The Moth Education Programme: 'Bearing witness is a form of action.'

What is The Moth?

As George Dawes Green sat with his friends telling stories on summer nights in Georgia, they would watch the moths dancing around the lights on the porch. When he relocated to New York, he wanted to recreate this atmosphere, so he founded The Moth, a non-profit that hosts storytelling nights. The Moth's mission is to promote the art and craft of storytelling and to honour and celebrate the diversity and commonality of human experience.

The power of the stories being told and the connections that the listeners make at Moth events mean that the nights have become very popular very quickly. Today, The Moth has become a household name in New York and beyond, as The Moth podcast is downloaded over 30 million times a year, and each week the Peabody Award-winning Moth Radio Hour is listened to on over 400 radio stations worldwide.

Attending a Moth storytelling event

I was very excited to find out that a Moth storytelling event was happening while I was in New York, just down the road from where I was staying. The event was themed on ‘The Lives of Girls and Women’ and I listened to four inspirational women from around the world tell their stories in the beautiful setting of JAZZ at the Lincoln Center.

As I listened to the women talk about how they had fought to create a better world for girls and women, one line really stood out to me. Sisonke Msimang, a writer and activist from South Africa said: 'Bearing witness is a form of action.' She was reflecting on how when she encountered a problem, she always felt compelled to try and solve it, until she realised that sometimes the best form of action is to simply listen, acknowledge and simply be there for someone.

I realised that this line encompasses a lot of what is powerful about storytelling events; they give an opportunity for audiences to bear witness and for storytellers to feel acknowledged. I learnt so much throughout the evening and I connected with humanity in many new ways, so I began to consider how amazing it would be to have a Moth storytelling event in a school. In the interval I asked a Moth employee if they do any work in education and it was at this point that I found out that Moth does have its own education program and I received their email so I could set up a meeting with their founders.

The Moth education program

The next week I turned up at The Moth office and was able to find out more about the great work of their education program. I was greeted by Catherine McCarthy, the Manager of the Education Program and Micaela Blei, the Senior Manager of the Education Program. They had me intrigued as they told me how they set up storytelling events in high schools. Students sign up for eight weeks’ worth of after-school workshops to prepare them for telling their own story to their school peers at the end of the programme.

A high-level skill

There are no specific guidelines for the types of stories the young people tell, instead they are taught skills in the art of storytelling. This is a high-level skill, as students are being taught how to captivate an audience and keep on track with a story. Students do not write down their stories, as they are encouraged to keep away from telling a scripted story. Instead they develop an idea and mainly free-style their story. Students are often surprised at how easily the words flow out once they get started and they are taught that it is ok to stop and add in extra information if they need to or that even telling their audience that they are nervous can be endearing.

Academic benefits

When I asked about the academic benefits of the program, Micaela and Catherine were both wary of the ethical implications about making storytelling an academic pursuit. As they rightfully pointed out, young people’s grades should not be based on their willingness to share personal information. Therefore they do not collect data on academics and they do not give written correction to anyone’s work.

However, as part of the storytelling process the young people tell a number of social drafts of their stories. This involves telling their peers in the after-school clubs their story ideas and practising their story and receiving feedback. The feedback focuses on a lot of academic literacy skills, such as story structure, using descriptive techniques and knowing when to take a pause. Therefore, without realising it, the young people are being guided academically and developing their literacy skills - but in a verbal way.

Storytelling and business

Micaela raised another interesting point: that the skill of storytelling is becoming more and more valued within the world of business. Recently, I have signed up to a number of entrepreneurial networks and I am constantly receiving invites to ‘Storytelling’ or ‘Master your Story’ workshops. This is a skill that businesses are recognising is important to enable them to capture customers’ attention, and as this has become a buzzword in business, it won’t be long until the education system also recognises the importance of this skill.

Integrating into the curriculum

Although the Moth education program is mainly run by trained facilitators through the after-school workshops, the education team have recently put together their materials, so that teachers can integrate Moth workshops into the curriculum of a number of subjects. For example, one history teacher held a storytelling event where all the students told stories as historical figures. This helped the students connect with the subject in a more meaningful way than writing a traditional history essay. The materials for use in this way have only recently become available and so far they have been shared with 160 schools worldwide, so it will be interesting to hear what else the materials will be used for.

Connecting with humanity

Integrating the Moth workshops into the curriculum will mean that a larger percentage of students will be able to benefit from this way of teaching. However, even when the Moth workshops are only attended by a small number of students in the after-school clubs, the benefits of the workshops reach much further than just the students who attend the workshops.

In the feedback that Micaela and Catherine receive about their workshops the main words that appear are: confidence, community and connectivity. Even if the students don’t attend the after-school workshops, they are still able to bear witness to their peers telling their stories at the final storytelling event. The students at these schools are able to achieve the the same benefits I received from attending the storytelling event during my time in New York. Being exposed to this level of connectivity from a young age, will help develop in these students a lifelong curiosity about other people’s experiences, and as a result, a better connection to humanity.

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