Williams student Kairav Sinha was no stranger to speech and debate when he first stepped foot on Williams’ campus last year. Nor was he unfamiliar with community outreach.
"I went to Leland High School in San Jose, California," Sinha said, "which has a 400-member speech and debate team, and is consistently ranked in the top three in the country.
"Our team had a large and vibrant outreach program - more than half of our high school members volunteered at one point or another - and we worked with thousands of students at about 20 local middle and elementary schools."
It was this foundation that led him to begin a local outreach program.
"When I came to Williams last year," Sinha said, "I wanted to start a similar public speaking outreach program in local schools, particularly for students in grades four through eight. Public speaking is one of the top fears in the U.S., and it’s a life skill that helps students with job interviews, presentations, first impressions, and more."
Starting with Mt. Greylock eighth graders in the fall of 2011, he quickly found a captive and receptive audience for his outreach. In the spring of 2012, his program expanded to include seventh graders at Mt. Greylock, as well as classes at Williamstown and Brayton elementary schools, and BART Charter.
This particular Winter Study program "grew out of the volunteer program.
Pat Blackman, a Social Studies teacher at Mt. Greylock, said the decision was an easy one.
"We don’t have a public speaking course," Blackman said, "so we figured we could do it. And it clearly has had an impact and enabled us to more fully integrate public speaking."
During a recent visit to Mt. Greylock, students of all ages took part in the project. In Rebecca Green’s science class, students talked about photochrome and plant pathogens, while in Blackman’s class, there was a much more fundamental approach, with Williams freshman Haddlie Boltres giving students pointers on posture, projection, inflection and hand gestures. She is also learning a few lessons herself.
"I am interested in teaching," Boltres said, "and I’ve learned a lot about teaching and managing the kids. The kids have every reaction to the course, from hiding under their desk - to others who were really confident."
It was obvious the eighth graders certainly did take to the lessons, with hardly a straight face while they went around the room practicing inflection. While engaging in a two-person dialogue, students’ topics ranged from four-wheelers to pets to Gibbons. Another valuable lesson taught by Boltres was eliminating the use of "um" and "like" from speech.
"Staying alert and keeping focused is very important," Boltres said. "It also helps in keeping interesting lesson plans, and so far it’s gone really well. The kids participation is nice."
Back in Green’s classroom, the subject matter was much more complex, but the same lessons applied, which was part of the reason Green took on the assignment.
"I volunteered because public speaking is something that causes a great deal of anxiety in everyone," Green said, "and with more practice the students become more comfortable with it. It’s a life-long skill, and something they can use in so many different areas of their lives."
And the earlier students start the better.
"Starting in grades four through eight is ideal," Sinha said, "because students often aren’t as self-conscious as those in older grades, and can learn important public speaking skills without being as afraid of getting up in front of a group of people. All of our activities are designed to be fun and high-energy while still helping students learn public speaking skills."