The Practice Space helps people of all ages find their voices.
Educator and ethnographer AnnMarie Baines founded The Practice Space so people can learn to speak publicly effectively and be heard.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
AnnMarie Baines as a youth was shy and fearful at the prospect of getting up and talking before a class or any audience. Communication was simply a struggle. Then as an incoming freshman at El Cerrito High School, she happened to accompany a friend to a summer debate program at another high school. That event turned out to be transformative.
“It was very important to me to see high school students express their ideas with passion,” she said. “The program helped me find role models and inspiration. Even though I was still scared at the idea of speaking out, I felt that eventually I would find my own voice.”
She joined El Cerrito High School’s renowned debate team and traveled all over the country debating other high schools, winning state and national awards. Over the next four years, Baines honed her communication skills, which ultimately gave her a sense of self and power and a belief in her ability to articulate and put forth her ideas and opinions. More importantly, her success also set in motion pursuing her long game as a specialist in the art of self-expression through speech and in general, teaching communication skills as an educator.
Baines, now 36, went on to get an undergraduate degree in political science at Cal, a master’s degree in education policy from Harvard, and a Ph.D. in learning sciences and education psychology from the University of Washington.
Today she is an educator and ethnographer who has hit the trenches and taken on people’s innate fear of public speaking. A little over two years ago, she founded The Practice Space, bringing 20 years of experience to the public speaking arena. The Practice Space is an El Cerrito nonprofit organization whose mission is to help kids, ages 8 to 18, and adults of all ages find their voice. The premise behind the idea was to create a safety net, a place where one is not being judged, only encouraged, when speaking publicly.
“Our primary aim is to build self-confidence and communication skills and basically cross those boundaries that hold us back from what we are capable of achieving,” Baines said.
With a staff of four, plus volunteers, the curriculum is extensive, offering boot camps, workshops, and private lessons to coach youths and adults to express themselves in a variety of endeavors. These include debating, presenting to groups, monologues, storytelling, giving a solo performance, acting, and even tips on handling a job interview.
“We cover many forms of self-expression to help people be heard,” Baines said. “Regardless of age, stage fright is very real. With some coaching and practice, the students overcome their insecurities about giving voice to their ideas and ambitions.”
One of her methods is to set up mock debates between the students to help them explore multiple sides of an issue and improve their perspective-talking skills. Each student or team takes a side. One example Baines gave was when a couple of teams of high school students debated the pros and cons of whether robots posed a threat or a benefit in modern society. In another example, younger students debated whether dragons were better than unicorns. In both cases students were able to explore both sides of the issue. According to Baines, even simple topics help build skills around how to navigate and appreciate differences.
One of Baines’ primary themes during her student days as a researcher was observing how learning institutions often negatively label students at an early age and make them feel excluded in academic settings.
As a significant part of her research, Baines followed 12 high school students who had been labeled as having social and learning disabilities and thus appeared “disabled” in school. However, she found these same students were accomplished in other areas outside of school, such as art, music, and even debate. At The Practice Space, Baines uses the lessons she learned from these students to create inclusive learning environments where pupils feel empowered and capable.
Her extensive research on how educators can help students discover and cultivate their talents was published in her book entitled (Un)Learning Disability: Recognizing and Changing Restrictive Views of Student Ability, which was published in 2014 by the Teachers College Press of Columbia University.
Since beginning The Practice Space in 2017, Baines has seen over 500 students come through her program. Most find out about The Practice Space through partnerships with schools, word of mouth, and online. The program has served students from Contra Costa, Alameda, Yolo, Solano, and San Mateo counties.
In addition to operating The Practice Space, Baines continues to support El Cerrito High School’s speech and debate team, giving back to the program that taught her how to speak up for herself, to find her own voice. Now, she focuses on a broader range of communications, skills that are needed in real world encounters, including story-telling and interpersonal skills, in addition to more classic presentation and oral delivery.
“One very important area of being heard is learning how to advocate, to harness the power in one’s own voice to promote change in the world we live in,” Baines said. “When they build their confidence, our students are able to accomplish their personal goals, and communicate what’s important to them.”
She explained that when these kids begin to discover and use their voice, they also find out something about themselves, about their self-identity, and a new sense of self-worth.
To help expand beyond her initial programs, Baines and her staff are also developing six free curriculum “toolkits” that provide techniques, strategies, activities, articles, and videos to those who want to “empower the leader within.” Each toolkit focuses on an area of leadership development, such as advocating for self and others, facing personal fears, and being heard.
Baines worked as a researcher at George Lucas’ sprawling Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, as part of the George Lucas Education Foundation. There, she was program officer for education research, a sister division of the popular teacher website Edutopia. Her focus was on hands-on instruction.
“We need to increase access to high-quality public speaking instruction,” Baines said. “This is so important, because it helps lift up the underrepresented voices in our communities. When people find their voice, they express who they are and what they care about. In other words, they can represent themselves.
As an example of the empowerment that is possible when people build their confidence, The Practice Space launched a new program in November called Expressive Leadership at the Richmond Food Hall. The program involved advanced students, ages 8 to 16, who were charged with putting together a “voice project” over six months. The project called for participants to use their voices to benefit the community by advancing positive change. The efforts will be on display at a conference in June.
“We’re very excited about this new program,” said staff member Mariana Castro, a development associate. “It will highlight key students from The Practice Space who’ve shown immense growth in public speaking.”
Outside The Practice Space, Baines teaches a class in speech three days a week at Cal. Her other activities include running and singing with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, which she’s been doing for the past nine seasons. She also trains in voiceover acting from time to time, another avenue for exercising her own voice.