WILLIAMSTOWN-- Imagine standing in front of 60 of your peers, being given a random topic, say, "Japan," then immediately speaking on that subject.
For nearly half of you reading this, wading in a pool of rattlesnakes or battling a bear would be preferable.
Several studies report that speaking in public is the number one fear in the United States, and more than 50 percent of the adults who were surveyed said they are saddled with this phobia.
But on Friday at Mount Greylock Regional High School, several seventh-grade students took on public speaking with a few giggles, but generally without qualms.
The practice comes from a new program called Williams Speaks that is coordinated by Williams College freshman Kairav Sinha.
The program currently serves between 600 and 700 students from Grades 4 through 8, at Mount Greylock, Williamstown and Brayton elementary schools. Over the next few weeks, Sinha and his team of about 25 fellow Williams student volunteers will start up programs at Lanesborough Elementary School and Berkshire Arts & Technology Public Charter School.
"I worked with a similar program when I was in high school, which offered public speaking classes for middle school students," Sinha said. "It was a lot of fun. This program is designed in a way so that the students don’t even realize they’re overcoming a fear of public speaking."
Sinha is a graduate of Leland High School, a public school in San Jose, Calif. There, he implemented the program with the school’s speech and debate coach, Gay Brasher, who helped develop the curriculum that Sinha is implementing in Berkshire County schools.
"It’s been great because, as a Williams student, it makes you realize there’s such a community around here to get engaged in," said Williams freshman Kevin Eagan.
Williams has had an ongoing presence at Mount Greylock through its Williams Center, which offers academic support for Grades 7 through 12.
On Friday, for example, instead of reciting a speech at a podium, the Williams students worked with the Mount Greylock students in small groups.
They provided them with activities like interactive dialogues or playing a game called JAM -- Just a Minute -- where a person has to speak extemporaneously, as long as possible, after being assigned a random topic by a classmate.
The Mount Greylock students said the new program is a fun addition to their regular academics.
"You get to do something a little different and you learn something new that’s helpful," said seventh-grader Morgan Therrien.
Students say they have to give presentations in classes a few times a year, and they also participate in a debate project in eighth grade.
Sinha said public speaking practice has other values, such as preparing people for job interviews, giving presentations, and generating general confidence.
"It’s a skill they’ll have with them for the rest of their lives," said seventh-grade teacher, Amy Moore-Powers.
To reach Jenn Smith: