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Published in Print: March 7, 2012, as Troupe Adapts Students' Stories for the School and N.Y.C. Stages

Troupe Adapts Students' Stories for the School and N.Y.C. Stages


Group of educators and actors inspires K-8 students to write

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"A prince! And can someone with a quiet hand tell me what our main character, the prince's, name is?" asks Peter McNerney, as he moderates a performance at Little Falls School No. 2 in northern New Jersey.

Dozens of tiny arms shoot into the air. Mr. McNerney chooses one, then leans in and waits encouragingly for the kindergartner to whisper an answer. "Chicken Breath?" Mr. McNerney confirms softly. Then, in a booming voice to the 100 other 5- and 6-year-olds sitting on the gym floor, "Yes, that's it! His name is Chicken Breath!"

Laughter fills the room. A 20-something actor steps out from behind the curtain wearing a paper crown and blue cloth cape over his T-shirt and jeans. "Good day! I am Prince Chicken Breath!" he declares, to even more laughter.

This "Idea Storm" at Little Falls is the first of four such shows the performing-arts group known as the Story Pirates will put on in New Jersey public schools that day.

And at each show, along with garnering laughs, the actors will be accomplishing another goal—teaching children to write.

The nonprofit Story Pirates, based in New York City and Los Angeles, began as a simple idea: Students write stories, and professional performers act them out.

Story Pirates Associate Artistic Director Peter McNerney, far left, solicits ideas from elementary school students as Kati Skelton, left, James Daniel, middle, and Isabel Richardson, right, change costumes
Story Pirates Associate Artistic Director Peter McNerney, far left, solicits ideas from elementary school students as Kati Skelton, left, James Daniel, middle, and Isabel Richardson, right, change costumes "backstage."
—Emile Wamsteker

While that's still at the heart of what it does today, eight years after it was founded by graduates of Northwestern University, the group has added other programs to its repertoire, including in-school and after-school writing workshops, assemblies, teacher professional development, and long-term school partnerships.

Overall, the programs aim to inspire chiefly elementary and middle school students to use their imaginations and to write.

"If there's anything we can give kids, it's that it's worth putting your ideas on paper," said Mr. McNerney, the Story Pirates' full-time associate artistic director. "That's an essential skill that bleeds into so many other life skills."

'Validating Kids' Ideas'

During classroom workshops, the group's performers and "teaching artists"—who have both teaching and acting experience—use games, chants, and puppets to create a safe space for students to express their most outlandish ideas. Over four classroom sessions, they instruct children in the elements of storytelling, using curriculum crafted around that particular grade's state standards.

The students draw on those lessons to compose their own stories. They submit their pieces to the Story Pirates members, who read and respond to each one, then choose a few of those stories to adapt into short plays. A group of Story Pirates performers return several weeks later to perform the selected stories in front of the entire school, with silly costumes, music, and accolades for the author.

"Imagine you hand in a paper and the next time you see it, it's adults making it real on stage. You learn that, 'Oh, I've communicated this to people on a piece of paper,' " said Mr. McNerney. "If we can validate a kid's ideas, it goes a long way."

Students can also bring their family and friends to a repeat performance, which is open to the public, at a small theater in New York City. "We set up stakes for them in their writing—they might get to see their story performed," said Lauren Stripling, a producer and teaching artist. "We give writing a purpose beyond writing class."

Faithful to the Text

Story Pirates actors Isabel Richardson, left, and Peter McNerney, right, perform during an
Story Pirates actors Isabel Richardson, left, and Peter McNerney, right, perform during an "Idea Storm" at Little Falls School No. 2, in Little Falls, N.J. The actors' improvised performance is based on suggestions from students.
—Emile Wamsteker

According to Rekha S. Rajan, an assistant professor at National-Louis University in Chicago and a senior research associate with the Center for Arts Education Research at Teachers College, Columbia University, the most successful arts education programs give students ownership of what they're doing. The children are "the ones contributing the lyrics to the song or choreographing the dance," said Ms. Rajan, who has no connection with the Story Pirates but consults with other arts programs.

"By giving them ownership," she said, "they're more invested when they see the end product."

—Emile Wamsteker

That's very much the premise behind the Story Pirates' workshops and shows. The group takes adherence to student work seriously. "If there are clarity issues [in a story], we'll change the words to communicate something," Mr. McNerney said, "but for the most part, we stay super-faithful to that text."

The Idea Storm assembly is the shortest—and least expensive—of the programs for schools. In this setup, cast members visit a school only twice, once for the assembly and a second time to perform the student-written stories.

—Emile Wamsteker

During the first performance, the actors describe the basic components of a story, adapting their vocabulary for the grade in front of them. They explain that every story has a beginning, in which the characters and setting are introduced; a middle, in which a problem is encountered; and an end, in which the problem is, or is not, solved. Then the performers improvise a play using suggestions from the students.

Mr. McNerney says the goal of an Idea Storm is to capitalize on students' "energy and excitement to get them to create something." Teachers go back to their classrooms with instructions for submitting students' stories. Some will have student write stories as a class, he said, and others will assign the writing as homework.

After an Idea Storm at another Little Falls school, No. 3, 3rd grade teacher Tiffany Selitto's students returned to the classroom buzzing about their favorite moments from the show and eager to come up with stories of their own. Ms. Selitto said she didn't know what to expect going into the assembly but was "pleasantly surprised."

"I was most pleased that the entire audience of students was engaged," she said. "Typically, that doesn't happen." Four of her 20 students were called on to offer their suggestions during the performance, she said, and even some of her more reticent ones were involved.

Also, she said, the content "absolutely meshed well" with what she's been doing in the classroom.

