Earlier this year, my friend introduced me to a nonprofit. She said it was the kind of thing that I would love and asked if I’d like to go to a volunteer event with her. She’s my favorite kind of person. I clicked on the link and was instantly enamored. We made plans to go to their next event and then – because I can’t always keep to myself – I took a shot in the dark.
In classic, rambling, cold-email style, I found my way to the contact page and had my fan girl moment for their organization. Then I asked if I could write about them. I’ve been following them pretty religiously since that first encounter and I recently had the chance to sit down with Jason Boxer, Executive Producer at Story Pirates.
Over calm herbal tea in chaotic midtown Manhattan, I fell even more in love with this nonprofit, their mission, and the idea that every student deserves a chance to be heard. Without further ado, allow me to introduce: the Story Pirates.
Liz: Let's start in traditional Smile Project fashion - give me a "Happiness is.."
Jason: Happiness is being seen and heard for what you are and what you want to be. It’s inherently linked to authentic self-expression.
Liz: Tell me a little bit about the organization.
Jason: We’re called the Story Pirates. We started in 2004 when a group of ten friends from Northwestern University graduated and moved to New York City to start a literacy non-profit. We exist with the mission that school and education (and if you really run with it, the entire human experience) are better when they are fun and engaging. We believe young people learn more efficiently, richly, and deeply when they are learning through joy.
The idea of Story Pirates manifested itself through English Language Arts pedagogy. We are in 250 schools all over the country and we’ve done a handful of international programs as well. We go into the schools and teach writing via a technique called “process drama,” which is using the arts to teach curriculum that is not necessarily arts-focused. This involves mixing puppetry, improv comedy, and layers of fiction to the curriculum. If you feel like you’re playing, you learn more and you have a better time.
For example, we teach a persuasive writing curriculum that starts like a normal workshop. We go into the classroom, beginning things as per usual, until a character bursts through the door in a three-piece suit, interrupting everything. This character is named Scott Heartless, and he is an eccentric billionaire, who has been studying education, and he has come to a frightening realization. Kids leave the classroom every day for lunch and recess. They stop learning, they have lots of fun - it’s totally unacceptable. Scott Heartless doesn’t like this. He decides he’s going to work with the principal to forever ban lunch and recess from the school unless the students can learn from the Story Pirates to write a persuasive essay to keep lunch and recess in school.
Liz: So these actors…
Jason: We also have a company of artists who take the work that our students create in the classroom and adapt it into a wide variety of projects. We have a national tour that performs our students’ stories as musical sketch comedy all over the country, and a podcast that consists of our students’ stories adapted into songs and radio plays. We just released our first book, Stuck in the Stone Age, which was inspired by an idea from an 11-year-old, and adapted into a full children’s book by a New York Times bestselling author. We take the work that our students create and give it to professional artists, so they can collaborate on it becoming a bigger project.
Liz: And where does “Story Love” come in?
Jason: In addition to getting personalized and fun attention and having some of our students’ stories adapted into a professional comedy show, every single student also receives a handwritten piece of feedback on their work.
That’s really a continuation of everything else we are trying to do. We are inviting kids to play and to do something that feels light and approachable and digestible, and the Story Love process puts a bow on the end of that. It provides positive reinforcement for all the work they’ve done. Story Pirates partners with volunteer groups all over the country for these events. Volunteers get together for an hour or so, read the stories, and write a handwritten note back to each author.
Liz’s Note: I volunteered at a Story Love event and it was awesome.
Liz: How’d you get involved?
Jason: I joined the company four years ago as an intern. I first heard about it as a gig to do improv and sketch comedy. It’s one of the very few places in New York City where you can do comedy at this level and also get paid for it. Through interning with Story Pirates, I realized I was interested in pursuing education as a degree and a career.
Liz: What is the driving force behind what you do?
Jason: Story Pirates is stubbornly and foolishly confident in what we can achieve. We really believe in our work. At our most ambitious, we hope that the art we make can help to reshape the landscape of how people make media and theatre and art.
You turn on the television and you see programming made for young people that is often times filled with explosions, yelling, and fighting - it’s not exactly modeling the behavior that we would like our young people to exhibit. We’re capable of flipping that script. Mr. Rogers is a giant inspiration to us. We want to make art for young people – for everyone – that helps teach things that school doesn’t teach you. That’s a big slice of what we’re doing.
