Thursday, October 19, 2017

Shhh... Writing + Authors + Students + Authentic Learning = Top Secret YA Storybox Project by Kathy Halsey

I can't keep quiet about author/storyteller/educator Kevin Cordi's brainchild, the Top Secret YA Storybox Project. This past Sunday while folks were watching the NFL or enjoying a gorgeous fall day, 170+ people crammed into the Thurber Center for the project launch. 
Since its inception, the project has evolved to include an international audience and generated stories from thousands. It's also been featured on the NCTE's blog here. So, what is the secret and how do you get involved?

Storybox Revealed
Established authors and some pre-published authors volunteer their talent to begin a story which will be finished by high school and middle grade student authors who are assisted by teachers and designated story ambassadors. Kevin has launched a story box every other year because he believes in the power of story. 
Kevin Cordi, StoryBox Creator
In the summer, applications are sent in by schools to be considered for the project. Once selected, teachers share the story starters authors created specifically for the StoryBox. Students complete a story, learning much more than the typical "five paragraph essay" so prevalent in schools today. Creative boxes are designed by students that include their bios, stories, and photos for schools that receive the boxes in the second round. 

Launch parties are held for the published authors to meet student authors, for audiences to listen to completed stories, and to vote on their favorite box. This year Kevin hopes to have the completed works published.

Q & A with Kevin Cordi
Explain the logistics of how the boxes proceed through the process. 

Kevin: StoryBoxes have been ongoing since 1995. I have shepherded many, but there are others from our country and other countries that carry on the idea of the StoryBox. How a StoryBox travels depends on the person who launches it. In my case people apply to be a Story Ambassador and become a caretake for the StoryBox - its contents, and the events that bring people to it. They pay to get it and pass it forward.  

I read the applications and decide where will it make the biggest difference and then create a calendar of the places that can expect the StoryBox. At one school 950 students will have the opportunity to share stories and read the YA stories. At another school over 30 special needs students will have the opportunity to enjoy the reading, writing and community communications that originate from the TOP SECRET YA StoryBox.  

Why do the boxes all have secrets supplied by the authors and students? For fun, motivation?

Kevin: At first the idea of the secret was simply an idea, but as we promoted and talked about it, we centered on the belief that suspense leads to good reading and writing. We want to sneak our way into schools. We want our teachers and Story Ambassadors to be unpredictable and this is also what we want from our stories. This StoryBox has secret as at the lead.  

Tell us about the  next project.What theme and grade levels will you target?

Kevin: I've already been approached about a community StoryBox; we have a Vocation StoryBox being launched at my university in November, and a StoryBox for silenced voices.   However, 2019 has big plans. I've chatted with professional storytellers and illustrators, but what it will be is a secret. The launch will be stellar due to the team that is already developing around it. I also have numerous applications to keep the YA Top Secret StoryBox moving past this year.

What do authors gain from this experience?

Kevin: A number of authors have been approached via email, website, and more from students who want to know more about their stories and them. Yesterday an author personalized a note about how he was affected by student Abby’s story. Shelley Pearsall said that she enjoyed hearing and having a direction connection to the StoryBox; Sarah Hans is communicating regularly with a person who is finishing her story.  

I've read this is an international project. What other countries and states are involved?  
Kevin: The better question is where has it NOT been.  The project's been to Ireland, Israel, Scotland, Sweden, and a one room school house in Australia, at the United Nations Geneva Conventions on Children’s Rights, Brazil…

 A Win-Win for All Involved

Everyone I interviewed at the launch praised the YA StoryBox for a myriad of reasons. 
  • Parent, writer, and SCBWI member Leanna Watkins and her daughter heartily endorsed the opportunity. They cited student choice, the opportunity to email/connect with authors, and reading/writing outside one's favorite genres as reasons the Storybox made a difference to young writers. 

  • Teachers and Ambassadors were just as enthusiastic as student writers. Jane Burton, eighth grade Language Arts teacher from Pleasant View Middle School, and Literacy Coach Jen Zarlino, Story Ambassador from Southwestern City Schools said that authentic learning and real audience participation spur students toward their best work. 
  • Authors were amazed to see their beginnings morph into stories they could not have predicted. They had new audiences for published work and the chance to interact with zealous fans. 
    YA Author Joy Casella and student author who just may be the next Stephen King.

  • Kevin Cordi shared this memory on why such projects are needed. The YA TOP SECRET StoryBox reminds students that they can aspire to be a writer by reading, creating and writing.  I was told when I was young that I could not aspire to be a writer like those I was reading. This is not true. I have witnessed the boundless energy of youth from teaching high school for14+ years. I've learned from their stories and have witnessed how one story can change a person and their thinking.  

Final words from Kevin: The TOP SECRET YA Storybox Project or any StoryBox's purpose is to move conversation about the joy of sharing stories, energizing everyone involving the rich joy and wonder in reading and writing and talking about it. It should not be a secret that reading and writing change lives.  

For more  information on The Top Secret YA Storybox and Kevin Cordi, follow these links:



  1. what a cool project! thanks for sharing your thoughts and the links.

  2. What a great project to have that "authentic learning and participation" which is not always there for students. Thank you, Kathy, for sharing this uplifting group with us.