"Do you have a lesson to teach?" When TED – the nonprofit foundation whose conferences bring together everyone from Nobel Prize winners to technological innovators and emerging artists – posed that question online in preparation for this week’s TED 2012: Full Spectrum conference, author Kate Messner responded eagerly. Her pitch: a brief talk on imagination and world-building, and how the craft of building fictional worlds might apply to real-world planning. That proposal led to her being selected as the only children’s book author to give a TED Talk this year; she’s one of nine speakers at her session, chosen from more than 800 applicants.
"I’m a huge fan of TED talks," says Messner, a former middle-school teacher, who lives in upstate New York. "When I was teaching I used to use them in my classroom." Fittingly, Messner’s speech will take place during the conference’s March 2 session on "The Classroom," part of a new initiative called TED-Ed that will act as a dedicated video library for educators and students. Among the other eight "Classroom" speakers: Angie Miller, who was 2011 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, and Bill Nye the Science Guy.
Messner’s six-minute talk ("I timed it this morning") stems from the theme of her new middle-grade novel, Eye of the Storm (Walker), which takes place in a near future ravaged by monstrous tornadoes. Its young heroine, Jaden, must defy her own family in order to stop a deadly squall. "Eye of the Storm is a book about climate change on some levels," Messner says, "but it’s really about deciding to make things better. It’s about meeting the world where it is and taking responsibility, which is something I think kids do better than adults."
Her multimedia presentation at the high-tech TED conference will demonstrate her respect for young people’s ideas: in addition to sharing images that explain her writing process, she has also fashioned a word montage illustrating the results of what she calls kid-sourcing. "I created an online survey asking kids to imagine what a future would be like where things don’t go well," Messner explains. "I also asked them to imagine the best possible future. Kids are natural optimists and natural world builders. They say: this looks kind of dark, but we can fix it – and here’s how."
Like all TED speakers, Messner will present her ideas in front of a live audience of 1500 (not to mention TED’s worldwide online following – more than 600 million views to date), so a few jitters are inevitable. "I was sitting with some of the other speakers this morning. First we introduced ourselves – who you are, where you’re from. Next it was: 'So, are you scared?' " But, she adds, she’s had plenty of support from the organizers, from public-speaking suggestions and AV prep sessions to an online webinar with a speaking and theater coach. And the opportunity to reach an audience as powerful as TED’s was too good for Messner to pass up.
She hopes to inspire attendees to tap into young people’s inherent creativity and problem-solving skills. "I feel like a lot of our brightest young people are languishing in educational settings," she says. "I think if we push them a bit and feed them stories that challenge them, they could be a huge asset."