Schmitz Park students record their stories
It's not often that people talk openly about their passions; much less share them with complete strangers. But that is just what a two fourth grade classes from Schmitz Park Elementary School did as part of a school fund-raiser.
'What are you passionate about?' was the question posed to the 47 students by Joey Cohn, Seattle's KPLU program director and creator of the project.
What started as Cohn's three-month sabbatical from KPLU studios to volunteer at his daughter's school, turned into a creative project and learning experience for the kids and the adults, said Cohn.
With the guidance of Cohn, the student's recorded their stories at KPLU studios.
"I thought, the kids get a lot of practice with writing but not that much in spoken communication skills," said Cohn, who wanted to focus on the art of telling and interpreting the student's feelings through expression.
"I knew I wanted (the project) to be personal but I wasn't sure what to focus on," said Cohn. He finally realized that he didn't care what the kids talked about as long as it was something they were passionate about it.
Fourth grade teachers at Schmitz Park, Nicole Williams and Jackie Frazier, admitted they were a little hesitant when Cohn first approached them with the project. Both were concerned about fitting the project in with their busy academic curriculum.
"As a school teacher you have a certain amount of time and certain things you have to do," said Williams. "But we knew it was going to be a great experience for them so we really wanted to do it."
Cohn spent weeks interviewing each of the student's individually about their passions.
Each student started the assignment by writing stories that described what they are passionate about. Then Cohn and the teachers helped the student's detail their stories and make their writing more concise.
"The idea was to show, not to just tell," said Williams.
Principal of Schmitz Park, Richard Mellish, said he fully supported the project once a solid plan was in place to integrate the project into a learning experience for the students.
"I think it became a very motivating experience for all the kids," said Mellish. He said that for the kids to see another way writing can be produced and published was a great educational tool for them.
Cohn enjoyed getting each student to elaborate on his or her ideas.
"One of the lessons I learned, was everyone is different and you have to manage everybody differently," said Cohn.
Cohn said kids are especially fun for him to work with because he loves the simple and spontaneous way they communicate.
"They don't hide their emotions, they just react," he said. "Kids are fun- they say surprising things. They're funny, especially when they don't know it."
Most adults have walls built up, said Cohn, and they develop "poker faces" which hide their real feelings.
"Kids haven't learned how to play poker yet," said Cohn. "You don't have to draw the emotion out of them, it's all over their faces."
A few students, who were often left out of peer groups, seemed to suddenly be accepted as celebrities among their classmates as a result of their stories.
Parent David Perine, a volunteer at Schmitz Park for the past seven years, noticed one student in particular who was often very solitary and kept to himself, suddenly became included in group conversations and games.
"The project has seemed to have engendered a great crossing of social boundaries," said Perine. " I think it shows a great level of maturity. Three years ago these kids were skipping rope and now they are talking about what their hearts want."
Frazier noticed the some of her students became much more confident in their public speaking abilities after the project.
"When we did our next activity that required public speaking, they knew how to hold themselves, they just shone," said Frazier.
Gayle McIntosh, mother of fourth grader Aubrey, was impressed by the diversity among the student's ideas.
"What's so moving is the student's telling of their lives," said McIntosh. "The pictures of who they are and what they are dealing with really come out in their stories, and you really learn about them."
Many of the students talked about an instrument they play, or are learning to play. Some even gave performances on the recording. Sports and special pets were also a favorite subject.
McIntosh found one story particularly touching. One of the young girls talked about singing and described how it is a great release for her feelings. She even sings one of her favorite songs on the CD.
"It is wonderful that this young girl is self-aware enough to recognize how to find outlets for her feelings and openly express them to others," said McIntosh. "They represent every child in America, which is what I think is so powerful about it."
The heartfelt thought and level of determination the student's put into their original stories surprised another parent, Denise Lathrop.
"People don't give kids enough credit for their potential of creativity and talent," Lathrop realized. "This project is really a snapshot of who these kids are, and I feel so fortunate that our kids had the opportunity to participate and take all these different components and combine them to make something really unique," said Lathrop.
At $20 per CD, "Student Stories" has raised more than $1100 so far. Cohn said he expects the total to be around $1500 once all the CD's are sold.
Principal Mellish said the funds would go into the schools General Giving Fund: typically used to support classroom projects, or teacher trainings.
Cohn feels the spirit of the project has been accomplished, and said maybe those who listen to "Student's Stories" will in some way feel enriched by the experience.
"Giving the kids the opportunity to practice speech communication skills and incorporating that with giving them a chance to say what they are passionate about was really important to me," said Cohn.
Cohn hopes the student's and the parents can use the project as an "audio time capsule that they can enjoy for years to come."
Rebekah Schilperoort can be reached at email@example.com