Think about being sixteen, in high school, and standing in front of a group of friends and strangers telling a story. Your story. That’s what a new Anchorage organization called Story Works Alaska is teaching local students to do while helping them build community at the same time.
20 years ago, when Regan Brooks was in high school, a teacher gave them each an assignment — tell a story about yourself. Brooks can’t recall what she wrote about. What she really remembers is a story a classmate told.
“She shared a story in front of our whole class that,” Brooks pauses, thinking of the best explanation. “Abolished all my assumptions about her. And really made me realize there’s this person there haven’t ever bothered to get to know that I wanted to get to know more.”
Brooks says storytelling helps people see each other differently and through that new level of understanding, builds community.
So that’s the task she and a group of teachers and volunteers have given more than 700 students in Anchorage — tell your story. Brooks launched the project in February of 2014 and since then has visited five of the city’s high schools. She recently led a workshop at Service High in Anchorage.
Hauling chairs, Brooks moves out into the hallway with a group of students and prepares to listen to their stories and give them feedback. But first, some quick advice:
“You want to try to begin your story without the word ‘so’ and end it without saying ‘And yeah…'”
With that, 11th grader Kevin Goodman launches into a tale about the first time he went hunting with his father.
“It all started on a muggy morning when we drove seven hours up to Paxson, which is about 70 miles from Glennallen,” Goodman starts as he incessantly clicks on his pen.
He tells about camping in the rain, wading through cold streams with jagged rocks, and trying in vain to find a moose.
“And you know that scene in ‘Lord of the Rings’ where everybody has to duck because of all the birds flying over their heads?” he asks the listeners. “Well, it was kind of like that except we had a gun and we shot them.”
Goodman says he chose to share that story because it sparked his imagination and was an important turning point in his life.
“It was my first big, week-long hunting trip. It was kind of a coming of age, I guess, for me. Because my dad’s pretty strict on what your capabilities have to be on hunting.”
And then the group of listening students and story coaches start giving feedback: this detail is great, you didn’t stutter at all, but maybe you should change some things…
“How can you tell the story in a way so that when you get to the ending we all go, ‘Oh, that’s right! They didn’t get the moose but sounds like they still had a great time!” asks story teller Jack Dalton. “Or, ‘They didn’t get the moose, but I can only imagine all those ptarmigan!'”
English teacher Lisa Wiley says that’s part of the reason she wanted to get her students involved with Story Works — so they could get feedback from other people.
“I can never get outside perspective on their work within my classroom. It’s always me as the audience,” she says. “So this raises the level, the audience is now other people. Students respond differently to that. They are trying harder because there are strangers looking at their work.”
The project is also teaching them reading, writing, and public speaking, all required topics in an English class.
Two weeks after the story coaching workshop the students preformed for each other, some enthusiastically, some with a bit of hesitation. But Wiley’s already ramping up for next year, ready to have her students tell stories all over again.