Anita Woodley, center, held a “Stories Come to Life” workshop for middle school students in March.
Anita Woodley’s five personalities shine in the Durham classroom.
Walking around a sixth-grade English Language Arts class at James E. Shepard Magnet Middle School on a recent afternoon, Woodley clutched a messy stack of ruled notebook paper and played a host of characters, ranging from a sweet-spoken Curious George to the rumbling robot Transformer Optimus Prime. Students giggled as she switched to mimicking her 14-year-old son, Xavier, who dots his sentences with the word “like,” as well as her brother, who talks about his experiences in prison.
During Woodley’s two-day literary arts workshop, which is organized by the Durham Arts Council and partially funded this year by the Duke Doing Good in the Neighborhood employee giving campaign, the Shepard Middle School class is transformed into a safe space for storytelling. The sixth graders are encouraged to write about whatever they want, as long as it’s about a true experience.
The sixth graders grinned as Woodley, a local performer and journalist, slipped into personifying her great-grandma, her posture slightly hunched, belly out, and her tongue running along her teeth as she visited each student’s desk.
“It’s your story,” Woodley said to the students, using her best warbling great-grandmother voice. “Some people want to write about doing well in school, some people want to write about being the best athlete in the world. … Some people write about people who died in their family. Some people’s family members were killed. Some people’s family members are in jail. You can write about that if you want to. It has to be a true story.”
This literary arts workshop, titled “Stories Come to Life,” began in 2013 at Neal Magnet Middle School in Durham. This year, with help from Duke Doing Good in the Neighborhood, the workshop series has expanded to two additional Durham middle schools: Shepard and Lowe’s Grove Magnet.
The program identifies schools where students are struggling with reading and writing skills. Nearly 500 students are expected to benefit from the Durham Arts Council program this year, and past story topics have included a father’s Cam Newton football jersey, a pet parrot, an aunt’s death and a family member’s incarceration. Some students in previous workshops have opened up about self-harm, bullying and peer pressure.
“This program is about sharing, and these kids open up through Anita’s presence and the environment she creates and become vulnerable,” said Shana Adams, manager of the Creative Arts in Public & Private Schools (CAPS) program for the Durham Arts Council. “This program allows them the freedom to write about whatever they want without worrying about getting everything right.”
The Durham Arts Council received $4,000 in October from the Duke Doing Good in the Neighborhood “Community Care Fund” giving category, which awards grants to diverse nonprofits every year. The Durham Arts Council was one of the 47 nonprofits in Durham, Orange and Wake counties that received a Community Care Fund grant in 2016.
The $4,000 helps fund Anita Woodley’s literary arts residency with the council, supplies such as pencils and paper, and printing hundreds of bound booklets that contain students’ stories and drawings. Each student, as well as school administrators, teachers and the school library, gets a booklet.
“Without the funding from Duke and Duke employees, we wouldn’t be able to do this, and some of these stories would remain hidden or not spoken,” Adams said. “Their dollars are a part of making these stories come alive.”
During that afternoon, Woodley paused at each cluster of desks, offering encouragement to students with writer’s block. In addition to writing, the students also help create a dictionary of commonly misspelled words, draw images from their stories, and participate in a forgiveness exercise that takes hurtful words they may have heard from a classmate or friend and replaces them with empowering words.
“Let it go and keep moving,” Woodley said to the sixth graders, speaking of healing after hurtful exchanges. “Don’t let anyone take your power.”
To learn more about the Durham Arts Council’s Creative Arts in Public & Private Schools (CAPS) initiative, visit durhamartscouncilcaps.com.