Our education programming is more narrowly focused on what school should be like. We talk a little bit about how there’s this wave in corporate culture where offices are trading cubicles for open and fun floor plans and new and innovative things because people are realizing that when things are less miserable, people work better. The big driving force behind Story Pirates is the idea that being silly and being fun is actually quite serious. It’s more effective and more efficient. The mission we are on is to prove that being wacky is serious. That’s near and dear to my heart.
Liz: What does "service" mean to you?
Jason: Generally, I think it’s tied to being seen and being heard. When we are at a school debuting stories written by our students, it usually happens at an all school assembly, with, say, 400 kids in one room all together. Every story gets introduced before it’s performed, so a Story Pirate will run out on stage and say: “This next story is very exciting and it is written by someone in this room.” The entire room will just erupt with energy. “The author is in fourth grade.” The lens narrows a little bit, and there’s a smaller pocket of kids buzzing now. “They’re in Ms. Robertson’s class.” All the eyes turn to one group of students. And then you say the author’s name - “This story was written by Kate” - and 400 kids just scream and shout for them. We get to make a kid feel like a rock star for completing a school assignment.
Liz Note: I had full goosebumps when Jason was answering that question, and in editing this post now, I have goosebumps, part II.
Jason: I also think based on the political reality of the today, that service has to be tied to justice. Every kid deserves feel seen and heard at school, but there are, of course, kids that are less likely than others to get this attention or opportunity. We want to be intentional with where we provide service based on privilege and disadvantage.
Liz: How can people get involved?
Jason: The easiest way is Story Love – it’s kind of exploding right now. If you live in New York City or Los Angeles, you can go to a Story Love event. We never conceived it as something that could happen outside of LA and NYC, but that’s happening now. We can send stories to volunteer groups wherever they may be. This is in very early stages, but we’re trying to build an online platform where people can participate that way. That’s the most accessible way. Also, if you live in NYC or LA, you can audition to be a part of the acting or teaching companies.
The way that we grow most significantly is simply word of mouth - people spreading the word about Story Pirates. I should also say – if you’re passionate about literacy and education – making a monetary donation is a very impactful way to support us
Liz: Anything else you'd like to add?
Jason: I will reemphasize the point of justice connecting into our work – we have a great deal of learning to do to in this effort and I don’t mean to say that we’re saving the world right now, in this second, but I think literacy is underappreciated as a means by which we can mitigate a lot of our world’s inequity. Literacy can help us level the playing field, but people don’t often think about it that way.
There is no expert in the field surrounding education that won’t agree: literacy is the heart of it. It’s a prerequisite to success in all subject matters. Math, science, history…you hit a glass ceiling in all those areas if you can’t read and write up to grade level. Reading and writing skills are also tied to healthy cognitive development, social emotional learning, and positive communication.
Because it’s so important and because it’s tied to all these tickets to success, when we don’t distribute it equitably, we don’t distribute success equitably. We want to direct our resources to making literacy fun and making school fun for everyone, so the next generation of young people can be more successful.
In conversation with Jason, I realized this may be one of the most quotable #ServiceSpotlights yet (formally Service Sundays, but we're all about breaking the rules this week). I had the best time chatting with him and everyone I’ve met through Story Pirates thus far. They’ve opened my eyes in really profound ways to something I have always taken for granted. I recognize my educational privilege and feel very fortunate to be able to have these meaningful conversations about social justice through the lens of literacy.
From the Story Love perspective, nothing hits closer to home. I consider myself extremely blessed to have grown up in a family that encouraged my love of reading and writing. From birth, bedtime stories were my routine and as I tore through the library in elementary school and later began writing my own imaginative fiction about talking cats and magic portal mirrors, it is the kindness of teachers, parents, friends, and family who supported my love of language that made me pursue it so fervently. Never underestimate the power of a kind note.
Be sure to follow the Story Pirates on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. To learn more about their work, volunteer at an event, audition for any open opportunities, or contribute to support the incredible mission, visit their website here.
In the words of Jason, may we all be stubbornly and foolishly confident in what we can achieve.
Liz: What's your favorite quote?
Jason: I am a big Lord of the Rings nerd. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”