Still, teachers are left with the burden of figuring out how to incorporate performance takeaways into their instruction. While some teachers will be able to build on students' energy and inspiration—perhaps even jumping into story writing as soon as they return to class—others may feel ill-equipped and return to business as usual.

But Mr. McNerney says his group tends to get a big story return after Idea Storms. "We never have a problem getting stories," he said. Sometimes the organization even has to enlist extra volunteers to read through all the submissions.

Ms. Selitto said she plans to integrate the material, for instance, by creating an "anchor chart" with her students to help them recall what they learned during the show, and then composing at least one story with the whole class before giving them independent writing time.

The Story Pirates' methods also gave Ms. Selitto a brainstorm of her own: Why not have her students act out their own stories in class?

The students already love acting out play-scripted literature, she said, and the chance to portray characters they've written about would be even more motivating. "It's almost like, 'Duh, why wasn't I doing that already?' "

Inspiring Curiosity

The group has also ventured into longer-term, more intensive school programs. For example, the Bronx Charter School for the Arts in New York City raised $20,000 to hire the Story Pirates to do a schoolwide residency for the second year in a row.

Under that arrangement, one teaching artist and one actor lead five sessions for each grade level, K-5, in writing, science, and other subjects. The artists work closely with teachers to determine individual class needs. They also take part in school festivals, after-school programs, and professional development, and put on performances.

Peter McNerney, left, waits offstage for his cue during an
Peter McNerney, left, waits offstage for his cue during an "Idea Storm" at Little Falls School No. 2. The goal of the performance is to "capitalize on [kids'] energy and excitement and get them to create something," he says.
—Emile Wamsteker

According to the school's arts director, Ann Ledo, the group's method fits in perfectly with the school's arts-integration mission.

"They're inspiring curiosity in writing, in being an expressive self, in communication," she said.

For the yearlong program format, the Story Pirates teaching artists use their own materials in classes. "They have fabulous tools that teachers [can] modify and use for other things," Ms. Ledo said.

She has also been impressed by the group's behavior-management techniques. She recently had the Story Pirates conduct training with teachers on using active warm-up activities, such as songs, to engage students in class from the start. "Creativity is key in classroom management," she said.

As with any instructional approach, some students connect to the Story Pirates' lessons more than others, she acknowledged. For the most part, though, the students and teachers at Bronx Arts love the guest artists.

"They have enriched our lives in the way they've engaged kids. … They've inspired kids to write more and talk about writing," Ms. Ledo said.

Alternative Measures

But as schools try to balance an increase in accountability with a decrease in cash flow, a program needs to be more than just fun and inspiring to merit implementation—it also needs to work. Hard evidence of effectiveness is not easy to find with a time-limited, push-in arts program, and some say it's impossible to find in the form of student-achievement measures.

"There are too many other factors to be able to say an artistic experience is directly linked to test scores," said Ms. Rajan, whose book Integrating the Performing Arts in Grades K-5 is scheduled to come out in May. "You cannot make that connection."

The Story Pirates group itself recognizes a challenge there as well, said Ms. Stripling, the teaching artist. "If we come in four days a year, … it's difficult to differentiate that from the work that teachers are doing the other 176 days of the school year."

Further, standardized tests require nonfiction writing and focus on grammar and syntax, while the group, above all, rewards creativity and effort. Ms. Ledo says Bronx Arts does not even attempt to tie the Story Pirates' teaching to student achievement, instead using teacher feedback to gauge progress on objectives laid out at the beginning of the year.

When evaluating arts programs, Ms. Rajan recommends looking for student growth in other areas—for instance, self-esteem, self-expression, artistic aptitude, and social interactions. Increased attendance can be a positive outcome of an arts program as well, she said.

At Bronx Arts, according to Ms. Ledo, "100 percent of kids come to school when we have a Story Pirates performance."

For the first time this year, the Story Pirates will undergo "rigorous data collection," both internally and through outside consultants, looking at student writing samples with a variety of measures. Up until now, Ms. Stripling said, the group has relied on—and easily found—anecdotal evidence that its programs are working.

"We have teachers saying, 'You see that student? He's never picked up a pencil.' And yet he's written three pages for us," she said.

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Another sometimes-overlooked benefit of arts programs is that they can be game-changing for students who are struggling or have special needs, said Ms. Rajan. The arts can offer a time for students who are not on grade level in core subjects to shine, she explained, and be an outlet for improving social and communication skills.

Rhona Silverbush's 8-year-old son Jack Nierenberg, who has language and communication challenges, has taken classes with the Story Pirates at a community center over the past year. Not only does her son now have a greater grasp of story structure, she said, but he also has moved away from strictly literal interpretation toward more imaginary and abstract ideas. And suddenly he loves writing stories.

"For him, to see his words acted out encourages him to use his language in more and new ways," Ms. Silverbush said. Children who learn from the Story Pirates, she said, "feel that what they do can have an impact, that their words can have ripple effects. It sets the stage for them to imagine what they're capable of doing in the world."

Ms. Stripling contends that Story Pirates programs also fill a gap left by the test-based accountability movement: Many students have never written fiction before.

"We'll ask a class, 'Could I write the story of a flying monkey who loves watermelons?' And the kids are like, 'Noooooo,' " said Ms. Stripling. "But that's the thing—yes you can. That's why we're in schools."

PHOTO: Story Pirates actor Nick Kanellis, foreground, performs during a recent show at the Drama Book Shop. The group performs plays adapted from student stories on Saturday afternoons at the small New York City venue. A child reacts during a performance at the Drama Book Shop. Story Pirates goes into schools and helps students learn how to write stories, which the group then produces for the stage.
—Photos by Emile Wamsteker for Education Week

Vol. 31, Issue 23, Pages 12-13

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