Nonprofit VOICES helps Latin students tell their stories |

Nonprofit VOICES helps Latin students tell their stories

Basalt students narrate their heroes’ journeys


Find info on Voices other projects and forthcoming student audio stories from its Basalt Middle School collaboration at

The stories open with poetic leads like “First of all, I see butterflies” or hopeful cliffhangers like “Yo imagino que mi future tendra …” They declare “Everything changed when I moved from El Salvador” or they boast “Wonder Woman is brave and I am brave also.”

The tales are complemented by drawings of soccer games and airplanes and bicycles and houses and families and pets, all combining into personal narratives by a group of 39 bilingual students at Basalt Middle School. Spread across three classes, the kids are mostly non-native English speakers and mostly immigrants, all telling their own stories through a springtime “visual journaling” program led by the nonprofit VOICES.

Throughout March, students learned about the concepts in Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” storytelling template and used them to write their own stories focused on a big change in their lives. Campbell’s story beats — used in pop culture touchstones from “Star Wars” to “Harry Potter” — begin with a call to adventure.

For the local students, many used their immigration to the United States as their call. From there, heroes endure trials, make allies and enemies, grow in skill and wisdom until Campbell’s final stages of mastery and freedom.

Led by VOICES teaching artist Arturo Williams, students responded to prompts to craft their own hero’s journey, such as writing about what they would bring with them on a journey, describing their everyday world and imagining themselves as superheroes.

Cristina, an 11-year-old in Lisa Dameron’s fifth-grade class, recalled the collage-based project for which students made paper suitcases and filled them with cutouts and notes about they’d bring on an adventure. She said she’d pack her whole house because she felt calm and peaceful there.

Visual journaling also encouraged kids to depict the mentors, allies, friends and family on their journey.

“My mentors are my teachers, they help me and teach me things so I can learn and my friends teach me to be brave and to be happy with my life,” Cristina said. “They inspire me. … Enemies are there to stop you. I don’t really have any enemies.”

Cristina, who particularly enjoyed painting self-portraits for the project, also found a thrill in having her imagination fired, depicting what her future might hold and where her next hero’s journey might take her.

“It’s hard to compare your future and the present,” she said. “At school we talk about the present. Doing art helped me think about the future.”

Dameron said the process was transformative for some students.

“Through the creative process, they seem to peel back the armor that they have built around themselves as ‘newcomers,’” she said. “Their time with art allows them to reflect on how far they’ve come and how their homelands remain integral to their identities.”

The main tool of the program is visual journaling, calling on kids to draw and paint and collage to tell a personal narrative.

“It invited them to express big feelings and sometimes traumatic events in a safe way, “ said VOICES executive director Renee Prine. “It’s an invitation to engage with these stories at whatever level they feel safe and comfortable.”

One young girl imagined a future helping young girls who had been raped. Among her drawings is one of her counseling another girl, a speech bubble reading, “It’s OK if you tell someone.” VOICES is also producing audio stories by the students telling their stories (they are to be released online at this month).

This girl, who came to Basalt from El Salvador in May 2020, says in her story: “I really want to help them because they feel that on the inside, they feel disgusted an all that and I really want to achieve that goal because I don’t want little girls to feel like that.”

VOICES had previously done a visual journaling project with immigrant students at Glenwood Springs Middle School. It drew some national attention and early this year won a certificate of excellence from the national education organization Expeditionary Learning (EL) Education.

“There was a lot of momentum from that school and wanting to do more with visual journaling as an on-ramp for writing,” Prince said. “It’s such a natural way to express and capture sensory details of an event and to, in a fun way, dig into metaphor and all the wonderful figurative language that teachers are working so hard to help students capture in their writing.”

The hero’s journey template empowers students to tell their stories however they want, leaning either toward the more childlike wonder of pre-teen years or their more harsh adult side.

“These journals are such a beautiful way for students to safely wander into this space of real creative play and creative expression,” Prince said. “We’re trying to strike a balance and invite the kids to say what they need to say, whatever aspects of their story they feel is important.”

As with everything these days, the novel coronavirus pandemic and its attendant public health restrictions shaped how the program was implemented. Students didn’t share any art supplies (the school donated an art kit and journal to each student to keep). And after months of unpredictable classroom time and virtual school, VOICES opted to have Williams present the lessons via Zoom so that he could reach students in the classroom along with any who were in virtual learning or at home in quarantine, with teachers providing in-classroom support. It worked. And it provided a fun and often edifying experience for kids during a most trying school year.

“Play is the best way to learn – especially this year,” Prince said. “If we could help some kids relieve stress through fun, that’s great and that’s on the top of everyone’s list of what they need, including teachers.”

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