Can an educational sketch-theater group known for teaching kids the art of storytelling thrive in the age of the Common Core State Standards and rigorous accountability expectations? The nonprofit Story Pirates appears to be making it work.
Education Week Teacher profiled the Story Pirates back in 2012, catching up with troupe members as they conducted an “Idea Storm”—“a creative writing master class, a hilarious improv show, and a pep rally, all at once”—at a New Jersey elementary school. The story, by current Education Week Assistant Editor Liana Heitin, told of how the then-little-known group offered a selection of in-school and afterschool theatrical programs, largely in Los Angeles and New York, designed to “create a safe space for students to express their most outlandish ideas” and develop their creative writing skills.
Among other tactics, the Story Pirates members would regularly adapt students’ stories into short plays for performance.
“We set up stakes for them in their writing—they might get to see their story performed,” said one of the group’s teaching artists. “We give writing a purpose beyond writing class.”
Since the 2012 article was a reader favorite, we decided to check in with the Story Pirates recently when they performed at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Va., as part of the group’s annual tour of the country.
According to CEO Jamie Salka, the group has grown in a number of ways in the past few years. “We’re definitely bigger in terms of [the number of] schools we travel to, and bigger in size of the cast and administrative offices and bigger in national and international reach,” he said.
In the 2013-2014 school year, the troupe had more than 300 cast members, or teaching artists, and visited 130 schools. For this coming academic year, the Story Pirates is currently fundraising to visit and hold workshops for 420 students in a Los Angeles school, and 3,279 students in six New York City schools.
The group has also made some significant programmatic changes. The “biggest difference is we’re taking lots of steps toward rigorous assessments” of students’ writing development, Salka said.
Story Pirates education director Quinton Johnson explained one of the organization’s goals now is to find a better way to evaluate students’ progress in the various programs the group offers. The organization is more interested in “the nitty-gritty data to measure writing skills,” which they hope to harness by comparing students’ writing samples from before and after their participation in workshops. Last summer, with the help of a Harvard Graduate School of Education student, the group’s leaders designed a more rigorous rubric to evaluate student writing.
Perhaps not surprisingly for a group that contracts with public schools, the Story Pirates has also taken deliberate steps to adapt its work to the common core. Salka said the group’s leaders have “refined and overhauled” certain aspects of their curriculum based on the common standards and years of feedback from teachers and parents.
Johnson noted that the organization has been getting more requests for workshop and performance programs focused on nonfiction writing styles—a key focus of the common standards in English/language arts.
In such cases, instead of asking students to develop to write fictional stories, the Story Pirates identify a local issue the class is studying and have one of the actors play devil’s advocate, to whom students write out arguments.
For example, Johnson said that recently in a California school, an actor played a rich tycoon who wanted to demolish the local preserve the class had been studying. It “sparked an interest in persuasive writing” and gave the class “real-world applications” to apply their writing. Some students had their work read aloud to “melt [the actor’s] icy heart.”
Johnson said the shift in emphasis has not affected the group’s creativity or performance values. “We tend to feel that creativity is often enhanced by being required to work within specified boundaries,” he said in an email. “If you have all the freedom in the world to do anything you want, it can be easy to get stuck and not know how to choose a direction to go in. But if you have to work within a particular box, such as figuring out how to make essay writing engaging and fun, or how to keep the comedic tone of your work while being sure you are aligning with common core, that’s often exactly the time when you have to be the most creative, and when some of the most interesting things happen.”
Expanding Multimedia Reach
Beyond curriculum changes, the Story Pirates has also taken steps to extend its reach. For the last five years or so, the group has had its own weekly show on Sirius XM. It has since made recordings into a podcast that is “internationally popular” and “features adaptations of kids’ stories, plus interviews with the young authors,” according to the group’s information packet.
About two years ago, Story Pirates partnered with LitWorld, a nonprofit working to improve global literacy rates, to begin holding Idea Storms and improv programs through Skype to elementary schools in Kenya. At first, Salka was worried the stories and ideas wouldn’t translate over the computer, but quickly discovered the Story Pirates “retains all the magic” even through a screen.
Finally, the group, like many media organizations, has sought to increase its video presence. For next school year, Story Pirates has obtained a grant to make an educational video series for a school in the Bronx. The performances will focus on taking boring vocabulary words—as suggested by teachers—and providing richer and better alternatives (another emphasis of the common core). The videos will be custom-made for the school and then, Johnson said, released online and integrated into Story Pirates’ regular programs.
The video program exemplifies one of the Story Pirates’ central aims—to provide enrichment programs that compliment goals the teachers and schools already have. The group’s after school programs and shows can be used as fun extra practice or as a spin on the foundation of writing students already have: They are designed to be “value added to teachers,” Johnson said.
“Our overall goal and philosophies in the classroom is no matter how long the program is, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what the classroom teachers teach,” he added.