The Young Storytellers Foundation is an organization dedicated to developing literacy, self-expression and self-esteem in elementary school children. The project started eight years ago with ten children at one elementary school in Los Angeles and has grown each year, having reached over 1200 students today. The program focuses on Title I schools, which have the greatest concentration of poverty and often the poorest academic performance.
Ten fourth and fifth grade students are paired one on one with ten adult volunteer mentors to meet once a week for six weeks. The mentors guide and encourage the students as they each write their own short screenplay. The mentors serve only as facilitators coaching and recording the students ideas. All of the ideas and words are those of the students. The goal is to enable each student to express his individual creative voice, bringing out his innate storytelling ability and boosting his confidence to succeed in school and beyond.
Each program culminates with The Big Show. A group of professional actors volunteers to bring the students stories to life for parents, teachers and community members. Actors in the past have included Matthew Perry, Hank Azaria, Fred Savage and Rachel Bilson.
I recently spoke with YSFs former President (He recently stepped down to resume his filmmaking career.), Jay Gibson.
Micki Krimmel: How did you come to Young Storytellers? What is your current focus as President?
Jay Gibson: I was introduced to Brad Falchuk, one of the founders, when they had first started the program at the first school in Venice, California in 1997. He invited me to be a mentor, and I said yes. I arrived a few minutes late to the first session as the mentors were preparing, and as I walked in the door each of them greeted me with enthusiasm, shook my hand, and told me how happy and honored they were to have me there. It felt great. But I wondered why they would be so welcoming to me, the new guy. It turns out I was a guinea pig in an experiment they were trying - to demonstrate that if you adopt an attitude about someone they will reflect that in their behavior. I was treated with respect and honor, and I felt welcomed and important. It's the secret sauce of Young Storytellers, and is still the way all YSF mentors treat the kids in our program. All of them are treated like the greatest writers in the world - talented and important. And the kids feel that and respond by discovering their talent and importance.
Anyway, I was hooked from day one. By volunteering my time I thought I was doing a service to the kids, but in truth, just as the kids were transformed by the program, so was I. Every ounce of confidence they developed also developed in me. We showed them the power of creativity, imagination, and storytelling, and as a writer my creativity improved, not to mention my attitude about my work.
The original mentors kept the program growing, grassroots style. Every semester we would call each other up, recruit a few more writer friends, and within a couple years we had four or five schools going twice a year. Then in 2002 many of us were busy with our professional lives and the phone calls slowed and we ended up running only two schools. So the leaders got together and we decided to form the Young Storytellers Foundation. I had received so much from mentoring, and believed in the powerful effects the program has on the children, mentors, and communities, that I agreed to take a detour from my filmmaking career to work full-time as president of the foundation. So my role the last three years has been "start-up" guy - setting up the foundation, hiring a few staff, expanding the program to over 20 schools and 400 kids a year.
This year we're focusing less on expansion and more on evaluating the program and making sure that it remains high quality everywhere. We grew nearly 10 times our original size in a short amount of time, and so we want to make sure all the kids and schools are getting the best we can deliver. Improving mentor recruiting and training, and increasing our fundraising ability are keys to that.
MK: Can you tell me about a success story? Is there one student that really stands out in your mind?
JG: At the end of last year Sharon Langman, the principal who invited our original program to Playa Elementary School, ran into Dominic, one of the original 4th graders. Dominic didn't think Sharon would remember him, but she remembered him well because eight years ago Dominic got in trouble often. He was having socialization problems, and spent a lot of time in Sharon's office.
Back then Sharon thought Dominic might benefit from the Young Storytellers. We original mentors still remember Dominic and the story he wrote - about a boy playing for the Lakers and learning about teamwork. He was a talented, energetic kid. After Young Storytellers, Dominic never ended up in Sharon's office again.
Now a strapping 6 ft. 5 inch college freshman, Dominic told Sharon he has never stopped writing. He purposefully sought out a creative writing program when selecting a college, is a creative writing major, and loves writing for the Cal State Long Beach newspaper. He credits his Young Storytellers experience as inspiration for setting him on his path as a writer and successful student.
As I said, I realized the value of the program the minute I walked into the first Young Storytellers classroom. I've seen it transform so many kids. There is something about the way we work with YSF kids - a combination of the creative work, the non-judgmental atmosphere, the one-to-one attention - it tends to find each young writer's greatest need and fill it.
I worked with one young boy who would was so quiet, and constantly struggling with his ideas. He would sit with me, silently staring at his notebook, write a word or two then look up at me for approval. It turns out that he had learned English only a few months before, and he had plenty of ideas... he just couldn't spell, and so he hesitated, afraid of me judging him for misspelled words.
