8 Must Watch TED Talks for Secondary Students

In the ever-evolving world of education, finding ways to captivate students and keep them engaged is a constant battle. Fortunately, there is a treasure trove of inspiration that’s been hiding in plain sight for longer than most of us realize – TED Talks. These powerful speeches are more than just lectures; they’re a gateway to a world of ideas that inspire and empower. And they’re much easier to plug into your classroom than you think.

I’ve teamed up with a group of passionate ELA teachers to queue up a list of our all-time favorite TED talks for secondary students that you can press play on whenever the time feels right. Check it out!

#1: Teach the Elements of Suspense

The most popular short stories in middle and high school tend to be ones that are a bit on the spookier side. Writers like Roald Dahl and Edgar Allen Poe were masters of suspense, and if you’re ready to introduce one of their scary short stories, consider showing Victoria Smith’s TED Ed lesson on How to Make Your Writing Suspenseful. Now, I know it sounds like these two topics are misaligned, but trust me. Smith’s TED talk has top-notch animation and clear & concise teaching points about the elements of suspense.

My personal favorite time to tie it in is when I’m teaching the Elements of Horror.

Whether you are teaching fictional lit or creative writing, this TED talk is bound to hit home with the spooky readers & writers in your classroom!

TED Talks for Secondary Students: The Elements of Suspense

#2: What Makes a Hero?

From Spiderman to Encanto, there are endless examples of stories that follow the hero’s journey archetype. This popular narrative structure was first articulated by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The hero’s journey is great to explore with students because it offers them a lens to interpret thousands of fictional and biographical stories.

When teaching freshmen, Daina from Mondays Made Easy explores a mini-unit on the hero’s journey. This unit begins with Matthew Winkler’s exciting and animated Ted Talk, “What Makes a Hero?” Winkler elaborates on the various stages of this journey, illustrating how heroes from different cultures and times often go through similar challenges and transformations.

TED Talks for Secondary Students: The Hero's Journey

You can pair Winkler’s Ted Talk with this introductory lesson for the hero’s journey. This lesson outlines Joseph Campbell’s archetype and applies it to fan-favorite films. It also includes a graphic organizer for each hour of the hero’s journey to explore and apply each facet of the story arc.

Now for the fun part: you can have students write their own hero’s journey to wrap up this engaging unit. This assignment is always a student favorite! Students can make it semi-autobiographical by applying the archetype to their own lives. They can also get creative and develop their own fictional protagonist that explores this story arc.

#3: Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders

Rhetorical analysis is like a superpower for students. It gets them into the nitty-gritty of speeches and essays, showing them how words can be used to shape stories, change the way people think, and even make the world a better place. By diving into this world of persuasive tactics, students not only become better at expressing their own thoughts but also discover how to do it with that extra razzle dazzle.

Ana from Simply Ana P. loves to use TED Talks as part of rhetorical analysis units and Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders” serves as a great option, offering students an opportunity to dissect persuasive techniques, engage in discussions about gender equality, and enhance their analytical abilities.

TED Talks for Secondary Students: Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders

Sandberg skillfully employs ethos, pathos, and logos to convey her message. By examining her use of personal anecdotes, data-driven arguments, and her position as Facebook’s COO, students can delve into the art of persuasion and the credibility of the speaker.

Furthermore, Sandberg’s talk encourages meaningful conversations about gender disparities and leadership roles. This subject matter allows teachers to guide students in critically evaluating societal norms and the power of discourse in bringing about change.

A relevant and phenomenal pairing would be America Ferrera’s monologue about womanhood in the 2023 Barbie movie. Both speeches share a common thread of advocating for gender equality and women’s empowerment, but vary in tone and style, allowing students to explore how rhetorical strategies are employed in distinct contexts and adapt to the audience’s needs. 

Students could complete SPACECAT or SOAPStone for each, then a Venn Diagram, and a final writing piece on how both pieces achieve similar goals while using distinct strategies.

#4: Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator

Katie from Mochas and Markbooks was recommended a TED Talk called “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator” by Tim Urban by one of her students a few years ago and was immediately struck by how funny and engaging it is while instilling some serious life skills and study habits.

Urban shares his experiences with procrastination and how our brains possess an “instant gratification monkey” that diverts our attention away from important tasks until the “panic monster” shows up to get us back on track. He also explores the deeper issues that may be contributing to our procrastination habits and how deadlines can be lifesaving.

TED Talks for Secondary Students: Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator

This video makes for a great discussion starter at the beginning of a semester or near the end when culminating activities and major projects are due. After viewing the TED Talk, Katie urges her students to share the strategies that have worked for them to stay on task and meet their deadlines. 

#5: The Danger of a Single Story

We are more than just one thing. We are more than just female or just a soccer player or just a theater nerd. And when Krista from @whimsyandrigor wants to explore concepts related to identity, she always uses Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.”

