Aleeza Kazmi endured her first identity crisis when she was 6 years old. It was during a first-grade art class, when she and her classmates were drawing self-portraits. Seeing herself as just like her white-skinned peers, Kazmi reached for the peach-colored oil pastel to fill in her face. Just then, her teacher intervened. “That’s not your color,” the teacher told her, and handed Kazmi a stubby brown crayon instead. “That was the first time I realized I wasn’t white like all my friends,” she said.
Kazmi told this story about her first brush with racial awareness when she was a senior in high school, before dozens of classmates. She had taken part in a 10-week afterschool program run by The Moth, a storytelling enterprise that invites people of all ages to share their personal narratives on stage. Along with a handful of classmates, Kazmi had met once a week to identify a powerful personal story and learn how to tell it. Delivering the tale about her art-class trial in the school’s black box theater, without notes, marked the culmination of Kazmi’s storytelling work.
The Moth has been around for 20 years, and is known to many who hear excerpts from the program’s live storytelling show, The Moth Radio Hour, on public radio. The program’s founder, George Dawes Green, named it after the fluttery insect when he realized that people gathered to storytellers like moths to light. Since then, The Moth has become a storytelling juggernaut, hosting up to 400 live shows a year in 25 cities and providing podcasts to interested listeners. More recently, it has moved into schools, offering afterschool workshops, a class curriculum and an intensive three-day storytelling session for teachers.
“I want to give teachers The Moth principles, and support them as they bring storytelling and listening into their classrooms,” said Micaela Blei, who along with Catherine McCarthy leads The Moth’s education team. Blei, a former teacher, performed a story at SXSWedu earlier this year to a group of educators and shared highlights of what makes a good story.
The essential ingredients of a Moth story are simple: Participants tell their stories aloud and without notes; when storytellers talk, the audience listens; and all stories at a given session revolve around one simple theme. The point is to build community among storytellers and listeners.
Zoe Roben, an English teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan and enthusiastic Moth listener, wanted students at her small public high school to have a more sophisticated understanding of how to tell personal stories. So in the fall, she invited Moth educators to Harvest Collegiate to carry out an afterschool workshop with nine kids, while she acted as the teacher liaison. For eight weeks, the students and adult supervisors brainstormed and practiced telling their stories, and at the end delivered their tales before the school and again at a Moth office, where they were recorded. The theme was courage.
Students told stories about kitchen disasters, lost hamsters and minor acts of adolescent agitation, like chopping off hair. Anxious at first about their ability to perform, students came to embrace the experience, Roben said. “They were glowing at the end, with the feeling that they could get up in front of an audience and do something this big,” she said. “It was knowing they had something to say, and experiencing their own voice as something valuable,” she added.
Harvest Collegiate High School students who participated in The Moth project. (Courtesy of Micaela Blei)
Roben also tested the Moth curriculum last spring in a writing class of ninth- and 10th-graders. Students had spent most of the semester reading personal stories and essays to learn how authors construct their narratives and to understand the ingredients of a compelling story. But Roben wanted her students to know how to tell their own stories, and so began a three-week immersion in Moth storytelling techniques.
To start, she actively worked to build a tighter feeling of community in the class; she wanted kids to feel safe sharing personal information. Then she played podcasts of select Moth stories — opting always for the appropriate and humorous, like the Bad Haircut, or Lego Crimes — and helped students discern how the storyteller adapted her language to build suspense or generate humor. After dividing the class into small groups, Roben worked with each student to find the right story and to construct boundaries around what to share.
“Kids have lots of personal experiences that are too fresh, or maybe relate to someone in the room,” she said. At the end of three weeks, the students told their narratives aloud within their small group and had the option to share with the entire class.
Students told stories about adoption, racial differences, divorce and secret crushes. They talked about rebellion, and how they avoided punishment, and shared with their classmates the excitement and embarrassment that come with romance.
It surprised Roben how trusting and open her students were with one another. By listening to classmates’ tales of embarrassment or woe, the students seemed to recognize their shared vulnerability. “It was the experience of feeling like, ‘I thought I was the only weirdo,’ only to find that others feel just the same,” Roben said. She also noticed how stories that might have seemed lifeless or inert had they been limited to print leapt to life when told out loud.
In their end-of-class feedback, kids gushed about the storytelling unit. “Doing The Moth story helped me grow as a writer and to heal from my past,” one student wrote. “I learned to be open-minded and to show people who are telling their own stories that you understand,” wrote another. A third concluded that his or her own life provided valuable material for creative work.
It’s precisely this kind of emotional growth that Blei and McCarthy sought to encourage when they expanded The Moth’s educational reach. “When crafting personal stories, you gain new perspectives on yourself,” Blei said — something that’s especially important for adolescents who are just then struggling to forge an identity. Hearing how others navigate their lives, in ways both alien and familiar, builds empathy and connection. And to deviate from the social and emotional benefits of this work, studying and delivering stories gives students the skills to sequence a narrative, choose the right details and create a scene. “It’s so important for business, and science, and nonprofit advocacy,” Blei said.
So far, 300 teachers from around the world have formed partnerships with The Moth that allow them to use the curriculum for free and to interact with one another on a just-for-teachers portal. Blei hopes the number of users grows. “We want to create a global community of student storytellers, and a community of educators who believe in truly listening to their students,” Blei said.
For her part, Aleeza Kazmi is hooked on storytelling. She often hears from students who saw a video of her Moth talk, and said that many identify with her ill-fated choice of colors for her childhood self-portrait. Now 19, Kazmi tells her story to elementary school children and takes part in other Moth education programs.
“It’s so cool that a story that happened in my life has now touched people around the world,” Kazmi said.