By Megan Tackett
Sopris Sun Staff
If compassion can be taught — and it’s been widely postulated it can — the Storyteller Project could serve as a textbook example of how to do it.
On Dec. 18, Carbondale Middle School fifth graders presented their Storyteller poems. It was the culmination of three weeks of work. The project, now in its second year, is a collaboration between CMS and Voices, a Carbondale-based nonprofit dedicated to amplifying community voices through performance art. In this case, that included spoken word in the form of poetry.
“It’s been my pleasure for the last three weeks to bring Voices Storytellers Project to CMS,” Voices Executive Director Renee Prince said. “First, we talked about compassion and using sensory details to connect to each other’s stories; second, the kids worked in teams to interview members of the community.”
By first discussing compassion and interpersonal connectivity, students could use those lessons to finetune interview techniques, Prince explained. They worked in small groups to conduct recorded interviews with community members, whose professions ranged from farmer to police officer to white-water rafting guide to newly obtained Master’s degree in theater. The young interviewers would then listen to their subjects’ recorded responses and, within their groups, agree on a particularly sagacious sentiment that would become the first line of the group’s poems.
“The final phase of the project is what we’re here to celebrate today: these young people’s writing,” she said.
While each group member’s poem started with the same opening line, the directions their works subsequently took often were wildly different.
“I was interviewed by four different groups,” said Neal Martin, a Roaring Fork Valley local who spends 130 days of the year guiding raft trips through the Grand Canyon. “I thought that I was basically going to do the same interview four different times, but every single time was totally different. I was blown away by their insight, the complexity of some of their questions.” He added that many of the students were particularly interested in the “nitty-gritty” details of his life on the river.
Michael Zimmerman, a Carbondale police officer who also works as the police liaison at CMS, shares Martin’s enthusiasm for the project. “I love the kids — I love their creativity and their new perspective of looking at life itself,” he said. “We are open books as we’re interviewing with the children, and then [they] let their imaginations just roll, which is beautiful.”
In their readings, the students did not specify which interviewee they wrote about, and the similes and metaphors that comprised the poems’ structures often felt more universally human than specific to one vocation. That was the point.
“Last year, we went in with the idea of making one of the goals of the project empathy growth,” Prince said. Students each had journals that staff used to gauge students’ awareness of and ability to demonstrate empathy before, during and after completing the three-week Storyteller Project. The results were impressive: 48 percent of students demonstrated an understanding of empathy before beginning the project. That number jumped to 83 percent afterward.
This year, the focus shifted from cultivating increased empathy to compassion. “Empathy is when I can put myself in someone else’s shoes and maybe even sometimes feel the feelings they are feeling. Frankly, that’s kind of an advanced concept [for a fifth grader],” Prince said. “As we recognized that it’s important to set boundaries for your own feelings, we felt that compassion was a really great choice for that age and the district,” she said, adding that compassion is one of Roaring Fork Schools’ stated habits of a scholar.
The neuroscience backs up the Storyteller Project’s approach. It turns out that there is a specific area of the brain — the supramarginal gyrus — responsible for curbing the natural egocentricity of how a person internalizes external experiences. It’s also responsible for limb functionality and interpreting tactile data. Both literally and figuratively, it helps us reach out, and studies show that its functionality is limited when neurons are disrupted from a task or when someone must make a particularly quick decision.
“We really believe in deep impact over a period of time. [I] feel so lucky that we can do these longer residencies in school,” Prince said, noting the program’s emphasis on incorporating sensory details into students’ writing, which is a process.
The process worked. “I smell the sour blood, as strong as a freshly cut lemon,” one student read. “Her wet clothes were dripping sadness,” read another. “Love is memory,” yet another.
Compassion is a first step toward empathy, Prince said, and empathy goes two ways. “It gave me fresh eyes into the mind of a youth of that age,” Martin said, “and maybe it did give me more insight into my job. It was reflective for myself in a way that I didn’t expect.”