A lot of us float through life in a kind of semi-conscious fog. We’re able to tie our shoes on demand and respond to stock questions like “How’s it going?” with rote like “Good, you?” but we hardly pay attention to how we are actually part of a whole, larger world.
It’s actually one of the first things we learn, how to separate ourselves into groups — me and you, us and them, boys and girls, nerds and jocks. It’s how we are taught to build our identities.
And it’s wrong. By getting into “this is me, that’s you,” says Dana Lichtstrahl, children learn early to draw boxes around themselves in search of identity. Lichtstrahl is the founder of Speakology, a public speaking training program for kids, based in the Tiger Labs building at 252 Nassau Street.
But for a lot of kids, that just leads to a sad irony that they don’t really know who they are. And in true Newtonian fashion, once that isolated identity is set, it will stay in place unless a greater force (like awareness or compassion) acts upon it.
This amalgam of identity, physics, creativity, and humanism is at the heart of Speakology — the subtitle for the company is “The Art and Science of Speaking, for Kids” — and Lichtstrahl uses all of it to teach kids to be more aware of their knowledge, their identity, and their place in the world. She uses speaking as a vehicle to build resilience and confidence by getting kids to see their identities and their knowledge in a tangible way — because only when we give something form do we understand what we’re looking at, and only then can we use it for a good purpose.
Speakology will host its first week-long summer session beginning Monday, July 11, from 9:30 a.m. to noon at its Nassau Street office. Classes run daily through Friday, July 15. If you miss it, a second session begins on Monday, August 22. Cost: $300. Visit www.speakology.us.
Lichtstrahl grew up in Princeton, the daughter of retired college professor Melvin Benarde and artist Anita Benarde — a combo of scientific and artistic visions that she says “explains a lot” about who she has become. In college Lichtstrahl gravitated to the arts, studying fine arts and theater at Instituto de Allende in Mexico and getting a bachelor’s in studio arts and communications from the University of Maryland.
After college she worked for Fox 5 News and in 1998 joined U.S. Trust as its marketing manager. In 2004 she became a Berlitz educator, which she still does, and moved into “doing internal and external communications on my own,” she says. She did public relations work for Bank of Princeton and helped media-train executives there. She also curates a gallery program in gender and sexuality studies for Princeton University.
“Somewhere around 2010 I was writing web content for organizations and I started noticing that kids were somehow being excluded from communication,” Lichtstrahl says. Indeed, there were plenty of speaking and confidence-building courses aimed at people already in the workforce (and presumably wandering aimlessly about, pretending they know what they’re doing), but nothing that gives kids a way to build their sense of self. She founded Speakology in 2011, and the program teaches kids to find what it is they are most passionate about and develop a short spoken presentation on it.
Who said that? Imagine for a moment that you know a lot about something. Anything — medicine, baseball, eastern European film directors of the ’60s. You read about it, study it, know it, internalize it, and filter a huge percentage of thoughts through this prism of knowledge without ever really being conscious of doing so.
And then someone asks you about it.
Bam, you cite statistics, peel off names no one in the modern era has heard of, and use obscure history to explain exactly how Nap Lajoie and only Nap Lajoie should have won that Chalmers in 1910. The person who asked steps back and says “Whoa! I had no idea you knew all that,” and for the first time in your life, you realize you didn’t either.
A greater understanding of identity begins with sparks like these, Lichtstrahl says; with that moment you first consciously know what you know.
“You think, ‘Wow, I said that?’” she says. “Once you recognize that, your identity shifts a bit. It becomes much more exciting because you’re no longer connected to that information; you now see it as an object.”
Giving knowledge a tangible, measurable form allows you to build from it and understand what it means to be you. And one additional thing, Lichtstrahl says — it allows you to see what else you might know. Because if you know one thing, you surely know more.
“This is a big part of it for me,” she says. “When a kid’s identity shifts, their confidence goes up. Who you think you are, you are — that’s all based in confidence.”
Disconnecting to interconnect. Disconnecting from knowledge means letting go of the proprietary, ivory tower-like stranglehold we all tend to have on our identities and gives us something to share. Such deconstruction is a fundamental to how Speakology works, Lichtstrahl says. There’s a lot of identity exploration and deconstruction designed to facilitate transition from “me” to “us.”
The core of that principle is the idea that we are all interconnected, Lichtstrahl says. To open kids’ heads Speakology uses art and creativity, but also science. Hard science, like physics. That’s because physics forces us to see the fundamentals of the physical universe. Through sciences like physics or biology we learn how important everything is in its balance.
Lichtstrahl aims to educate beyond confidence; to be able to utilize confidence to effect a better understanding of self and that self’s place in the larger picture. It’s not just a matter of who we are or even knowing who we are that counts most. It’s awareness of what we can do with all that knowledge.
“It’s time to change the legacy of who we are and who we’ve been,” Lichtstrahl says.