Want to know how preteens really feel? Ask them to tell you a story

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(Photo: CPR/Jenny Brundin)
<p><span style="font-family: proxima-nova, &#039;Helvetica Neue&#039;, Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif;">Bradford Intermediate sixth-grader Madeline Byerly stands next to her StoryCorps audio essay project.</span></p>

Instead of just writing a personal narrative, teachers at Bradford Intermediate in Jefferson County asked their students this year to record the narratives into their laptops.

Inspired by StoryCorps, it was an effort to get students to write more authentically, and with more emotion.

Alisha Lindsey started the project by playing several StoryCorps pieces for her sixth grade class and one particular about a man recalling how badly he wanted to play an instrument when he was a kid.

The man tells of how a dust storm was preventing his mom from driving him to the school instrument sale. The boy places a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the window and prays to ‘please make this storm go away.’

“And there were kids who were just starting to cry, because it was kind of emotional,” said teacher Alisha Lindsey. “And so it was really exciting to see that because we were trying to get them to bring in that emotional element too.”

Fellow sixth grade teacher Sean Stevinson loved the idea.

“And I remember them listening to [the pieces] multiple times, listening to how the voice changed throughout the story, you know, how to tie the emotion into it,” Stevinson said.

The teachers asked the kids to write about a positive or negative experience and how and why it impacted them so much.

At eleven and twelve years old, life can be tumultuous and awkward, a time when you struggle to keep nerves at bay.

Students wrote about the trials and tribulations of sports teams, getting lost at Disney World, getting hurt doing something you were told not to and getting a first pet. Their stories capture the essential part of being a sixth-grader and the desperate desire to fit in.

Several kids describe how mundane a life in which rhythms are largely determined by adults.

When kids’ lives become so busy, so structured, an essay becomes a chance to stop, take a breath and think about one moment that becomes theirs’ alone.

One student writes about his busy life with multiple sports and living in two houses. Sports add to the hectic pace of life but for many kids, it’s in sports they find camaraderie, unity of purpose and the chance to test themselves physically.

Some of the most powerful experiences for the kids, and something that adults tend to forget, come through losing or failing at something.

After losing several chess matches, one student said the feeling in his heart was not happy, or sad. Instead, he said, “proudness,” that is, pride.

“I think the thing that I was really excited to see was that kids who struggle with writing, how just, they really hate that time of day,” Lindsey said . "They had the best stories because I feel like they finally had purpose in writing something.”

Lindsey's colleague Stevinson said it gave students a chance to have success because they weren’t tied down by a written piece.

“They could tell the story they wanted to tell, using the emotions, they couldn’t convey as well on paper," Stevinson added.