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Bringing Stories Alive

You have to be organized, and you have to set a few ground rules, for structure.

But to Stories Alive creator and founder Jeanne Renaux, whether you’re dealing with grade-schoolers or college students — she’s taught both — nothing is more important to teaching and nurturing the creative process than making an emotional connection.

An instruction booklet isn’t enough, she explains. You also have to feel it.

Sitting in a fold-up chair before about 30 eager storytellers Wednesday in the Walker Elementary cafeteria, Renaux, 43, was busy making those connections while describing the magic of taking a story from its genesis in the imagination all the way through to completion, and later presentation.

“Writing is special,” she says, looking around the room, nodding. “Writing is a part of you. You are all storytellers. Everyone here has a story to share. I have been amazed at what I have been reading. I have been noticing stories being told in pictures, stories being told in words. And today you all as authors are going to do something really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really important. Super important. So I’m glad you’re here.”

The goal of Stories Alive, a nonprofit funded in part by a $5,000 city of Ashland grant, is to offer a supplemental, after-school literacy program for elementary students. Renaux, who’s also a Southern Oregon University education professor with acting experience, does that by breaking down the storytelling process in her workshops — three per week — then turning the students’ creations into full-fledged drama productions, complete with actors, music, props, costumes, everything it takes to bring the stories to life.

The program’s kickoff event two weeks ago featured Randal the Reading Rat, also Renaux’s creation (she’s a puppeteer as well). The Walker shows will be March 17 at Walker and March 23 at the Ashland Public Library. And in May, the stories from each of the schools — Renaux has worked with Walker, Helman and Bellview, and has reached out to Willow Wind and John Muir — will be published in a single volume, which will be available to purchase at cost.

“For me it really is about community and the individual,” Renaux said after Wednesday’s workshop. “So I’m just connecting with who they are and helping them achieve where they want to go.

“I have to make it exciting, I have to make it authentic to where they are — in other words, what their interests are. I have to meet their level of learning and so, as a teacher, you have to be organized and you have to make sure you connect with each individual.”

Wednesday’s workshop focused on character development, particularly each story’s main character.

“When you walk out of here today,” Renaux said, “you should be able to say, ‘I can describe my main character.’”

She then explained what she meant by description, using a well-known character, Harry Potter, as an example. The students provided a few examples as well, including a monster created from a science experiment, and a robot that crash-landed from outer space. Later, Renaux drew a picture of the robot inside a circle and surrounded by other circles and asked the class to fill in the surrounding bubbles with more character traits.

“Writers help other writers,” she said.

And they quickly did. Hands shot up after each of Renaux’s questions. Soon, the robot was metallic, flashed sharp fangs, had one eye and small legs. The author, second-grader Kekoa Pech, also equipped the robot, named Robo-trobo, with a sword and wrecking balls for hands.

“He’s trying to complete the mission,” Kekoa explained.

It’s a work in progress, but by the time he left Wednesday, Kekoa’s robot was nearly fully formed, just in time for Friday’s workshop: “Conflict: How to Describe a Big Problem.” After that, students will learn about adding dialogue, concocting an “incredible ending” and of course the final step long despised by writers everywhere: revision.

After Renaux’s introduction Wednesday the students broke off and focused on their own stories, which were as diverse as the students themselves. Aerin Withey, a second-grader, was writing about a lonely fish that always carries blueberries with him, lives in a “big-huge mansion” and becomes friends with another fish as they explore together.

“I just made it up,” she said.

Third-grader James Dyson and second-grader Jude Casteel offered a disclaimer before enthusiastically describing their own dark tale — “Well, there’s some violence,” Jude warned — while third-grader Uni Mehringer worked out the details regarding Sisi, a magical unicorn.

“She lives on a magical rainbow in a cave and then an earthquake happens, and then the magical world that she lives on is starting to break,” Uni said, pointing to the drawing’s details, particularly the heart-shaped mark near Sisi’s tail.

One thing Uni does know is that Sisi has a special connection with animals.

“Well, she doesn't really control (animals),” Uni said. “She just likes to be friends with them.”

Before class ended, Renaux brought the students together one last time to hear one of their fellow storytellers read her yarn, a spooky, dark tale starring zombies. To Renaux, the act of sharing a story and accepting feedback can be a powerful experience for a child, and she encourages it every chance she gets.

“They know that this work is going to be shared with a larger community,” she said, “so it takes it beyond the grade, beyond the walls of the classroom and into the community, so they’re becoming speakers in the community, they’re here for their voice to be heard, whether it’s their imagination or it’s a true story.”

Providing an outlet, Renaux said, is an important first step.

“We all have that imaginative part of us and I think that when we're given the green light to say, ‘Hey, this is important, just this idea you had is so important that you need to share it,’ just empowers them. So I’m excited. That’s probably the core of this whole experience.”

To make a donation, visit storiesalive.org. Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.

Caris Randall, 7, contemplates a story while participating in a Stories Alive writing workshop at Walker Elementary School in Ashland on Wednesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch