This post is an Interview by NCTE member Kevin Cordi, founder of the StoryBox Project, with Randi Jo Flynn, Jackson Middle School, Ohio.
About a dozen schools in Ohio have been selected to finish unpublished stories by popular YA authors. The stories arrive in a storybox and then are sent to the next school outside of Ohio. They are sent around the nation and Canada. I had the pleasure of viewing the Top Secret Storybox launch at Randi’s school and had to find out more.
What attracted you to be involved in the project?
As an avid reader and writer outside of the classroom, I’m always looking for innovative literacy activities. When I learned of the opportunity from Dr. Kevin Cordi, who I met through the Columbus Area Writing Project, I knew I had to apply.
I’m elated at having been selected because I knew how exciting this would be for my students.
I know that initially the project was geared for high school students. Why do you believe middle school students would be attracted to this project?
I knew my middle school students would be attracted to the project because of the creativity this project allows. Middle school students want to be seen as adults so badly; however, there is still that part that loves to tell stories and be silly. I’ve also discovered that they are working diligently to produce the strongest pieces of writing possible. They are determined to not be labeled “the middle school writers.” Instead, they want to be seen as equal to the high school writers.
How have you prepared for the students to be ready or eager for the arrival of the stories?
After I told my students that we’d been chosen for the project, I created a bulletin board that said “Top Secret YA StoryBox Coming Soon”. After a few days, I announced the authors involved and created a display using dozens of their books, which added great excitement. Seeing the books made the project real.
Then, students were each assigned an author to “spy on”; in other words, they had to research the author and create a classified file. This file contained interesting information and the list of the author’s works.
I posted a countdown for the arrival of the storybox, and we anxiously awaited its arrival.
On the day of the JMS launch, the students were called to the cafeteria for a top secret celebration featuring Dr. Kevin Cordi, the creator of the project. My students were beyond thrilled to hear about the project and the many exciting places it will travel to after it leaves them. Finally, I handed each class a Top Secret file that contained the stories. This was the first glimpse they’d had of the writings. But before they could open the file, they had to complete the Top Secret Mission that was written on a scroll. The scroll contained details about the project, and after the students read [it], they placed the scroll in water and watched the message and the paper disappear.
How did the students use the stories?
The students would enter my classroom and immediately check the daily agenda to see if I had the storybox project scheduled. If I did, they would quickly take their seats and get started reading. I never had to redirect them when the stories were being read, which was magical.
Once the students had access to the stories, they each kept a log where they recorded the stories they’d read and their opinions of each story. I gave them opportunities to discuss the stories with their peers, and it was interesting to listen to them. Their discussions almost seemed like debates where they would passionately explain why one story would be “cooler” to finish than another. But what was interesting to hear was how polite their discussions were. Not once did the students say something negative about a story; they just would say, “It’s not for me to finish.” I loved that! This project allowed us to create a writing community where students learned to respect the writings of others.
I loved this year’s selections. We were fortunate to have a variety of authors who wrote across multiple genres. There was something for everyone.
Although all stories that I allowed my students to choose from were selected by at least one student, the most popular story was by Alan Gratz. Of course, New York Times bestseller Maggie Stiefvater and local author Mindy McGinnis were close behind.
How is this experience, if at all, different from a regular classroom assignment? Please explain.
Although I’m still using the writing standards like I would for any other writing project, the storybox offers an authentic audience and an opportunity for creativity not usually found in the traditional essay. My students are excited that their peers and the authors could read their writings.
After the project leaves, is there anything that you have learned about working with the YA Top Secret StoryBox that you will take with you in future teaching?
This experience has been so positive that I’m saddened it has to end, but I know this means I must find another way to invigorate my students. I’ve learned to let go of the conventional assignment and to find ways to allow student choice and creativity because my students have been so engaged, and I feel they’ve learned more as a result. They’ve taken complete ownership and are proud of their creations.
Tell us anything else that you want to include.
It’s been a wonderful opportunity because my school has been talking about writing! Even teachers from other subject areas have stopped by my room to learn more about the project because they’ve heard the students discussing it.
Now, my students are looking forward to the (James) Thurber Center Ohio Launch because many of the cooperating authors will be attending.
You can find out more about the project and the over 30 YA contributors at https://sites.google.com/onu.edu/yaunfinishedstorybox/home?authuser=1. Contact Kevin at www.kevincordi.com.
Kevin D. Cordi is the chair for the Storytelling SIG for NCTE and is according to the National Storytelling Network, “the first full time high school storytelling teacher in the country.” He is the author of Playing with Stories: Story Crafting for Writers, Teachers, and Other Imaginative Thinkers and the coauthor with Judy Sima of Raising Voices: Creating Youth Storytelling Groups and Troupes. He is an assistant professor of narrative and literacy for the Education Department at Ohio Northern University. You can find out more at www.kevincordi.com.