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    Story Pirates Theater Troupe Takes Up Common Core in Expanded Repertoire

    by Jill Foley posted July 29, 2015
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    Top: Story Pirates actor Kati Skelton, foreground, performs in front of elementary school students during the Little Falls, N.J., workshop in 2012. –Emile Wamsteker for Education Week. Bottom: Chrissy Shackelford, a member of the Story Pirates, punches the air during the group’s performance this summer at Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods at Wolf Trap National Park in Vienna, Va. The group has expanded and fine-tuned its curriculum in the years between the two performances. –Jared Soares for Education Week

    Maggie DeBlasis writes about the art of storytelling and the nonprofit performance group Story Pirates.


    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.

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    Top: Story Pirates actor Peter McNerney, left, waits offstage for his cue during an “Idea Storm” at Little Falls Township Public School in Little Falls, N.J., in 2012. During the Idea Storm, the Story Pirates teach children the fundamentals of storytelling, first by discussing the basic structure of a story and then asking for ideas from students. Each time a student contributes an idea, the actors respond on the fly, incorporating it into an ongoing improvisational comedy sketch. —-Emile Wamsteker for Education Week Bottom: Story Pirates member Lauren Brickman readies props before a recent performance at Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods at Wolf Trap National Park. —Jared Soares for Education Week

    Nonfiction Performances?

    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.

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    Top: Story Pirates actors put together a storytelling “Idea Storm” at a Little Falls, N.J., elementary school in 2012. –Emile Wamsteker for Education Week Bottom: Members of the Story Pirates put together a routine at Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods at Wolf Trap National Park in 2015. —Jared Soares for Education Week

    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.”

    This post was adapted from the original article on Education Week Teacher.

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