to really succeed with all of this education.

That is my personalized school day. And that is not the school day that I am getting. When students create what they want to know, they will create a unified classroom experience.

Education is not one size fits all.


2 thoughts on “My Very First TEDx Talk: It’s MY Education!

    […] but because of the potential a brand as renowned as Coca-Cola has seen in me. My efforts to reform public education, to bring student voice to global attention, and to promote digital citizenship have not gone […]


    […] uses his blog as an outlet to connect with others who share views similar to his. He has links to a TED Talk simulation he participated in, he shows the blogs he’s featured in as a guest blogger, and […]


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