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Young writers witness the power of narrative

Homework and classwork can feel like a chore to many students, but imagine a spunky group of literacy experts who bring a “story machine” into the school to gobble up the narrative they helped you craft. Then, at a school-wide assembly, a handful of stories are chosen and performed on stage by professional actors. After, your story is published in a book to be plucked off the shelves of Jackson County and school libraries.

Writing might seem less daunting.

Stories Alive!, a local nonprofit that has worked for six years to empower kindergarteners through fifth-graders through their writing, is wrapping up its final year in Oregon and moving to Georgia. But some staff are staying behind to see what they can work up in its absence.

To get kids excited about writing and creative expression, the organization offers programs such as extended and temporary workshops in elementary schools, community-wide events and podcasts.

Usually staff will visit first- and second-grade classes twice a week for a month to help the students craft their stories — tapping into their creativity, but also reinforcing state education standards discussed in the classroom, said Managing Director Zoey Belyea.

The kids feed their stories into the story machine and wait for them to come alive. All students in the schools, not just in the workshops, are encouraged to submit their stories.

The performances consist of stories from a variety of age groups, which can really add to the silliness of it all, said Executive Director Craig Lamm.

Props are made for each story — the funnier, the better.

Lamm directs the shows, and Belyea performs in them with other actors.

Belyea said it’s like creating a live cartoon.

“Yesterday I played a girl who wanted a cat and is trying to convince her mom to let her have it,” Belyea said. “My friend Darwin played the cat, and there was a moment where I lift him off the ground and all of the students’ faces were full of sheer joy that I picked up this grown man off of the ground who’s pretending to be a cat.”

Lamm said the shows are the best part, because the students don’t know whose stories are chosen from the machine.

“Out of the hundreds submitted at Orchard Hill, we performed nine yesterday,” Lamm said. “As I would announce each author, there would be this eruption of surprise and applause and everyone would get to see their idea now fully realized and expanded upon. I’ve been performing for most of my life, and there’s really nothing like a big gym full of kids who have written the work that you’re performing.”

Belyea said that’s the significance of the program for the students — it validates that their ideas are important and heard. It makes them understand that they are valued.

“When you see a group of five adults who are professional actors acting out your ideas, I think it really goes a long way to teach kids that their ideas matter,” Belyea said. “We’re talking about stories where a dog goes to a popcorn factory. They’re not serious stories, but they still get to be celebrated, and they still get to be taken with the full weight of professional actors’ time and energy.”

This year Stories Alive! worked in the Ashland, Medford and Phoenix/Talent school districts. They will perform the best of the best for the public at two celebrations in June. The first is at 2 p.m. Monday, June 10, at the Medford library, and the second is at 12:15 p.m. Friday, June 14, at the Ashland YMCA.

The shows run about 30 minutes.

Belyea said what kids learn from the program goes deeper than receiving self-value and appreciation for literacy. She said the kids are often influenced by what they see in the media, so they focus on inspiring them to create original ideas.

“The danger of only ever ingesting something that was created by someone else is there, and so encouraging them to be excited about starting with themselves is positive,” Belyea said.

“I think as they grow to appreciate their own narratives, they grow to appreciate the power of narrative in general, which I think is something that has always been really important in human culture — and I think is maybe more so now than ever,” Lamm said. “The amount of weight that these stories that we tell ourselves really carry is substantial. You see it in politics being used in major ways to shift policy and the way people feel about things and elections, and it’s so much about the stories that we tell ourselves.”

Belyea said the teachers in the classrooms play a crucial role in the success of the program.

“Influencing the students is a big part of the organization, but that doesn’t happen if we don’t support teachers, and so teachers are such an integral part of what we’re doing, and partnering with them in a way that is useful to them is always my main priority,” Belyea said.

Orchard Hill second-grade teacher Jenny Weaver said the program gave her students more confidence in their writing.

“This gave them such pride in their work, and just made them want to write and share even more,” Weaver said. “If you can get kids excited about writing at an early age, it will allow them to increase their skills, build upon these skills and become lifelong writers and learners.”

The organization’s founder, Jeanna Renaux, recently moved to Georgia and has decided to move the organization with her. However, Belyea and Lamm, who have both been teaching artists for the past 10 years, are brainstorming ways to fund working closely with local schools in a similar, but more independent way.

Oak Grove first-grade teacher Zoey Boyles said her principal has started brainstorming with Belyea on ways the organization could receive enough funding to stay in Oregon.

“We just love the program so much,” Boyles said.

She said it’s an instrumental teaching tool for her first-graders because they are just learning to read and write. Writing whole stories can be very challenging for them, and it’s a challenging skill to teach.

“Writing is the hardest thing to teach at this level, mostly because they are emerging readers,” Boyles said. “They don’t feel like writers, so they can be resistant to writing. But the enthusiasm that Stories Alive! puts in the classroom with kids makes the whole process easier.”

For more information, see storiesalive.org.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Photo by Sarah GrulikowskiZoey Belyea carries Darwin Garrett across the stage at a performance at Oak Grove Elementary School in Medford in April.
Photo by Sarah GrulikowskiDarwin Garrett takes a bite out of Emily Armenta during a performance at Oak Grove Elementary School in Medford in April.