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The Power of Story

Storycorps Project to Capture the Rich Stories of Seniors

By Anita Merina


Fifty years ago, NEA-Retired member Barbara Cunningham (pictured left) began her teaching career with a $5,000 salary, a gym the size of a tractor-trailer, and a passion for teaching that started in the eighth grade.

When asked if she has photos from those days, Cunningham answers “None. No pictures, but plenty of memories.”

Memory collection is the hallmark of StoryCorps, the nonprofit organization dedicated to the collection, preservation, and sharing of stories. This winter, NEA and StoryCorps will collaborate on “The Great Thanksgiving Listen,” a new initiative through which high school students around the country will collect stories from seniors in their community using a new StoryCorps app on their mobile devices. As a part of the project, Cunningham’s memories will be recorded by one of her former students. A student from Shenandoah High School in Shenandoah, Iowa, where Cunningham taught for 33 years, will serve as her interviewer.

What will they hear? For one thing, Cunningham’s full description and reaction to the tractor-trailor size gym. “When I was a student at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan., the Shenandoah superintendent visited the school looking for teachers for his district,” recalls Cunningham. At the time, she was an education major, who wanted to teach physical education. “When I told him of my interest, he asked me to visit the school and see what I was in for.”

Cunningham took him up on his offer, and was astounded to find the gym was part of a 1918-era structure with little room and few supplies. “You could barely get around it was so tiny,” Cunningham recalls. “Fortunately, not long after I began, the community passed a bond that enabled us to get a new gym and for me to build a physical education (PE) program that offered so many different sports. You name it, we did it, archery, basketball, golf, field hockey, badminton. I was able to fully stock the new gym and create a new sports program.

Cunningham’s 33 years at Shenandoah saw many changes, including the pasasge of Title IX, transforming sports at her school. Cunningham also made a lasting and positive impact on students. Many of them offered fond memories of “Ms. C” during their StoryCorps Experience. “You were, and still are, an amazing woman and educator Ms. C,” said former student Jason. “ You never judged me or looked down on me when I was the fat kid. I always knew in my heart that with you as my PE teacher I would be safe from teasing and ridicule. You’re tops in my book. God not only blessed you, he blessed us by putting you in our lives.”

Cunningham credits her longevity as an educator to a professional development speaker in the early days of her career. He challenged Cunningham and her peers to stay in the profession, and stay where they were currently teaching.

“He told us to stay,” Cunningham recalls. “‘Don’t leave these students, stay to see how everything turns out for them’—words I really took to heart,” Cunningham says.

“See what an impact you make on their lives and the future,” Cunningham says. “When you show them that you are invested in their lives, they’ll come through and some even surprise you because you had that much belief and faith in them.” That’s why Cunningham is proud to see returning students and also record, for future listeners, her memories and the lessons she learned.

“I hope that…will help future educators,” says Cunningham, who is now a member of the NEA-Retired Board of Directors. “If I can pass on anything, it will be to get involved in the community as much as possible. Be there for your students.

Record Your Story


For StoryCorps Founder David Isay, winning the $1 million TED Prize meant only one thing, creating greater access to stories through today’s technology. For NEA-Retired members, whose lives in and out of the classroom have witnessed milestones in education, civil rights, and political history, the opportunity to add to the archives of stories in StoryCorps has never been easier.

StoryCorps recently launched a new mobile app for recording stories. The app is promoted to the public, and through The Great Thanksgiving Listen, the national initiative supported by the National Education Association.


Thanksgiving weekend, students around the country, particularly high school history and social studies students, are encouraged to record interviews with family and community seniors. The app easily submits the interviews to StoryCorps which are then archived at the Library of Congress.

Thanks to the efforts of StoryCorps founder David Isay, there is now a StoryCorps app to make conducting and submitting interviews
even easier.


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