In this video, Adichie shows how the power of stories can reinforce stereotypes, build empathy, and explore identity. Her powerful and brutally honest (she admits to her own acts of prejudice) gives students permission to explore their own views and perceptions of themselves and others.

To make this lesson more concrete for her students, Krista has students write down 6 traits about themselves, 3 salient traits (characteristics you can see) and 3 non-salient traits (characteristics you cannot see but might need to know the person to see this trait). 

TED Talks for Secondary Students: The Danger of a Single Story

She uses Harry Potter as an example to get students started. Harry’s salient traits are: he is a boy and he has a scar. His non-salient traits are: he is an orphan and he has magical powers.

Once students complete their lists, Krista asks them to cross off the 4th item they wrote on their list. And then the 5th and then the 2nd, all the way until they are left with just one trait. She poses the question, “What if everyone saw you as just this one thing?”

Students are usually outraged that they would be reduced to just a single story. Which is a perfect time to start Adichie’s talk.

As students are watching, Krista asks students to create an identity chart and label the traits as either how Adichie sees herself or how others see her. 

After the video, ask students to reflect on these questions: Is there a single story that others often use to define you? What are they missing by focusing on a single aspect? What danger exists in seeing others as just one trait?

Once students complete their reflections, Krista returns to the concept of the danger of a single story both when she reads literature with the class and when interpersonal problems arise among the students. Adichie’s TED Talk is the perfect way to get students to grapple with their own identity and the ways in which they see others. 

#6: The Clues to a Great Story by Andrew Stanton

The Clues to a Great Story” by Andrew Stanton is Samantha from Samantha in Secondary’s favorite TED Talk to use with students. Stanton is an accomplished filmmaker who helped to bring classics such as Finding Nemo and Toy Story alive. 

TED Talks for Secondary Students: Introduce Narrative Writing

Samantha uses Stanton’s TED Talk as an introduction to her narrative writing unit. Not only does it get students excited about writing their own narratives, but it also shows them some behind-the-scenes looks at how stories are made. Using clips from movies, Stanton’s enthusiastic and magnetic speaking ability will have your students hooked.

An important note for teachers: Stanton begins this talk with an off-color joke that is not appropriate for students. I always start the talk right after it or I specifically use an edited version like this that starts right after the joke. (Students are never any the wiser.) 
Samantha’s narrative writing unit includes a graphic organizer to use specifically with this TED Talk if you’re in the market. Your students will love the bright visuals and engaging information included in this talk.

#7: Can Art Amend History?

Lesa from SmithTeaches9to12 loves using Titus Kaphar’s “Can art amend history?” in classes. This approximately 13-minute video raises the question of how we might amend public sculptures and national historical monuments, in addition to paintings. The speaker likens such amendments to those done in the American Constitution that update rather than erase history. 

TED Talks for Secondary Students: Can Art Amend History?

In a hands-on demo, the speaker amends a piece of his own art to demonstrate the focus of art history and the need for social action related to art. As he explains, “What I’m trying to show you, is to shift your gaze just slightly, just momentarily, to ask yourself […] what is the impact of [these kinds of works] on some of our most vulnerable in society, seeing these kinds of depictions of themselves all the time?”

You can see more of Kaphar’s work here on his website.

Check out this free conversation cube that can be used with this TED talk and any talk!

#8: The Differences Between Healthy and Unhealthy Love

Amanda from Mud and Ink Teaching has found that TED Talks are best served in the context of other learning.  If you’re in a tight spot and need a TED Talk to fill in a gap, try to find one that thematically fits in with the unit that you’re currently working on.  

If you’re in a unit that centers on relationships, you’re in luck. Amanda actually teaches a unit called:  Why do relationships matter? and much like her other essential question-based units, pairs texts and supplemental resources regularly to help students build their curiosity toward finding an answer to the question.  

TED Talks for Secondary Students: Explore Healthy and Unhealthy Love

In Katie Hood’s TED Talk “The Differences Between Healthy and Unhealthy Love”, she outlines the signs and definitions for people to be aware of in their relationships.  Amanda likes using this talk to help students learn the skills of categorization and definition.  As they learn the different types of healthy and healthy love, Amanda has students apply those definitions to the characters in the novel in her EQ unit and then apply those definitions and categories to their own lives.  Check out the resource here and the full EQ unit here!

I hope these TED Talks have sparked your imagination and provided valuable ideas for your secondary ELA classroom. Whether you’re teaching the elements of suspense, diving into the hero’s journey, dissecting persuasive techniques, or exploring the complexities of identity, TED Talks offer endless possibilities.

Now, it’s your turn to share. Drop your favorite TED Talks for the secondary classroom in the comments below, and tell us how you use them.

Here’s to many more inspiring moments in your teaching journey. Happy teaching!