Live in front of an audience of about 700 people in a dim theater in the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, 15-year-old Bennett Pearce stands and begins to tell a story about his height, or lack thereof—caused by a deficiency in growth hormones he instead has to receive in the form of a nightly shot in the leg.
“Sometimes people would pick me up and put me on their shoulders and swing me around and stuff like that—and, to be kind of honest, I kind of thought it was fun,” Pearce said. “I was just this 5-foot-tall freshman running through the halls, trying not to get trampled by all the high schoolers.”
The process that took Pearce to the stage began much earlier with the introduction of Story Works Alaska into his West Anchorage High English class. Pearce is the example of a student who took a story he told in the classroom and brought it in front of a large community audience. Pearce’s experience captures the type of impact Story Works has had within high schools.
Since 2014, teachers have found Story Works Alaska to be a prominent, positive force within Alaska high schools. The program stems from a longtime storytelling program for adults called Arctic Entries.
Arctic Entries began in 2010 and regularly holds shows in Anchorage, where 7 people each tell a 7-minute story about their life that relates to the show’s theme. Story Works is similar, but instead focuses on giving high school students opportunities to tell their stories.
The idea for Story Works first took root when Regan Brooks, acting executive director, was participating in a book club here in Anchorage. The club 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,” Brooks, a Story Works Alaska co-founder said. “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.’”
Teachers from West, Temperance Tinker and Rachel Kittoe were the ones who made the idea a reality by launching the “West High Storytelling Project” in their classrooms 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 Alaska workshops.
At A.J. Dimond High School, students from Marcus Reese’s 10th grade Honors English class participate in a storytelling project, meaning that roughly 500 Dimond students have been involved.
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 Story Works volunteers to craft their story into something worth the attention of their listeners.
“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,” Dimond Senior Jayden Houston said.
For 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.
He 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,” Reese said in an email. “It’s trite to say one gets out of it what they put into it, but I think in this case, the idiom works.
Both Arctic Entries and Story Works communicate the importance of Alaska’s long-held tradition of storytelling.
“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,” Reese said. “ In the end, I think sharing our stories is a powerful step toward a deeper and more meaningful life and community.”
Naomi Cashion is currently a senior at A.J. Dimond High School. She was first introduced to Story Works Alaska when she was in Marcus Reese’s 10th grade English class. She ended up choosing to tell the story of the time she was walking through Kincaid Park with family and came across four different moose all in one area that ended up surrounding them. She began to write journalism stories during her junior year of high school. Currently, she is the Editor-in-Chief for Dimond’s newspaper, the Igaramkin.