After sitting among classmates and parents in the dim auditorium, kids mounted the stage in twos and threes to argue for their beliefs.

“Today, we stand here for the people who were chained to ships and sold off in America,” said Alex Cheng. “We stand here for the people who were denied access into U.S. in pursuit of freedom and a better life.”

Alex teamed with Aidan Cahill, making a case to “stop racial profiling” in the United States.

“According to the Huffington Post, 61% of all people incarcerated in the U.S. are African American or Latino,” said Aidan.

“Racism occurs every day across the country,” Alex said. “Police officers target people of color for humiliating and often frightening searches.”

Aidan read ringing words from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”

Alex quoted Dr. Martin Luther King: “No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied ‘until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”

“Do we want to live in a place,” Aidan asked, “where people’s rights are violated because of the color of their skin?”

Theirs was one many arguments put forward by some 89 Team One seventh graders at East Ridge Middle School over two days in April.

Students and adults in the audience listened as kids spoke, touching on subjects of constitutional consequence, with supporting slides projected on a screen behind them, and “ERMS Talks” spelled out in big block letters on the stage.

The program — ERMS Talks — was a series of presentations researched and written by students on topics of their own choosing, in a format based loosely on the well-known TED Talks that date back to a 1984 conference on technology, entertainment and design but that now encompass short talks of all kinds.

Weighty topics

The presentations at East Ridge covered a wide range of weighty topics. Sean Sosa and T.J. Petersen spoke on student rights. Natalia Ayala and Kimberly Wirth argued in favor of the death penalty. Connor Dougherty, Ben Anderson and Clara Hourihan spoke for stricter gun laws.

Arguments for universal health care were presented by Motria Holian and Stephanie Iwinski.

“Our country spent 15.3% of our money in 2004, helping people with their health. Some say that by having universal health care our country will have to pay more money for people, but the truth is we will actually save more money,” Motria said. “With the help of universal health care, other countries have saved so much of their money. For example, the percent of money that these countries spent was 9.9% in Canada, 9.1% in Sweden, 8.3% in the UK, 8% in Australia and Japan.”

Stephanie said that “a universal health care system in our government, that is required by law to be provided, is simply in the best interest of our country, and the people. This topic has been debated in the U.S. for over 10 years and Congress hasn’t done anything about it, and that needs to change!”

Michelle Kim and Michael Latauska made a case for keeping guns out of schools.

“Since Columbine in 1999,” Michael said, “184 school shooting have occurred.”

“Guns are machines used to kill people during war,” said Michelle. “How can schools with guns be safe?”

Kelly Stevenson and Heather Wallace opposed capital punishment.

“No matter what we call it, when we use the death penalty, we all become murderers,” Heather said.

Kelly said, “The death penalty is a cruel punishment, and should be banned in the U.S. … Over 90 million people are trying to end the death penalty today. FIfteen states have already abolished the death penalty.”

“Consider this as you walk out today,” Heather said. “Some people say, ‘An eye for an eye.’ But if there is an eye for an eye, the world will go blind.”

Elizabeth Buonocore and Avery Marcus started their presentation against school uniforms with a classic technique.

“Raise your hand if you picked out your own clothes today,” they said.

They cast the issue as one of decision-making.

“Adults make their own decisions, including what they wear. … Children need the opportunity to make as many decision on their own as possible.”

They closed with an emotional appeal against uniformity

“What will be next? Will everyone have to have the same backpack, the same pencil, or even the same hairstyle?”

Some issues found teams of students arguing opposite sides.

Nate Cohen and Ryder Dadasovich opposed random drug testing of students. “Imagine you’re in school … a dark silhouette randomly stops you. It’s your teacher, holding a cup …”

They offered statistics: “While drug tests are sensitive, they are not always accurate. … 5% to 10% of all drug tests come back false positives. The false negative rate is 10%-15%.”

They cited sources: “According to the ACLU, randomized drug testing violates students’ rights to be free from illegal searches and seizures.”

And they made a stand: “Randomized drug testing is an invasion of privacy. … We’re here to make a change.”

Harrison Pratt and Robbie Hinkle cited different statistics making the opposite argument and supported drug testing students: “81% of 12th graders say it would be easy to get marijuana,” they said, adding that “44% of high school students claim they know a fellow student who sells drugs.”

They acknowledged a potential constitutional conflict. “This may be an unlawful search, but it’s for the greater good,” they argued. “By doing this we’re helping and even saving the lives of high school students.”

Choice

The students gave their talks before an auditorium with close to 100 people — fellow students, teachers, visiting parents, and other adults. Each talk was a culminating event for three for four weeks of work for students — researching topics, drafting speeches, practicing live delivery.

“What was really key to this project was giving students a choice and making it personal to them,” said Elizabeth Misiewicz, the English teacher at East Ridge who initiated the program. “They chose their partners and topics — something that they were both passionate about and wanted to see change in. …

“We were all very impressed with the variety and breadth of topics chosen -— from universal health care to gerrymandering, government surveillance to improving child safety laws,” Misiewicz said.

“ERMS Talks gave them a platform to have a voice and share their opinion on issues they cared about in a format they are familiar with, since Ted Talks are so popular and current.”

Misiewicz and the students worked closely with social studies teacher Will Boylan, whose spring classes focused on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — providing lots of issues worthy of debate.

Also collaborating on the program were Kim Moran, the middle schools’ technology integration teacher, and Tanya Anderson, East Ridge library media specialist.

To make it more of an event, some students — Jacob Forman, Kyle Sonders, Caroline Kelly, and Sophie Browning — wrote a jingle and performed it to open the talk sessions:

ERMS Talks, show what you’re passionate about

ERMS Talks, it’s time to shout it out!

ERMS Talks, research and discover

ERMS Talks, new ideas to uncover

Give us a declaration about immigration

Or a topic from your head, about something that you dread

Don’t leave it unsaid

There’s so many topics you could discuss,

And if you disagree, don’t cuss

Just sing along with us!

ERMS Talks!

Big block letters on the stage spelled out “ERMS Talks” — a logo designed and created by another group of students: Michelle Kim, Keel McQuilkin, Kelly Stevenson, Michael Jajkiewicz, and Alice Lombardo.

“We are so proud of all of our students for their hard work throughout the entire process — researching their topic, then writing their talk and finally speaking before nearly 100 people in the audience,” Misiewicz said.

“A few students mentioned to me that now whenever they have to present in the future it won't seem so nerve-racking because they can always refer back to this ERMS Talks experience and know they can do it. The students really enjoyed the project because it was an opportunity for them to become experts on an issue they cared about.”