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Events, Follow This, Speakers, TEDxYouth@Columbus

Austin Channell at TEDxCbus

by Kendra Hovey

If you didn’t see it, you might have heard about it: First standing O of the day . . . 80,290 views online . . . featured on WOSU TV’s TEDxColumbus special . . . The talk, Austin Channell’s A Culture of Obsession: Why taking choir kept me from being valedictorian, was even retweeted by preeminent chorale composer Eric Whitacre—making Channell, for one hot moment, a hero among Central Ohio choir directors.

It all made for an interesting senior year of high school for Austin Channell, who never expected to be juggling his class schedule with an appearance on All Sides with Ann Fisher or piggybacking a college visit onto a speaking engagement in Virginia.

Now a high school graduate, Channell finished third in his class, but was not a valedictorian. As he says, “that would have been awkward.” In the fall, he’ll attend Vanderbilt University, where he plans to study civil engineering.

Austin Channell on all sides with Ann FisherHis TEDx talk, to quickly refresh, grew out of a real life quandary: He could take choir in high school, get an A and, as a result, lower his GPA. Or he could sign up for study hall and end up with a higher GPA. As absurd as this sounds, it’s also built into the educational grading system. As Channell deftly points out, it is possible for a student to “succeed in more areas and be penalized for it.”

It’s not that he had some great ambition to be a valedictorian, as he says, “It was the principle of the thing.” And the problem is bigger than just some nonsensical grade point system. At issue, is the larger and more complicated matter of how we choose to define and measure success, and the resulting effects on college-entrance, and the self-esteem, health and well-being of our youth.

For students, it can lead to some silly scheduling maneuvers—going to art class while officially signed up for study hall. But if college is going to be in the picture, GPA is vital, and even as current business-speak extols the virtues of failure while the social sciences send out alerts about the dangers of perfectionism, students know exactly the fine line they have to walk.

If an A in a non-AP class can reduce GPA or just one B can plummet a class rank from one to one hundred and something, an example Channell shares, why take a risk? Or follow an interest? Maybe the student truly is that much less smart or less studious than before the B, either way, at many colleges, her application’s gone from the top of the pile to the slush pile. Grading—how it varies between districts, schools and teachers and what exactly it measures—is not just a complicated puzzle for administrators. Channell is telling us it’s having real effects, adverse effects, on real lives.

Yet not every high schooler with something important to say, says it on the TEDx stage. In fact, in the history of TEDxColumbus there’ve been exactly two: Austin Channell and Meagan Jones. Channell’s journey began courtesy of his public school, where a posted flyer and a nudge from a teacher led to an internship with TEDxYouth. Working with Andy Aichele for two years, he helped plan, coach and stage manage the event. “We spent a lot of time at a lot of Paneras,” he says. As can happen when working with TED, the question pops up: “What would be your talk?” When Achiele would pose it, Channell, took it as idle musing, at least until the day he began “ranting” about his situation. As he recalls, “Andy said, ‘This is your talk,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah…it is.’ ”

Austin Channell interviewed by CBS News Pittsburg

Once he left the TEDxColumbus stage, it didn’t take long for the tweeting and sharing to start, as well as the dialogue and invitations to speak. He’s been interviewed on various news programs, shared versions of the talk at a school board meeting, at the Ohio Department of Education (twice) and, by invitation of a PTA, as far away as Falls Church, Virginia. The small city, essentially a suburb of DC, is in the wealthiest county in the U.S. and home to supposedly the best high school in the country (though public, admission is selective). In Falls Church, says Channell, “even the middle school librarian has an ivy league degree.” It was there, during the Q&A, that Channell was asked maybe the most heart-breaking question. It came from an 8th grader. To paraphrase, she asked, “What if I don’t feel so driven to succeed, but my parents want it and I don’t want to make them unhappy?”

This child’s question helps explain the strong response to Channell’s talk. Education is not just about student and teacher, but administrators, communities, society, says Channell, and the core relationship between parent and child. “We know education is a hot button issue,” he says, “some relate to what they see as an unfair system, some question how we assess learning, some defend the system, but for parents in particular, the effects on their children are really concerning—I know how hard it was on my own parents to witness the physical toll of my class schedule and academic stress.”

Another reason for the overwhelming response may just be that Austin Channell did a really good job. And were I to add “for his age” it’s not to put a qualifier on his abilities, but to acknowledge age is a factor. Though he doesn’t attempt to offer a solution, and while people are listening and talking no changes have yet been made (though his school board just announced it will be reviewing the valedictorian system), still in Channell’s TEDx talk there is hope. Because despite everything we have left the next generation to grapple with, if they still come out smart, articulate, principled and mature, there’s definitely hope.

