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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Alumnae Interviewed for Storycorps' National Teachers Initiative

Old Dominion University graduate Allison Graves was already a fan of National Public Radio, so when she was among a select group of Hampton Roads teachers invited to apply to share their stories as educators with StoryCorps, whose oral history conversations appear on NPR's "Morning Edition," she immediately got in touch with her friend Adrian Hayes to see if she would be her interview partner in the event her application was selected.

"Adrian and I have had this running joke that public radio needs us. We could have our own show, 'Frick and Frack: The School Talk Girls'" (a takeoff on the popular "Car Talk" with hosts "Click and Clack," whose show airs Saturday on NPR), Graves said with a laugh. "I bet a 'School Talk' show could be a great public radio offering. The tough element would be to keep it interesting. We think curriculum and instruction are amazingly fascinating, but we're total geeks."

Graves, a 1997 ODU graduate who earned a bachelor's degree in English with an education emphasis, is a gifted resource teacher at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach. She and Hayes, a University of Virginia graduate who is in a similar position at Kempsville Middle in Virginia Beach, initially met a few years ago when Hayes taught at Ocean Lakes. Graves, who previously taught AP composition there, is a former Teacher of the Year at the school.

Although the application didn't ask where they received their college degrees, it turns out that Graves was among five ODU alumni out of the 18 local educators who were chosen to share their stories when StoryCorps, as part of its National Teachers Initiative, came to Hampton Roads Feb. 4-6. Nine pairs of educators in all were selected to have their 40-minute conversations recorded.

Graves' alma mater also figured prominently in the project in another way. Joanna Garner, a research assistant professor with The Center for Educational Partnerships in the Darden College of Education, joined with Nicole Berger of StoryCorps and Kelly Jackson of WHRO, who together coordinated StoryCorps' visit to Hampton Roads and selected the participants from the pool of applicants.

A national nonprofit oral history project that was created in 2003 to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve "the stories of our lives," StoryCorps launched the National Teachers Initiative last September to celebrate the brilliant and courageous work of public school teachers across the country, Garner said.

By the end of the 2011-12 school year, StoryCorps will have partnered with individuals, institutions, community organizations and school districts from approximately 30 cities across the country to record more than 600 interviews with teachers and their interview partners. The pairs have included teachers from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds, as well as current and former students. All of the full-length interviews will eventually be archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

The National Teachers Initiative recordings are "about giving teachers and students the opportunity to have the StoryCorps experience - to take time to connect with one another and ask the questions that matter - and to share their stories for posterity through the archive," said Berger, who is coordinator of the initiative.

In selecting the local educators, ODU's Garner said they were interested in having a diverse mix of educators and students.

"We wanted to make sure we had representatives from different school divisions in Hampton Roads, and we wanted some of the educators to be those who work with military-connected students in the area, which is a priority for us through our TEAMS initiative (Teaching, Education and Awareness for Military-connected Students) in the education college," Garner said.

While Garner did not sit in on the interviews, she did get a sense of what course the conversations would take, based on what was written on the applications.

"What seemed to come through was the educators' passion for education, and their passion for learning and teaching their students. What also came through was how much they care about their students' success - not just their success when they're in the classroom, but beyond the classroom."

That, in fact, came up during Graves and Hayes' interview and was cause for one of a few emotional moments throughout the course of their conversation - moments that Graves said she hadn't expected to be a part of their free-flowing dialogue.

"We talked about special students," Graves said. "I got pretty emotional at this point and found it virtually impossible to talk about a former student whom I still worry about so much. He's a free spirit and I worry about his safety and well-being. Adrian shared a story about her first year as a teacher and an intervention with a severely depressed student who later wrote to her that he felt that she'd saved his life."

As a side note, Graves said that the night following her StoryCorps conversation with Hayes on Saturday afternoon, she received an email from her former student, whom Graves had not heard from in about a year. "How cosmically crazy is that?" she asked.

Graves and Hayes also recalled their first encounter with each other during the interview, which was recorded at ODU's Virginia Beach Higher Education Center. It was in August when Graves was on maternity leave with her second son, prior to returning to school in the fall, and Hayes was pregnant with her first child, getting ready to go out on leave. The two had never met, but someone at the school suggested that Hayes call Graves for her advice on returning to the classroom as a new mother. The two instantly connected.

During their StoryCorps conversation, the pair also discussed what they learned from each other about teaching, and about the bonds that educators, if they're lucky enough, can forge with one another.

"Adrian and I talked about how special it is to find a colleague who challenges you to be better, who understands and identifies with your core values, and who supports your professional development even if it means that development takes a divergent path," Graves said.

"It's rare that teachers engage in those kinds of collegial relationships. Often teachers operate in a closed-door system - they may share ideas at a professional development session, may invite peers to observe them on their best days, but often educators struggle to check their egos at the door. Adrian and I were able to do that with each other and it has made all the difference in the professionals and, on some levels, the mothers/daughters/sisters/friends/women we are today."

Graves said she enjoyed the opportunity and experience of recording their conversation for the StoryCorps National Teachers Initiative.

"Teachers battle the stereotype perpetuated by sensationalized media messages - you know, the 'those who can't, teach'" messages," she said. "Having an opportunity to talk about our professional passion, to discuss the calling of teaching and to archive such messages in a historical database is an amazing opportunity. Hopefully, people who may listen will hear two professionals who are passionate about what they do and the people they serve."

Selected recordings from the National Teachers Initiative interviews are being edited and aired in two-to-three-minute clips monthly on NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday." And it's possible that the best of these clips could even be considered for rebroadcast by StoryCorps on "Morning Edition."

However, of the thousands of interviews StoryCorps routinely records each year (6,700 in 2011), fewer than 1 percent are selected for broadcast on the morning show.

"I'm not going to lie - it would be amazing if we 'made the cut,'" Graves said. "But even if we don't, now that I've been through the process, I know that having participated was a reward alone. I think back to those WPA recordings that I've listened to of interviews during the Dust Bowl. They captured the national consciousness. It's amazing to think that our recording will be a part of the historical documentation for our time."

Other ODU alumni who participated in the National Teachers Initiative interviews included Don Hurwitz '74 (M.S.Ed. '01), a career and technical education teacher at Deep Creek High School in Chesapeake; Dana Patterson (M.S.Ed. '09), a graduation specialist for Hampton City Schools; Myra Chambers '90, principal at Hampton High School; and Judith Post '98, a fifth-grade teacher at Windsor Elementary School. Barbara Imrich, who earned a library media certification at ODU and has taught at the university as an adjunct, was also among those selected for the interviews. She is a library specialist at Rosemont Forest Elementary School in Virginia Beach.

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