Students confront fears with public speaking club
Fall session begins next week
September 22, 2017
Fidgeting hands and mindlessly pacing while staring at their toes – those were the habits of most kids at the first session of YoungSpeakers last March. At the end of the program, they were standing straight and confident while speaking to a small audience of fellow classmates and their families.
The club, which launched last spring, is back in session. The public speaking program is for students between fifth and eighth grades and was conceived by Rowland Hall eighth-grader Matthew Baron, 13, who used to stand in fear before eventually running away when asked to stand in front of a crowd.
"It was something that he has sort of struggled with his whole life, and he wanted to find a way to take care of it," said Joan Baron, Matthew's mom.
Two years ago, Matthew attended a one-week camp that included public speaking. He conquered some fears there, but wanted to continue learning with a group of peers that had similar struggles. With the help of his mom and the lead facilitator, Jessie Levesque, he launched YoungSpeakers.
At the end of the spring session, there were eight regular students, mostly boys ages 10 to 13. Joan Baron anticipates growth in the program this year, which begins on Sept. 25 and meets at the Sun Peak Recreation Center. Still, they want to keep groups between 10 to 12 kids. Students can choose between weekly sessions on Tuesdays or Wednesdays at 6 p.m. The session is eight weeks long and costs $99.
The lead facilitator Jessie Levesque is a literature and communications teacher at Park City Day School. When originally given the position, she thought it would be best to focus on analyzing successful public speakers and practicing speeches in class.
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She quickly scrapped that idea to instead introduce improvisations. In the hour-long class, kids gather in story circles where each must think of and say a word to keep the "plot" moving. Students also improvise with props, such as a broom acting as a lie detector, and act out a scene. It helps them think on their feet, Levesque said, but it also distracts them with silliness so they end up speaking in front of others without fear.
"They don't even realize that they are doing it. We get away from that stigma and neutralize that fear for them so we can come back and say, 'You were just doing it. You can do it again. We know you can,'" she said.
The kids loved it, and based on what Levesque saw in the three-minute speeches each student was asked to give during the final class, it worked. Students were more confident when speaking and had lost some of their bad habits. Part of the success came from the safe learning environment the kids made for each other.
"When you have all kids that are in the same boat and the same level, they are really compassionate toward each other," Levesque said. "There's not a lot of judgment that's happening because they want it to be safe for them, so they want to be kind to each other as well."
Each student comes to YoungSpeakers with a different skill they want to master. It might be maintaining eye contact with people or slowing down their talking speed. Since the class is so small, each can receive individual help while also receiving feedback from peers, Baron said.
There is a great need for kids to learn proper communication skills, Baron said, especially in the age of technology where kids interact more with Instagram, Snapchat and text messaging than in person. YoungSpeakers provides that outlet for learning before programs like high school debate society is available to them.
"This a lifelong skill and right now, as a student, it's being comfortable in front of your classmates, but that very quickly turns into your first job interview," Baron said. "You have to sit across the table from someone and have eye contact and talk. It's hard for kids – fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade — to think that far in the future, so anything we can do to make them more comfortable with their social skills is good."