Whether Channell agrees with this or not, he can’t deny that people are impressed with his public speaking abilities, because the reality is he gets asked about it all the time. He actually loves this question. He knows exactly where he learned stage presence and how to engage an audience, and he’s happy to share: “It’s theater,” he says, “It’s what the arts can do for you.”

Another question catches him more off-guard. The details vary each time, but it goes something like this: “Would you mind if we drove three hours from Pittsburg to interview you?” Or, “We can pay to fly you and your mom to Virginia, put you up in a hotel, give you a rental car, pay for your food and a travel stipend…would that be okay?” Recounting these today, he still sounds bemused: “It’s one of those questions people would ask, but I’m still not sure . . . who says no to this?”

If this whole experience has been a bit disorienting for Channell, it’s also been humbling and motivating. Amazed by how far and wide the talk has spread, he also wonders if maybe he should have put more into it—more than writing it during an 11th period study hall, he confesses. This concern comes from the perfectionist in him, but also from a real sense of responsibility.

He has no obligation but to go off and be a college student and pursue his interest in civil engineering. But that’s not how he’s feeling. “I don’t know what form it will take or what point in my life it will happen,” he says, but the issue is not behind him. By sheer coincidence, Vanderbilt is home to Peabody College, the best graduate school of education in the nation. He’s already made contact, though just out of curiosity. He does say that, in his mind, from civil engineering to education is not a huge leap. “Civil engineering is about creating and maintaining systems. Though more infrastructure related, it’s borderline policy,” he says. Plus, he’s never been one for purely technical pursuits, being more macro- than micro-focused.

The system of education is one of many things he’s looking forward to potentially exploring in college. But for the moment, he’s got his graveyard shift at a truck parts warehouse. Spending his summer laboring alongside mostly fulltime union workers, ”I put parts in boxes,” he says, “I close the box and put a shipping label on it.” He’s in it for the money—“I know I’ll be poor in college, but my goal is to be less poor in college”—but as a side benefit, he’s listened to a lot of audio books.

One night that audiobook was The Ghost Map about a cholera epidemic in 1854. “If you want to get strange looks from people, just listen to a description of someone suffering from cholera,” he says. When the guys around him asked what he was listening to, it blossomed into a group discussion about medical issues and the scientific process. “Turn it up,” someone suggested, and at 10:00 on a summer night instead of a muffled din of rap, metal and various podcasts, blaring inside this truck parts warehouse was a story about disease and sanitation in mid-19th century London, England. Yet another unexpected and interesting experience in what has been an unexpected and interesting year for Austin Channell.


Kendra Hovey is editor at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at


Events, Follow This, TEDxColumbus, TEDxYouth@Columbus, TEDxYouth@WellingtonSchool


Last Spring, over a period of one month and two days, the Columbus area was host to four TEDx events: One at a prison, another at a university, yet another at a research institute, and the last at a high school.


What’s going on here? TEDx is growing—clearly—though not just up in numbers but out into diverse and interesting terrains.


Last month, we shared the story of one of these four, the second annual TEDxMarionCorrectional held on April 21, 2013 (their first event was the first ever TEDx in an adult prison). Today, we share the story of TEDxYouth@WellingtonSchool (May 15, 2013). We asked 17-year-old curator and organizer Alexandria Armeni to write about her motivation to bring this event to her high school and what happened when she did. Graciously, she agreed. Here’s her story:

by Alexandria Armeni

Glancing in my review mirror at the huge red TEDx sign taking up the whole of my backseat, it was finally real: I was hosting a TEDx event.

Me . . . a 17-year-old . . . a high school senior at The Wellington School . . . I was bringing together an event that had to embody the spirit of TEDx and follow all of their rules. What had I gotten myself into?

You might be wondering, too, how a high school senior comes to be hosting a TEDx event. To tell you, I’ll have to back up to October of last year. That’s when I attended my first ever TEDx event, TEDxColumbus. To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t even heard of TED before this, but after spending all day at TEDxColumbus, I fell in love. I loved the presenters and performers and meeting new people, but the main thing I loved was the concept of TEDx. I loved, and still love, the whole idea of bringing people together to share in the spread of ideas. I wanted to bring that to my school. I wanted the Wellington community to have the same experience I had and to feel that sense of being part of something bigger. So with this desire in hand (and heart) I walked up to TEDxColumbus organizer Ruth Milligan and explained that I wanted to put on my own TEDx event. She was excited about the prospect and even offered to help.

After some thinking, I figured out how I would do it: My SIP. That’s short for Senior Independent Project. Each senior at The Wellington School must do one. Not graded, it’s more of a pass or fail type of project, which is why most seniors do something like learn to play guitar or camp for a week. My SIP would be different; I would host a TEDx event.

