The following is an excerpt of the grant proposal I submitted which received funding from Columbia: View Proposal Excerpt (2016)
As a child, I was terrible at talking. In fact I never said a word in school until I reached third grade. My mother knew I was not mute -- I spoke normally at home. But in class I would remain silent for hours, and when I did speak my voice was so quiet no one listened. Looking back, I had a case of extreme shyness, and it seemed incurable.
I was not the only one. In the US, more than 805,000 boys and girls age 6 to 11 suffer from poor speaking skills. If you were to walk into a third grade public school classroom of 27 students, at least one child would not be able to give a coherent 1 minute presentation to the class. This broader failure to teach children how to speak in public is largely the result of standardized testing frenzy, the STEM skew in public schools, dismal funding for performing arts programs, and inattention from overburdened teachers.
Luckily for me, my 3rd grade teacher Ms. Gantley helped me overcome my terrible speaking skills. By praising me every time I tried to speak, she made me feel more comfortable in her classroom. She also encouraged me to read books out loud at home to practice using my voice more often, and to learn more vocabulary. The next year during a parent conference, my fourth grade teacher, Mr. Brown, complained to my mother that I was talking too much in class. My mother was ecstatic.
The real question is, so what? Why does it matter if children are good or bad at speaking at their age? Like me, they will learn to speak sooner or later, right?
Consider the case of thirteen-year-old Shelby Kilpatrick and her ten-year-old twin sisters, Lauren and Kaitlyn. After an extensive eight-week presentation and speech program sponsored by Toastmasters, the three of them calmly presented a GPS mapping device in front of 14,000 people. “They’re pretty much fearless today," says their mother, Susan Kilpatrick. "Learning to speak in public built their communication skills and confidence and enabled them to develop charisma and capture attention. They volunteer all the time for tasks that require leadership roles and easily work with groups, organizing other children and communicating what needs to be done."
By not developing the speaking skills of American children, we are losing a generation of leaders -- we are losing the next Steve Jobs, the next Ken Robinson, the next Martin Luther King, because we are not giving children an easy way to improve their verbal skills.
Current options are unaffordable and somewhat unrealistic for most middle class families. We can’t send every child to expensive, time-consuming speech camps. We can’t give every child who isn’t good at speaking a Ms. Gantley. We can’t give every child a $100 per hour speech coach. But what we can do is build a flexible, easy to use tool that helps children improve their verbal skills (pacing, tone, volume, posture, gestures) -- a tool that is as powerful as it is accessible and affordable.
While my own example is not based on pure scientific research, I believe that Ms. Gantley had the right approach. Along with scientifically proven techniques, I intend to incorporate Ms. Gantley’s style in my web application: that is, giving positive reinforcement to promote social emotional learning. And because all that is needed is internet access, children can improve their verbal skills from the comfort of their home.
My mission is to build a tool that will help kids communicate verbally and speak better -- a tool that will help create the next generation of leaders.