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‘Voices’ brings creative story-telling to middle schoolers

Sections: News Published

By Justin Patrick

Sopris Sun Contributor

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It is not uncommon to worry about youth habits today. If kids are glued to screens and cell phones, are they losing the simple ability to tell a compelling story from start to finish? As importantly, can they write it down? Ask Liz Hazle’s fifth grade language arts class.

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For three weeks, from Thanksgiving to holiday break, Carbondale Middle School’s fifth grade class embarked on a pioneer project to use real community members and their stories as a basis for writing creative fiction. The project was made possible by Voices, a Carbondale-based nonprofit that hopes to duplicate the venture in other valley middle schools. The recent pilot program at CMS was by all accounts a resounding success.

Hazle and Renee Prince, executive director of Voices, enjoyed a warm pre-existing relationship from Prince’s time at Aspen Words, when she organized poetry readings in schools. They were able to use that as a springboard for collaboration. The pair brainstormed about how to engage students to improve their creative writing.

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The class had recently read the novel “Esperanza Rising,” about a young immigrant girl in the 1930s. The author, Pam Muñoz Ryan, based it on her grandmother’s life, and relied heavily on interviews to reconstruct details. Hazle and Prince decided to play off this technique, and invited several community members into the classroom to share their stories and volunteer to be questioned by teams of six students.

“It worked really well for fifth graders,” said teacher Liz Hazle. “They were pretty open and very curious.” The project relied on three pillars: listening, empathy, and sensory details. Before students were exposed to the actual stories they would be working with, they practiced their listening skills by listening to radio and podcast programs.

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“We listened to interviews on StoryCorps and to stories on the Moth to get them to really pay attention and listen to information, and then talk about that in a meaningful way, and write about it in a meaningful way,” Prince explained.

Having brushed up on their listening skills, students heard stories provided by four valley locals. Ricardo Zivala shared his tale of travelling to the United States as a teenager and the social strife that ensued. Retired singer JoAnne Everson Anderson related her life story from growing up in rural Minnesota to becoming a professional yodeler. Carbondale police officer Kelli Litzau discussed what it was like being the only woman on the force, how to persevere in the police academy, and how she balances her work/family balance. Lastly, this reporter shared some of his experiences as a ski instructor.

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Next, the students were imbued in the concept of empathy. In other words, “what the person you’re interviewing is feeling, and how you can tell how that person is feeling.” Students formulated questions as a team, and decided who would ask each question. Then, the storytellers visited the classroom and were interviewed by students, who used the responses to generate their own works of creative fiction rooted in the reality of the stories and information gathered from the interviews.

Because they asked the questions, the students “felt connected to the story,” said Hazle. The resulting narratives incorporated a blend of fact and fiction, relying heavily on sensory details, and generated a gamut of creativity.

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“It worked out so beautifully,” said Prince. “We established a real learning culture.”

Prince, who was recently inspired to head Voices, has a background as a theatre artist, actor, and youth theatre director. She received a Master’s in theatre education, and has been an arts educator since 1999, including seven years at the Creede Repertory Theatre. She moved to the valley to build out the education program for Aspen Words.

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“I developed a love for building arts education programs with schools,” she said. “I connected with Barbara Reese, who had an extraordinary vision for Voices.” Reese’s enthusiasm and philanthropic support allowed for Prince to take the reins of Voices and design programs to bring to classrooms. In addition to Reese, Shere Coleman and Kristin Carlson are board members.

With a successful pilot program under her belt, Prince intends to fine tune the curriculum and share it with other fifth grade classes. She estimates that there are at least a dozen classrooms from Glenwood to Aspen that could benefit from this particular project, and she has passionate ideas for the future, such as bringing in mentors to work with the students individually. Learn more about Voices on their upcoming website,

Published in The Sopris Sun on January 5, 2017.