My True Voice in action
Samples from the Pittsburgh program
How Hamlet Lost his Drawl
Acting students learn the golden voice
(with a twist)
Kids translate phrases into standard English
Inner-City Students Learn
Standard American Speech
In Pittsburgh’s inner-city schools, theater students volunteer to teach youngsters how and why actors develop an ability to speak an unaccented form of American English. My True Voice program creator Natalie Baker-Shirer explains that learning professional vocal skills can give under-served kids a head start.
The My True Voice Program was created in 1999 to help improve Pittsburgh's primary education system by having college students — active, “in the moment” and creative — act as mentors to 10 and 11-year-old elementary and middle school students in the area of speech. The thinking behind My True Voice was straightforward: teach a Standard American dialect to underserved children and increase their chances for future success in the working world.
The program was inspired by two key requests. First, Indira Nair, the vice provost of education at Carnegie Mellon University, asked me to develop a course that would benefit our acting students and the community. Her timing was good: I was already looking for some way to help my matriculated first-year students to cement their newly developed techniques of Standard American speech production. Dr. Nair’s request gave me the opportunity to test my belief that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. Coincidentally around that time a board member of Carnegie Mellon University and The Extra Mile Education Foundation asked me to visit an Extra Mile School in Pittsburgh’s inner city to chat with a principal who wanted to improve her students’ speaking skills. Thus, the impetus for My True Voice emerged.
The program stresses the reading and understanding of imaginative language. Actor students make a one-year commitment to an inner-city school where they present the sounds of a Standard American Speech through phonetic awareness and practice. After practicing and perfecting sounds they help the children apply their new-found skills by reciting and interpreting the finest poetry. Each week, the children are challenged to memorize the works of poets Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson, Billy Collins, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and Phyllis Wheatley. Speech recognition software developed by Cepstral, LLC is also used to help reinforce the sounds of Standard American speech.
Balancing Heritage and Standards
Children come to school fully equipped with the gift of language
The University Mentors — our actor-teachers — see their skills getting stronger and find rewards in helping young students to acquire useful, lifelong skills. For me, it’s been particularly gratifying to receive appreciation from teachers, administrators and above all the parents of the children in the program. Meanwhile, children who enhance their speaking skills develop confidence in their ability to function effectively in a variety of environments. I hope that the program will also encourage them to consider careers in performing arts, especially (of course!) the theater.
William and Flora Hewlett
© COPYRIGHT 2005 MACNEIL/LEHRER PRODUCTIONS. All Rights Reserved.