For the past four years, Dimond English teacher Marcus Reese has incorporated Story Works Alaska into his tenth-grade Honors English class.
Reese said, “That means roughly 500 Dimond students have experienced the process of brainstorming, crafting, coaching, refining, practicing and presenting their lives.”
Reese first brought Story Works into the class by connecting with one of its founders, Regan Brooks.
Reese said, “I was initially connected with Regan through a mutual friend and colleague, Victoria Gellert. I remember Ms. Gellert telling me she had a friend that I should meet with who was working on a project to empower youth voices through storytelling and that it sure seemed like we would get along given my beliefs about stories and the use of them in my classes.”
Over the course of two weeks, Reese’s students choose and prepare a roughly five-minute story to tell in front of the class. They meet with other students, as well as volunteers from Story Works to craft their story into something worthwhile.
Senior Jayden Houston said, “My sophomore year, I told a very emotional story for the Story Works project in Mr. Reese’s class. I definitely teared up, but it was a meaningful story to me and that’s what I think Story Works is all about.”
Story Works was only created in 2014—stemming from a longtime storytelling program called Arctic Entries. Arctic Entries began in 2010 and regularly holds shows in Anchorage where seven people each tell a seven-minute story about their life that relates to the show’s theme. Story Works is similar, but gives students the opportunity to tell their stories.
Brooks said, “The idea for Story Works first took root when my book club here in Anchorage read a book that had been edited by a group of high school students from a program in San Francisco called 826. The book was great, but the part at the back where they described the 826 program and how it supported youth and education was even better.
“One of the big ideas behind 826 is to use latent energy in your community to support young people in your local schools. And I remember someone in book club saying ‘Maybe something like that could happen here.’”
However, starting up Story Works was a huge project.
Brooks said, “Thankfully, my dear friend Vikram Patel, who was on the Arctic Entries story board, got involved early on. He was the story guy, and he crafted the first versions of our curriculum.
“Two wonderful English teachers from West, Temperance Tinker and Rachel Kittoe, also stepped in. Ms. Tinker and Ms. Kittoe were the ones who made the idea a reality by launching the ‘West High Storytelling Project’ in their classrooms way back in February 2014.”
Now, over 1,500 high school students from Polaris, West, East, Service, Bartlett, Steller, Dimond and Unalakleet have participated in Story Works.
In Reese’s class, the process concludes with an event where a few students are selected to tell their stories in front of a larger crowd at Dimond.
Reese said, “This type of project slows participants down and asks them to really look at the experiences of their lives. This type of examination has the potential for impact both now, in the finding and telling of one story, but also later, in the living out and recognition of more stories.
“It’s trite to say one gets out of it what they put into it, but I think in this case, the idiom works. Those students who have examined their lives and told a story that matters to them, leave the program with a rich and meaningful experience. And those who don’t, well, at least they had two weeks to be immersed into the storytelling experience.”
Both Arctic Entries and Story Works communicate the importance of Alaska’s long-held tradition of storytelling.
Reese said, “I believe stories matter. I think that in the long arc of humanity, stories are a thread that binds us together. From cave drawings to today, we use stories to make sense of our reality.
“However, the ubiquitous nature of narrative can dull our awareness to just how much power stories actually have in who we are and how we see the world. In the end, I think sharing our stories is a powerful step toward a deeper and more meaningful life and community.”