As November came and went, I got permission from Wellington, found an advisor, and applied for my TEDx license. Winter break flew by with still no word about my license, but I had TEDx fever and didn’t want to wait any longer. I figured out a theme, Big Ideas, and decided to start finding presenters. After a ton of announcements, posts on my school’s websites, and a bit of coercing on my part, people started getting interested—not hoards of people, but enough.

As January turned into February, and February inched towards March, I started to panic slightly. I had already done so much work in planning for the event, but I still technically wasn’t a licensed TEDx event holder. It was Ruth who helped me out. Thankfully, she helped get me in contact with TED to talk about my license and after quite a few emails and a handful of phone calls I was lucky enough to get one—for a TEDxYouth event. While I hadn’t expected the youth label, after reading through the TED organizers manual and talking with the people at TED, I realized it was the right fit. The audience, after all, would be the juniors and seniors at my high school.

By the time I had my speakers and presenters all lined up, it was a diverse group. I had eight students, seven from high school and one from middle school; two teachers; my head of school; an alumnus, a parent of a current student, and a parent of alumni. I had prepared a five-page speaker packet to give my presenters an idea of the rules they needed to follow and had sat down with each speaker multiple times. Their presentations were shaping up quite nicely.

Fast forward to the beginning of May, the month of my TEDx event. It was crunch time for me, but step-by-step everything had slowly come together and the event looked like it might just work out. One week before the event I had programs in hand (folding 150 trifold programs takes a lot more time than one would imagine), a successful tech dress rehearsal, and t-shirts and food on order. A few things had me pulling my hair out, but overall everything was sort of sailing smoothly. That was, until the night before the event.

Less than a day to go and the dress rehearsal was a near disaster. With a faulty slide clicker and half my presenters unable to attend, I was near my wits end. But that was only the start of it. One of my presenters emailed me that night with a revised outline of his talk. It was completely different from the original and it broke quite a few rules set down in the TEDx organizers manual. It was also inappropriate for a student audience. I had no choice; there was no possible way I could show his talk, I had to cut him.

It was a little more than 12 hours before the start of the event and if that wasn’t enough to deal with, I also received word that the custom t-shirts I had ordered hadn’t even shipped yet. From fixing the schedule, to reprinting and folding all 150 programs, to buying a printer (thankfully I had a received some funding from Wellington) and printing homemade t-shirts, it was a long night, but everything got done.

The morning of May 15, 2013 finally arrived, and from 8:30-12:30 The Wellington School flourished with ideas and discussions about such things as walking along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, creating a small business, failing successfully, being an ant, following your dream, being true to your school, childhood obesity, the mis-measurement of students, and the ways in which technology is making people simpler.

The hours I put in, the late nights working on power points, the thousand emails to presenters, and the frantic phone calls trying to figure out just how to do everything, all while balancing schoolwork, college applications, and my part-time job: It was all worth it. And the help and support of others was not given in vain. With ten speakers, three performances, plus three TED videos, TEDxYouth@WellingtonSchool was a success.

Of course, there are things I would have tweaked or changed if I had a little more experience with TEDx events, and it certainly was no TEDxColumbus. But for a high school girl’s first time hosting a TEDx event, I was more than content with the result. My little meager event brought smiles and laughter to my classmates, and gave them things to think about. It opened most of them up to the world of TEDx, and I believe that some of them experienced that same rush of being part of something bigger than themselves. TEDxYouth@WellingtonSchool was basically my life for half of my senior year. I am proud of the result. It was an unbelievable experience and process, even with all the stress, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my high school career then with TED.

Alexandria Armeni is a recent graduate of the Wellington School. In the fall, she will begin her first year at the Ohio State University in the honors program, where she plans to study zoology with a minor in French. 

All photos courtesy of Alexandria Armeni


Why become a speaker or performer at TEDxYouth@Columbus?

YOU have compelling stories.
YOU have amazing energy – and there are topics that give you amazing energy.
YOU are passionate.
YOU have had personal, unique experiences.
YOU are an innovator.
YOU are changing the world.

Why not share these passions, stories, and experiences to inspire other youth? Tell your story through presentations, conversations, or dynamic performances. We’ll provide you all the coaching and training you need.

Change starts with you. But you’ve gotta tell people about it!

And adults out there – we all know youth that are crazy-passionate about something. Why do we know this? Because they are constantly telling us about it. They are making videos about it, posting on and commenting about it and spreading it all like wildfire.

The TEDxYouth@Columbus stage is a great place where this can all come together. This is the very first event of its kind in Columbus. Let’s show the world the passion, innovation, and change that is coming from right here in C-bus.

So apply to be a presenter NOW. Encourage a friend to apply to be a presenter NOW. Take this Moment in Time and make it yours – NOW!

Youth inspiring Youth…and the world.