By August Kissel and Julia Skeval
On March 4, 16 brave Jamesville-DeWitt High School students took to the stage to deliver speeches on topics they feel pasionate about. JED, or J-D Engaging in Dialogue, is a club based on the popular TED organization, devoted to spreading ideas in the form of short, powerful talks. These talks have no limits in terms of topics, with J-D students’ speeches ranging from the study of meditation to the water crisis and its effects on equality for women to the stigma of mental illnesses and even the Potter Generation. Advisers Donna Oppedisano, Mary Panek and Courtney Romeiser worked with this group of students from September to help research, edit and perfect the talks given on the first week of March.
The point of JED Talks is to spread ideas the speakers’ feel passionate about. Each student had nearly six months to brainstorm, research, edit and practice their speeches, in order to make sure their message was heard loud and clear. How the students were inspired is a different story for each.
“I’m really passionate about volunteering with the veterans (at the VA in Syracuse),” said senior Courtney Vaughn about her speech called ‘Got Your Six,’ named after an army expression that means “got your back.” Vaugn completed her Girl Scouts gold award, which represents the highest achievement in Girl Scouting, at the VA, having spent over 100 hours there altogether. Because of that time, Vaugh says she “wanted to put to rest the stereotypes people have of veterans in our society,” such as that they are less educated or all develop PTSD upon returning home.
Like Vaughn, senior Julian David-Drory and junior Zev Anbar were motivated to speak about topics that have affected their lives in some way or another. David-Drory addressed learning disabilities he’s been diagnosed with that many people don’t know about, combining serious information with humor to create a memorable talk. A favorite moment in the speech came while when talking about ADHD, David-Dory mentioned that someone diagnosed with this disorder will often use a fidget toy to stay focused. He then proceeded to show the audience he’d been playing with one the whole time - a small pocket watch. Anbar delivered ‘The Potter Generation,’ about the number of lives the Harry Potter series has touched and gave the audience a different viewpoint into how the series has affected people of all ages and backgrounds. As Ms. Oppedisano said of Anbar’s speech, “it helped us to understand how it was able to galvanize a generation in a way I wouldn’t have thought of.”
Senior Emily O’Connor was doing an independent study on the water crisis in Africa with history teacher Jamie Crawford when she discovered its affect on gender equality. In countries with a water crisis, the women are responsible for walking up to three hours a day to collect water from wells while the men are working. “I spoke to raise awareness because not a lot of people know about (this problem).”
Veteran speaker Josh Gutmaker spoke last year about the importance of voting, “but then no one voted this year so I decided to speak about laws that restrict our ability to vote,” hoping his talk would inspire the audience this time around. As for the overall editing process, “I actually wrote the last page of (my speech) backstage before I went on,” Gutmaker said.
For other students, the process was a little more lengthy. “We started in September and it took a long time to make it good,” said sophomore Gerry Wason whose talk, called The First Human Right, defended the pro-life side of abortion. Anbar and junior Sarah Young felt editing was easy, “but difficult to get in 7 minute time frame,” said Young who spoke on the funding gap between pediatric and adult cancer research. O’Connor said it was a long journey to the final product, “we went through several different drafts and performed in front of the advisers and the other speakers to get used to being on stage.”
O’Connor and Gutmaker are typically behind the scenes during the high school’s musicals, choral festivals and band concerts so being front and center was a little strange. “It felt different being on stage instead of backstage,” O’Connor said. Several other students shared the same feelings of nervousness created by not being used to having the attention solely on them. “It helped that our topics were things we’re passionate about,” said Vaughn.
One major goal of the advisers was to send the audience away talking about the things they’d just learned and heard on stage. The feedback from community and faculty members as well as J-D students has been largely positive and exactly what Ms. Oppedisano, Ms. Panek and Ms. Romeiser were hoping for. “People said they didn’t realize (my topic) was such a big problem,” said Young who even received $20 from audience members after her talk to donate to pediatric cancer. Her inspiration for this speech arose when a representative from Saint Baldrick’s spoke at her synagogue about what the organization does for the community.
Many people had watering eyes during Vaughn’s speech, as she talked about a veteran she’d grown close to that passed away recently. “Everybody said that it was really emotional but they congratulated me on doing a good job,” Vaughn said. All of the speakers appeared happy with the reactions they received, saying it was all very supportive and worth the time and effort put into this project.
“I couldn’t have been more proud of those kids,” Ms. Oppedisano said of the event, having received rave reviews within just a few minutes of its conclusion. She felt the student audience was inspired by their peers, watching the performers have so much courage to pull off such polished presentations. “What the students did was exactly what we hoped for,” she said.
All three advisers were overly impressed with the professionalism and positive attitudes of the speakers as well as their ability to take constructive criticism. Ms. Romeiser said it was the advisers’ job to guide the students with organization and delivery. “We wanted the talks to be (the students) own, to capture what they thought was important and to maintain their own voices.” “We always worry about how things are going to come together,” said Ms. Panek, who was proud that the students did pull it together, making the evening into a success.
“I really think this is what education should be about,” Ms. Oppedisano said. She believes students should be encouraged to create an idea, explore the idea and create plans around improving on what they find. The concept of JED Talks is education at its best.
Many speakers have expressed interest in returning to the program next year, as well as inspired audience members who want their turn at sharing ideas they feel strongly about. The advisers have received such an outpour of enthusiasm for joining the club next year, they think they may have to split the event up into two parts to keep it at a reasonable time. “I’m glad I did it,” said David-Drory. “I suggest it to anyone who wants to talk about any topic they feel isn’t very well discussed.”