We put the pen and paper away, and from then on we just talked - no writing at all. Each week, I tape-recorded his story as he told it to me, and returned the next week with it typed up just as he told it. We would then read it aloud and he would add or change elements. Once the spelling roadblock was removed he was a different kid - enthusiastic, creative, and so happy and proud of his achievement on the day of the Big Show.
MK: What is your ultimate goal with YSF?
JG: In my work with Young Storytellers, I have met hundreds of teachers and administrators who are so dedicated to their students, and stretched too thin to be able to do what is necessary or even sufficient for the many children they serve. I couldn't admire these teachers more, and I'm very happy to be able to help in some small way to fill the appalling gaps in arts education, but in the end I hope Young Storytellers doesn't need to exist. In the end I would like to see the education system in the U.S. view arts education as indispensable. Storytelling is a natural human ability. It is how we express ourselves to each other, how we discover friends, how communities are built, and how cultures learn from each other. Storytelling is the basic tool of communication that, beyond teaching basic literacy tools, teaches creativity, imagination, problem solving, intuition, inquiry, organizational thinking - all immeasurable by typical standardized test and invaluable to a child's development. To me these skills are the foundation for success in school, and in life.
Jay suggested I sit in on a session to experience the program for myself. I joined a group at Crescent Heights Elementary School. It was the second week of the program so the students and mentors were just getting to know each other. Eager students began arriving in the auditorium even before the bell rang. Students from previous semesters shouted hellos to their mentors. It took a few minutes to reign in the excitement and get everyone seated in the circle. The session began with a name game. We went around the room testing our memories and associating all our names with something we like. Im Sean and I like sugar. Im Micki and I like making cookies.
Next, we all stood up to do the shake-out. We shook our bodies and limbs while shouting and grunting, loosing up our muscles, vocal cords and attitudes. After the shake-out, we dove right into story-telling. Last week, the students had been assigned some homework. The assignment was to read a book or watch a movie or television show and take notes on the story to share with the group. Students shared stories ranging from Spongebob Squarepants to Pulp Fiction. The students were asked to identify the characters of the story, the setting, the beginning, middle and end. Was there a lesson or a moral to the story? They were learning that they already knew how to tell stories just by watching TV.
Finally, it was time for the kids to choose their mentors. One at a time, the students picked names from a hat, cheers erupting each time. Each new pair hugged and sat next to each other. Finally, it was time for the homework assignment: to think of three stories to write about it could be anything the only rule: no copying. We ended the session with another shake-out. The room took much longer to clear out than it did to fill up at the beginning of the session. Students and mentors lingered, chatting excitedly. I spoke for a moment with the lead mentor, Jeff Smith. I asked him what he thought was the most rewarding part of being involved with Young Storytellers. He told me, The real magical thing to see happen is the camaraderie between mentors and kids. This is the first time theyve been around adults who arent judging them. After spending just an hour with them, I could already see just how valuable the relationships between students and mentors could be.
Four weeks later, I went back to the Crescent Heights Elementary School for the Big Show. The auditorium was bustling with activity and decorated for a party. The students mingled with the actors onstage, introducing themselves and getting autographs from Thats so Raven star, T'Keyah Crystal Keymáh. Each writer assigned roles to the actors and gave some brief direction. Finally, Jeff Smith quieted things down and got the show started with a big introduction for the writers, the real stars of the show. The writers ran down the aisles of the auditorium, bowed to the audience, and took their seats in the front row. One at a time, the writers sat on the side of the stage as the actors brought their stories to life. The actors bounded across the stage, playing their parts vibrantly. Still, I think I spent more time watching the faces of the writers than I did the stories unfolding onstage. Their faces brightened and they sat tall with pride. I was very impressed with the creativity and detail of the screenplays. I couldnt believe that all of this had come together in just six weeks. The Big Show was a big night indeed for ten young writers and their mentors a night that just might change their lives.
The Young Storytellers Foundation is expanding into other cities with a program in San Francisco and one in New York City. To find out how you can volunteer or make a donation, visit www.youngstorytellers.com.
Sometime I feel that Worldchanging is a bit heavy on technology.
I love to see these social programs. They are every bit as innovative, exciting and essential as the technology.
agree with ryan here; great story micki.
More agreement, and thank you. It is wonderful to hear such a soulful & heartful WorldChanging story, tapping into those deep wells of care, and respect, and relationship, and playful creativity, to move the world.