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  • Writer's pictureSydney Barnett

Teaching Story Xperiential in an Oakland High School

Discovering Story Xperiential in the Midst of Chaos

I started my first year of teaching in the Oakland Unified School District Fall of 2021. I’m sure there are some cases of first-year teachers knowing exactly what they're doing, but for most of us, it feels like when Dorothy is flying through the tornado in the Wizard of Oz: you’re thrown in head first, and each day is a whirlwind of events—it can feel very hard to slow down and dive deep into anything at all.

I was 3 weeks into the school year, and nothing was going right. I was supposed to be teaching Animation and Digital Media, but my computers weren’t working, and we had no access to software. I was capital-S STRESSED.

Then, I found out about Story Xperiential. As soon as I spoke to the team, it felt as if it was written in the stars! Pam, Elyse, and Tony never hesitated to schedule time to meet with me over Zoom and help me face to face. They always met me with kindness and a deep passion for what they were doing. Each time I talked with them and got to know the curriculum, I felt that excitement you’re supposed to feel when you’re teaching.

The program was perfect because it encompassed so much of what I teach in my own curriculum—Story Structure, Character Development, Visual Language, Shot Composition, Video Editing, Sound Design, and more. Even more perfect, no special software or equipment was required. Students could create their images any way they wanted, whether it was a digital drawing, a pencil sketch, or a Photoshop render. Spending those next 8 weeks supporting my students through the program, instead of stressing about writing curriculum on the fly, really allowed me to get to know them as individuals and as artists.

Watching Students in the Program

In the beginning, I really had no idea what to expect. I was quickly learning the crucial skill of pivoting in the face of challenges and looking back, but I wasn’t sure we would even make it through the program. Thankfully, the program was enough of a commitment that it took over our class for the entire 8 weeks. Each Monday, we would give feedback on last week’s submissions and go over the upcoming week’s deliverable. Students would work through the exercises to help them on their assignments and submit their work on Fridays. The first and second week were so exciting! Watching students come up with their “What if...” questions and create their characters was a really special experience.

“What if we could only see in one color, except for the things we love?” - Steph Pauli

“What If” Concept By Greer Nakadegawa-Lee

Students were challenged and hesitant to be vulnerable and share their ideas, but the videos and exercise prompts helped foster a culture of a creative safe space. Pixar professionals showed their humanity in each livestream session—touching on important topics young people in Oakland face, such as imposter syndrome, barriers to breaking into the industry, and a lack of representation in the media. Students quickly realized they were in good hands and didn’t hesitate to take their ideas to the next level. One thing I didn’t anticipate was getting to witness some students heal from traumatic experiences and growing pains through their stories. Sharing their art and concepts with peers allowed them to feel ownership and control over their lives in a way that was deeply moving. We even had 2 teams win awards at the end of the Winter 2021 program for Storytelling and Best Story Reel. Our students were so proud when our Certificates of Completion and winner awards arrived. It was clear that the program was a success, and I was excited to explore it further.

Students Andre Lufungulo Edwards and Cyncier Colbert proudly hold their Certificates.


A Long-Term Bond

After my first semester of teaching, I started to get in my groove: I had a relationship with my students and the staff, my computer lab was up and running, and I was teaching my own curriculum successfully. However, the moment I received the email saying that the program would be running again in the Spring, I didn’t hesitate to enroll my other classes that had yet to participate.

The experience was even better, as students were able to draw using their Wacom tablets and digital drawing software, and they had already learned some of the foundational skills taught in the program. I was able to witness a mixed age group of students from various identities, backgrounds and skill sets—some participating with no foundational skills and some with many, and the experience was overwhelmingly positive. I now know that I want to teach this program in my classes as long as I am able to. The program is so fluid—with so many different areas of focus to hone in to that I really think each time will feel unique. The diverse amount of industry speakers, participating students, and stories being told makes this program feel both enormous and expansive, as well as intimate and small. Not to mention that I'd gladly take any opportunity I have to work with this dream team of passionate, supportive and adaptive storytellers. I would like to thank Elyse, Brit, Tony, and Pam for truly supporting myself and my students through each program, as well as for spreading joy and inspiration through this incredible opportunity.


About the Author

Sydney is a multimedia artist, filmmaker and high school educator in Oakland, CA. She is passionate about community empowerment and strongly believes in uplifting youth voices. She comes from a background of DIY culture and continues to advocate for accessibility within the arts and social justice movement. She holds a BA in Film Studies from UC Berkeley.



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