The warm-up game for 93 8th graders is simple. Pick one of three words: “stop,” “go,” or “listen.” When it’s your turn, stand up and face your peers, then speak your word loudly and clearly. Sit down, and it’s on to the next student. The game’s coach and referee is Kairav Sinha, a first-year Williams student who’s reshaping the public speaking curriculum at Williamstown’s Mt. Greylock Regional School.
Sinha came to Williams via Leland High School in San Jose, Calif. At Leland, speech and debate are essentially varsity sports, involving a quarter of its 1,600 students. Joining the team as a 9th grader, Sinha finished as high as 8th place in statewide speech contests. He also led another kind of success, talking 200 of his fellow high schoolers into outreach efforts with hundreds of middle-school and elementary-school students.
Arriving in Williamstown, Sinha quickly found his way to Rick Spalding, Williams’ chaplain and coordinator of community service. Spalding introduced him to Kaatje White, director of the Williams Center at Mt. Greylock, who facilitates academic engagement between the school and the college. This connection, and a warm welcome from grateful Mt. Greylock 8th-grade teachers, allowed Sinha to start volunteering in the school weeks after arriving on campus. “This was completely win-win,” says White. “Kairav presented a curricular and pedagogical toolbox that teachers and students could benefit from immediately.”
Age-appropriate exercises are key. Sinha’s high school mentor, Gay Brasher, developed the lesson modules Sinha uses at Mt. Greylock. Enunciation drills include tongue-twisters (“The big black bug bit the big black bear.”), while two-person skits stress storytelling through inflection. Fourteen-year-olds eagerly rehearse dialogues to present to their classmates. Sinha’s refrain—“Eyes up here!”—reminds antsy students that part of being a good speaker is being a good audience.
Sinha’s work with 8th graders has yielded results already. Mt. Greylock’s annual constitutional debates usually surface a few students who are truly terrified to speak in public. Thanks in part to Sinha’s work, says history teacher Pat Blackman, “Our two students who were most terrified were confident enough to participate on their teams, and indeed did so with the appearance of poise.”
Sinha’s newly founded club “Williams Speak!” aims to connect 25 Williams students with more than 600 local students across five grade levels this spring. In addition to Mt. Greylock, these undergraduate volunteers will reach students at Williamstown Elementary School, Lanesborough School, Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter Public School in Adams, and Brayton Elementary School in North Adams.
Not bad for a guy half way through his first year at Williams.