Aspen Story Swap moves beyond valley |

Aspen Story Swap moves beyond valley

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” “I’m from West Oakland [Calif], and I have a very strict background,” says a young girl’s voice on an MP3 file. “Basically, my father is very strict, and when I got pregnant at the age of 15, it was hard for me to tell him.”

Thousands of miles away, with the help of Jordan Dann, the education programs director at the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, and Sarabeth Burke, Anderson Ranch childrens’ program and outreach coordinator, a student in Rifle, Colo., will turn the recording into a written story and art project.

“As a young boy, I was a bad-ass child,” says the voice of another boy, this one from Rifle, telling a story that will be transformed by an Oakland student into a written and physical work of art. “I grew up between the west side and the south side of Phoenix, Arizona … As a kid, I used to do a bunch of bad stuff to people’s properties … I used to make fires in people’s backyards and just leave them there for hours until the firefighters got there.”

Story Swap ” a joint Anderson Ranch-Aspen Writers’ Foundation project that connects people across a divide by allowing them to share personal stories ” recently has begun serving people outside the Roaring Fork Valley.

Using MP3 files transferred via the website Words.Sound.Life, which bills itself as “the social network for digital media learning,” students at Oasis High School, an alternative school in the Oakland District, recently shared personal stories with students at Rifle High School.

The stories, said Dann, addressed a wide variety of life experiences, including traffic violations, teen pregnancy, gang violence, immigrating to the United States and being a horse jockey. The Oasis stories, she said, are particularly tough.

“Those kids are lucky to be alive, it sounds like,” she said.

Now the students will convert each other’s stories into both written work and art projects ” and in the process, learn about art and writing.

“We have a really strong presentation now of how to tell a story,” said Dann. “You know, it’s kind of a dying art form.”

On the art side, Burke said she’s trying to teach students about how memories are embedded in objects and can be translated in different ways. Although last year, she instructed all swappers to draw portraits of each other, she now encourages students to think more broadly about an art project that best communicates the details of the story.

Aspen-based nonprofit Springboard funded the project, and California-based nonprofit Voices of the New Millennium has volunteered to offer guidance to the Oakland students.

The expansion to Rifle was, in part, an accident. Because the project received funding from Springboard “at the last minute,” said Dann, the two nonprofits scrambled to find willing partners.

With help of a former student in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Aspen Summer Words program, Oasis High School readily agreed to participate. However, an attempt to find local students by creating a club at Aspen High School died for lack of participation.

But then Rifle High School art teacher Liz Waters agreed to jump on board.

Ultimately, said Dann, it’s been good for all to be able to expand the program outside the Roaring Fork Valley. For one thing, in terms of school resources, Rifle High School is “black and white compared to Aspen,” she noted.

Originally Dann’s brainchild, Story Swap is based on an acting exercise meant to help beginning actors learn to perform someone else’s text. Because of the “expedited intimacy” it created, Dann thought it would be useful way to bring people together across a divide using art.

The program was piloted last fall at Basalt High School between English-speaking creative writing students and English as a Second Language students. In the spring, the Aspen Writers’ Foundation was approached by Roaring Fork Leadership to re-create the program among adults in the Roaring Fork Valley. So adults from Glenwood Springs to Aspen swapped stories and eventually performed at Basalt Booksellers.

Ultimately, said Dann, she hopes the program could expand to include seniors, prisoners, soldiers in Iraq and schools across Colorado. She recently presented it at the Colorado Arts Education Foundation and says there was a lot of interest among educators in the state.

“The core of this is so strong,” said Burke. “We haven’t figured out how to break through to the potential of what we’re trying to do.”

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