Carnegie Mellon program helps children communicate

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

A tsunami of excitement erupts when Jimmy Mason enters the room.

The no-longer-orderly group of youngsters who had been waiting quietly surrounds the Carnegie Mellon University senior, greeting him as though he were a rock star and clamoring for his attention.

Within minutes, Mason and the kids — students in grades 4 through 8 at the DePaul School for Hearing and Speech in Shadyside — are scrabbling across the floor in a fast-paced game of red light-green light.

Part giddy fun, part exercise in listening and speaking skills, it's the opening activity for the My True Voice Project, a 45-minute weekly mentoring session that uses students from Carnegie Mellon to help middle- and elementary-school children, both those with and without hearing difficulties, communicate with greater clarity.

In 2000, Natalie Baker Shirer, an associate professor of speech and phonetics at Carnegie Mellon's School of Drama, developed the My True Voice Project as a for-credit course for School of Drama sophomores, juniors and seniors who had completed her freshman course in speech and phonetics.

Like My True Voice, the freshmen course helps students recognize and eliminate dialects and other regional characteristics that might hamper clear speech and comprehension.

Working on the My True Voice Project helps students learn how to teach and sharpens their skills, Shirer says of her university students. “But the heart is giving back. I believe if you have a gift to give, you give it, and these kids have a gift,” she says.

In past years, the CMU students have mentored students at inner-city schools.

This year, they are working with young DePaul School students with hearing loss who have recently received cochlear implants — a surgically implanted electronic device that allows them to hear sounds, including their own voices.

My True Voice employs CMU students' acting and speech skills with games, readings and role play to enhance and extend the listening and speaking skills the youngsters have learned as part of the DePaul School's auditory-verbal therapy program.

“It's the perfect augmentation to our program,” says Mary Jo Maynard, principal at the DePaul School. “Natalie teaches them the power of their voice and ways to use their voice to express and have meaning. It's a whole new level of power and a new level of confidence.”

The goal of the DePaul School's programs is get their students' speaking and listening skills to the same levels as those of children their age.

“We want them to have intelligent speech, natural intonation, changes in pitch when they ask a question,” says Michelle Parfait, speech and auditory verbal therapy coordinator at the DePaul School.

Shirer and the DePaul faculty identify what skills their students should be working on. Then, it's up to Shirer and her university students to devise ways of achieving those goals.

Sometimes, the approaches are traditional — inviting students to choose from a variety of quotes from famous people such as Winston Churchill and Dr. Seuss and learning how to deliver them with proper volume and expression.

“Pretend it's a secret,” Mitch Marois urges one boy. “Tell us like it's really important — like we're all going to die.”

Marois, a junior musical-theater major from St. Petersburg, Fla., encourages others to stand on a chair and speak their quote so people can hear it at a great distance — “Like it's a football field,” Marois suggests.

Other techniques encourage the practice of specific sounds under the guise of zany games — firing imaginary guns loaded with words that start with T or practicing words with Z in them while tossing an imaginary zebra.

The project is a win-win situation for everyone, Shirer says.

DePaul students develop listening and speaking skills and CMU students earn nine credits for their efforts.

But that's not necessarily the point, Marois says.

“I didn't know it was a class (when I volunteered). That's an added bonus. … We are so busy (on campus) that it's hard to find time to give back,” Marois says. “Finding somewhere I could use the unique set of skills I have was a most beautiful thing.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Show commenting policy