In the classroom, from an early age, children quickly align themselves as math or writing students. Benjamin Salka, CEO of Story Pirates, a New York and L.A. based writing enrichment program, ties the self-identification to an educational approach that encourages young students to academically lean in one direction at the expense of the other. In contrast, Salka believes that once children understand writing is primarily meant to communicate ideas and express feelings, everyone becomes a scribe and Story Pirates offers a platform that clearly gets the message across.
By pairing world-class teachers with first-rate actors and comedians, Story Pirates offers a variety of tools to make learning more engaging and effective. The group is best known for the Idea Storm Program, a master-class writing workshop that brings teaching concepts to life, followed by a musical sketch comedy show featuring stories by students and performed by professional artists.
Salka is certain that showing up with so-called “kiddie performers” just wouldn’t have the same affect. “We believe fervently that kids know the difference.” A rare occasion might even land the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert or John Oliver who often perform fundraisers and public shows for Story Pirates. Staffed from a troupe of 300 of the best improv comedians in New York and LA, these roving buccaneers take to the stage at the school auditorium to perform a SNL-like skit that leaves the staff writers at home and puts story development in the hands of the students. "The story that you wrote, the characters, props and ideas that came from your head are celebrated and become this joyous occasion. You’re king for the day.”
Story Pirates visited 130 schools last year. The program leaves children in prime position to make the intended extrapolation. “If their stories are good enough to be taken seriously by world class artists, it adds extra emphasis on how important it is to take their own writing seriously.” Story Pirates instructors and classroom teachers then take full advantage of the momentum. “It brings a shot of adrenaline and excitement into the process,” says Salka.
He certainly knows something of that. “I worked Off Broadway and in big commercial movies for a number of directors,” he says.
The idea to create a crossover occurred when he taught playwriting at a school in the Bronx. “I had a transformative experience with those kids, and so Story Pirates is a combination of a desire to inspire the next generation of writers and also create really high quality content.”
But back to school, Story Pirates offers professional development to teachers that doesn’t fade away once the troupe of Buccaneers begins their fade out. “We give teachers more tools to bring their lesson plans to life,” says Salka.
As for the performers, their payoff tallies in accordance with the life changing experience this often becomes for the kids, according to Salka.
Turning the tables on the importance of teaching to a test and the idea that a single answer is what school seeks from students, the curve is much more likely to be broken from the bottom up rather than the reverse. “The kids who have the most trouble putting pen to paper can’t stop writing,” he says.
The process can also very often take the quiet kids stuck on the periphery of elementary school social life and place them at the forefront. “We see this over and over,” he says. “They go from introverts to extraverts in the course of three minutes watching their story come to life in front of the whole school.”
But care is sure to be given in the crucial phase of writing known as rewriting. Focusing their efforts heavily on revision, he defers on framing a first draft revision as a critique. Instead Story Pirates confronts the kids with questions like couldn’t your story use more rich details or how could this be made funnier?
Putting it back in their control, he says, “It’s a process of chasing the idea that is in your head and working and reworking it until the words on the paper really match the impact you’re trying to have in your heart and in your head.”
Of course, not all the 30,000 stories that are written and land at the central offices make it to the stage, but the Story Pirates Story Love Squad returns the appreciation to their makers. “Our initiative is to let every kid know that we’ve read their story, and we encourage them to keep writing,” says Salka.
The squad also aspires to soften the possible blow of having their dialogue stopped short of the life a Daily Show regular could have breathed into it. Letting them know that the stories are not selected on a win/loss basis, the feedback puts all submissions in the win column.
So obviously a form letter to say so would not do. “We show each kid that their story matters by writing a personal note,” says Salka.
As for the best part of his day, it arrives every day in his inbox. “My child hated writing. Story Pirates showed up and now he’s writing every afternoon,” beams Salka of all the letters from parents and teachers.