Durham News

Local artist helps Neal Middle School students tell tough stories in Durham

“I grew up, I was hungry, you know, there were gunshots, all that stuff,” says Anita Woodley, shown teaching a class at Neal Middle School. “ But by me persevering and going through, here I am now.”
“I grew up, I was hungry, you know, there were gunshots, all that stuff,” says Anita Woodley, shown teaching a class at Neal Middle School. “ But by me persevering and going through, here I am now.” DEMETRIUS HUNTER

Hunched over a table, Anita Woodley speaks in a low, gravely voice.

“Come here, baby,” she says. “Tell Great-grandma all about it.”

Seconds later, Woodley pops up with much more speed than you would expect from a 100-year-old woman.

That’s because Woodley is 39. “Great-grandma” is one of her signature characters, modeled after her own great-grandma, who lived to be 100 years old.

For the past two years, Woodley has been using her storytelling skills to help students at Durham’s Neal Middle School tell their own stories.

She was recognized for her work at the Durham school board meeting June 25.

The “Stories Come to Life” program is run by the Durham Arts Council’s Creative Arts in the Public/Private Schools (CAPS) organization.

Woodley helps sixth-grade students write about their lives and interests. Each student receives a printed book with all the stories.

She switches between many characters while teaching, including Great-grandma, Optimus Prime of the Transformers movies; Curious George; and her brother, who served time in prison.

She said the students she works with call on her different characters – sometimes even pulling Great-grandma aside to talk.

“After that, it’s maybe one or two minutes and they’re ready to tell me everything,” she said.

Ryan Mullaney, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Neal, said Woodley forms instant connections.

“She comes in day one and she is just this beautiful, beaming, bright personality and the kids all – immediately just all eyes on her,” Mullaney, 26, said. “So it was kind of wonderful.”

In addition to helping the students write their stories, Woodley brought in fruit through Grocers on Wheels, a nonprofit mobile farmers market she has been volunteering with for the past two years.

“Just to be able to not only service their minds but also get food into their bellies in exchange for their gift that they were giving us with all their stories – I’m still reeling,” Woodley said.

Growing up

Woodley grew up in a poor neighborhood in Oakland, California, which she said helps her understand many of the kids at Neal.

Among the stories this year, students wrote about cutting themselves and getting into fights. One student wrote about getting shot in the leg over spring break.

The stories are difficult to read but very real for the students, Mullaney said.

“I think that’s one of the reasons the kids took to it so strongly – just the idea that uncomfortable topics are approachable and it’s a way that their story matters,” said Mullaney.

Woodley previously worked at CNN and on National Public Radio’s“The Story with Dick Gordon.” She said growing up in the projects, she never expected to work for such well-known organizations, which can teach the students an important lesson.

“It allows them to see that things change over time,” Woodley said. “I grew up, I was hungry, you know, there were gunshots, all that stuff – but by me persevering and going through, here I am now in this state.

“But I never could have envisioned or believed this would ever happen.”


At the back of each book of stories is a glossary of what Woodley calls “urbanese” words. It translates many of the words students use, including “pratics” for “practice” and “auntsisters” for “ancestors.”

Woodley said she wanted the students’ experience to be about writing their stories, not being afraid of misspelling words.

Mullaney said this made students feel heard and supported.

“It was a big idea that we’re not looking at your spelling,” Mullaney said. “We’re not looking at your grammar. We’re just looking for your personal story. And the kids just loved the idea of that.”

Woodley said as a young girl in Oakland, she started a similar program for neighborhood kids who weren’t able to receive a full education due to parents’ addictions or financial problems.

“When I was eight years old, I was doing this type of work,” she said. “I just didn’t know what it was called.”

Neal’s numbers

According to the Department of Public Instruction, Neal Middle received an “F” grade for reading and school performance overall for the 2013-14 school year. Over half of the students at Neal were reading below grade level.

Shana Adams, director of CAPS, said the program was started to address those numbers.

“It really gives (students) an opportunity to express themselves and to not feel like they have to write perfectly,” she said. “They can just write about their own experiences and share themselves.”

The program is funded by the GlaxoSmithKline grant, Durham Arts Council Annual Arts Fund and the Durham Public Schools.

Because the students went home with a printed copy of their class’ book, Mullaney said the program continues to have a positive effect on the students.

“It was really cool for them to have a book that they are eager to read because it’s filled with stories that they’ve written, as well as their peers,” she said. “And it kind of encouraged them to ask questions and write more. It really encouraged them to read more.”

Smoot: 919-829-8924

“Pro Dancer”

“People have always told me that I will never become a dancer. My mom put me on a dance team. She believed in me. Now I dance with C.I.O.C.A. Before joining dance teams I had to teach myself to dance by looking at my brother’s moves. When I joined, it was hard for me to learn because I was the only boy. It was difficult to learn how to pop or anything, so I had to learn. The best dances I am good at now are Pop, Krump, and Glide.”

Jermaine Naree Thomas

Ms. Dabiero’s sixth-grade class