UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Students with stories to tell learned how to captivate an audience and speak from the heart during a three-day workshop in conjunction with The Moth, a New York City-based organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling.
The event, sponsored by the Penn State College of Education, was capped by a Story Slam performance Sept. 23 at the State Theater in downtown State College and was preceded by classes with Moth instructors during the two days prior.
Nearly 50 people took part and 10 randomly drawn speakers had five minutes to emotionally reveal something transformational that had happened to them.
“One of the things that ends up happening that you don’t really expect is when someone tells you a story that’s from their life and it’s not really rehearsed that you get to feel like you’re part of their life for a moment,’’ said Micaela Blei, one of three instructors with The Moth. “You feel close to them, they feel close to you and you end up feeling a sense of community in the room.’’
All of the stories told were entertaining and gripping in their own way; some offered a bit more impact than others. A few examples follow, but with brevity in mind:
One young woman was simultaneously a swimmer and a youth swimming coach. She was coaching a boy attempting to secure a berth on a Junior Olympic team while at the same time competing herself. In one race, six swimmers advanced to the finals; she placed seventh. In another race of even more importance, 16 swimmers advanced; she was 17th. She watched the boy swim a personal-best time but he missed advancing by one place. He said he was fine because he had watched what happened to her. She said she was, too, because she had been there for him.
Another student had visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City. She saw a woman — a stranger — who was visibly distressed. She offered the woman a hug and the woman collapsed onto her shoulder and later looked at her, smiled and walked away. Meanwhile, an aunt who was very special to the student, had died. Some time later, while the student was working, her uncle texted her while using her aunt’s phone. The student saw the name and broke down, ultimately collapsing into the arms of a workmate she wasn’t particularly fond of. The student realized two things, she said, that she was human and that people are great.
Yet another student grew up on the streets of Los Angeles. Hers was a family of fighters, she explained. She learned how to fight early on. She was confronted by a bully in fifth grade and got slammed against the wall. A brother said he’d take care of the miscreant. The young woman said, “No, I have to fight him.’’ An uncle showed up with boxing gloves to give her additional pointers. She fought the bully named Jesse and won … easily. Then her cousin got shot because of gang violence. Her mother wouldn’t let her see him in the hospital and he died soon after. She didn’t fight any more, she said, because she knows that there’s something behind anger.
And, finally, another young woman wanted to end her relationship with her father at age 18. No texts, no calls, no conversation. A cousin told her that he wasn’t her father anyway; thus, the young woman searched for her real father. She found him, they each had DNA tests that proved to be a match. She also thought that piece of paper could end the relationship with the man she thought was her father, but it doesn’t happen that way, she explained. She visited her new father, who had another daughter who approached him and called him “daddy.’’ The young woman, who was in search of a storybook relationship with her father, was asked by him to call him something other than Mr. Davis. “I don’t think I know how,’’ she said.
Those were abbreviated examples of learning how to tell stories in group fashion. “Practicing giving feedback to each other about your personal story ends up being a great way to get into how to give supportive feedback as a group,’’ Blei said about the educational component within The Moth. “It also helps with narrative structuring and starting to understand critical thinking, like, 'How do I choose the details that are going to get across the point I want to make?’’’
The instructors do not have students write their stories; they have to tell it first. “We find that with a lot of people who may be natural writers, they are not as comfortable with it but this gets them thinking really critically. The see themselves as artists, they see themselves as successful when it might otherwise have been a really frustrating experience,’’ Blei said.
Despite the instruction and success of the event — it was recorded and will be used on a podcast and some might be used on National Public Radio — Blei reminded the audience that life doesn’t happen in five-minute chunks.
But let the lesson plan show that it can be revealed.