Micaela Blei is a two-time Moth GrandSLAM winner, PhD candidate, and Director of Education at The Moth. She taught third grade for several years in New York City. Micaela has facilitated storytelling workshops and directed performance programs in schools across New York City and nationwide, as well as giving keynotes and professional development workshops at SXSWedu, Lincoln Center Institute, Columbia University Reading and Writing Project, School of Visual Arts, and others. She has regularly appeared on The Moth’s Mainstage across the country and on The Moth Radio Hour, and her solo storytelling show, "The Secret Life of Your Third Grade Teacher," was a sold-out FringeFAVE at the 2016 NYC Fringe. Micaela is currently pursuing her doctorate in Education at New York University, focusing on personal narrative performance and identity in classroom spaces.
How did your education and previous professional experience shape your current work at the Moth?
- I’m a storyteller myself, so a lot of the ways we design our curriculum and workshops come from experience. What feels good as a storyteller? How do I like to be supported, and how do I like to have independence? It also means I get to tell a story to students at the start of a workshop and I think that can be a game-changer, being able to share with students at the beginning of a working relationship. My favorite thing is telling my stories to students, because they feel like they know me afterwards, and they do. And our interactions in the workshop space are so different after they hear something true from my life. There’s trust that I’m also doing the thing they’re doing. We encourage our Moth instructors, and classroom teachers doing this work, to share stories, even ones that are in progress!
- I’ve done a lot of comedy improv, and I think that training comes through too. The program is built on the ideas from improv that being a teammate, building genuine connections, and listening hard makes storytelling better. We are a team, rather than several individual storytellers. We also play a lot of silly games that come from improv, and there’s a reason for that too. It gets a group of people laughing together before we get to the sometimes serious business of talking about ourselves.
- I was a classroom teacher for several years, so I think about differentiation for students. Specifically, how we can help students succeed wherever they start, and how we can create the conditions for many different kinds of learning. In the work we do with teachers, I think a lot about the kinds of professional development I found useful as an educator. Mostly that was when I had a chance to do things, rather than just listen, and a chance to really connect with colleagues. So that is a big part of our teacher programs. Also, there are jokes. No one expects so many jokes in a professional development workshop. That it’s an important part of our PD pedagogy.
What has been the response from students and educators who have participated in the Moth Education Program?
Our program is built on a simple, but powerful, model: that participants build a team, learn Moth strategies, choose the stories they want to tell, and help one another shape these stories. A workshop looks really different than you might expect, seeing that it is such an individual art form. So one of the things we hear most often from students is surprise. They do not really expect what ends up happening on a Moth team! Students tell me that they did not expect to get so close with their team, that performing wasn’t as scary as they thought it would be, or that they feel readier to take other risks now that they took this one. One student had almost been too shy to show up to her first workshop, and she’s now a teaching intern with us. She told us, "I thought telling my story would feel like falling off a bridge, but it felt like flying." I love that, I think it’s beautiful.
Educators who try telling stories themselves before trying it with their students also sometimes express a different kind of surprise: that storytelling can actually be a big ask of a student. Something they had thought would be easy to facilitate takes a lot of care and intentional design of a supportive space. We work hard to build the conditions for storytellers to trust themselves and each other and that’s a big job. As a result, teachers start to reflect on how to build a trusting group dynamic.
What are some of the challenges the Moth Education Program faces in helping young people create and tell their stories?
There are built in tensions when it comes to personal storytelling with young people, and their choosing the stories they want to tell. This includes tensions between performance and privacy, between safety and risk. We have a lot of conversations in workshops about the fact that the mic is a powerful thing, and needs to be used responsibly. We never want to legislate students’ choices, but occasionally a student wants to use their five minutes onstage to lay out their side of a friendship feud, or make fun of someone, and that’s off limits. You have to ask someone’s permission before telling a story about them. We also sometimes work with students who want to use the stage to act on their own lives: to come out at school, or to tell a story they’ve never told and might not be emotionally ready to share publicly. In those situations, we make space for students to get to know their own comfort levels and really make informed decisions about how to share. But that is a big challenge. In my opinion, Moth stories are a chance to reflect on your life, not change your life in the telling. We also maintain contact with guidance staff and faculty at a student’s school, to make sure our students are supported even when we are not working with them.
How do you hope the Moth Education Program might influence the learning landscape at large?
I think Moth storytelling has so much to offer the existing learning landscape. Moth storytelling lives at this amazing intersection of skills: English Language Arts, social-emotional development, performance, even entrepreneurship and advocacy skills. Moth storytelling supports students to give one another authentic feedback more easily, and to reflect on their own experiences and capacities as they move through the rest of their lives.
I hope that by sharing curriculum resources with classroom teachers worldwide, helping them fit this into their packed schedules, and justify it to their administrations, we can create conditions for students everywhere to develop those skills. We can also create a systemic change in how teachers (and everyone else) listen to young people: to recognize that they are coming into school with their own experiences, voices, and narrative genius.
And I hope that by working deeply with students here in NYC, and giving them a larger platform to share their stories, like onstage in their own communities, elsewhere in NYC, even on the Moth Radio Hour, we can support a community of young people who are brilliant storytellers and story facilitators. These are youth who will challenge dominant narratives about the lives of young people, inspire other young people who are listening, and then go out and create those listening spaces themselves.
What is next on the horizon for the Moth Education Program?
We’re having our first ever Moth Teacher Institute in just one week. We can’t wait! It will be 68 teachers from 18 states getting together for a weekend to craft their own stories and share classroom strategies. So that’s the immediate goal. (We’re planning more of those if teachers are interested.) Our first class of five Moth Alumni Interns are helping to produce that event. Also, a lot of our alums have shared that when they get to college, they find themselves missing The Moth, and want to start their own storytelling clubs. We are working on a great way to help them do that type of organizing and producing.
Looking ahead, our big idea is that in a few years we’d love to have the community and network for a national Moth storytelling festival for teachers and students. It would be like Model UN, but for Moth stories. It would include workshops, performances, and a chance to meet other students/teachers who love this stuff too.Who are the most interesting people you are following on Twitter?
I will admit that I’m not much of a Twitter user. I’m still learning how to manage that overwhelmed feeling by so much information. But one of my favorites has been Christopher Emdin (@chrisemdin) who is an incredible educator and activist, who thinks a lot about the ways that education does NOT currently serve young people of color and ways to fight for systemic change. And Geek Therapy (@GeekTherapy) is a really great podcast that I follow on Twitter: it’s about celebrating mental health through geek culture, like science fiction and gaming. I also just love Josue Cardona’s (@JosueACardona) approach: he is kind, brilliant, and thinking in amazing ways about helping young people process and develop.
Image: Courtesy Micaela Blei