Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Brainerd Residency 2017

by Luray Gross

It’s a rainy evening and I have not yet unpacked my suitcase after a four-day stint in the central Jersey town where I used to live.  I was there as the teller for a four-day storytelling residency at Brainerd Elementary School. Brainerd opted to have me see each of their sixteen kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade classes for one 45-minute introduction to storytelling.  This seemed to work out just fine.

In each session I told three or four tales, including at least one story in which the children participated through chanting, singing, and/or movement.  My hope was to activate not only their mental image-making facilities, but to create a situation in which they helped the story unfold with their participation.  I was quite pleased with the involvement of the students and touched by their wide-eyed attention and the many connections they made with other folktales and with their personal lives.

Near the end of a session with one of the second grade classes, a boy I’ll call Manny raised his hand to say, “I have a connection to that dress story.  It’s like my mother.”  The first story I had told his class was the Haitian tale, “Tipingee,” in which the main character is left with her stepmother after both her parents have died. As the story unfolds, Tipingee asks her friends to wear dresses the same color as hers and thus help her stay safe. In my telling of the story today, I found myself inserting an explanation for the selfishness of the stepmother who offers Tipingee as a servant to a man demanding payment for carrying a bundle of wood.  I said something like, “When Tipingee’s father married again, his new wife was kind and caring, but after he died, something in her heart cracked, and she became mean and selfish.”  A few other students had comments and questions about the stories, then Manny raised his hand again to quietly ask, “Do you want to hear about my mother?”
   “Would you like to tell us?” I asked.
Manny nodded and quietly explained that his mother’s parents both used “bad drugs,” and sometimes they didn’t even give her anything to eat, but her grandmother realized what was happening, took Manny’s mother to live with her and took care of her.  “And she grew up and met my dad and got married and they had me, and now she is happy,” Manny concluded.  All simply told.  All from a deep place.

This kind of happening is far from rare when age-old stories are brought to life in a classroom.  Children explode with energetic laughter over silly antics and grow thoughtful when the dilemmas of characters resonate with their own challenges. One of the most rewarding things for me is when this occurs for a teacher.  That too happened at Brainerd School.  In another second grade class I ended our session with the Native American story, “Gluscabi and the Wind Eagle.”  In the tale, the larger-than-life boy Gluscabi gets fed up with the wind and finds a way to trick the great bird, the source of that element.  He succeeds in stopping the wind, only to discover how much we need it.  Then he must reverse his actions to restore the great bird to its mountain top.  I tend to end this tale by saying, “And so it has been to this day:  sometimes the wind blows so hard we cannot stand against it, sometimes it is a gentle breeze, and sometimes there is not a breath of wind at all.”

Mrs. H, the teacher, was sitting behind her students for all of the stories, attentive and drawn in, but the wind story was different.  Her whole body was leaning into it, and when I finished, she was the one who raised her hand.  “That reminds me of something our pastor said in a sermon about the winds of adversity.  That’s what they can be.”   Without her having to say more, I understood that she knew what that adversity felt like and had found a way to stand up in its presence.  When we saw each other again in the faculty room, that bond of understanding remained.   For me, one of the deep rewards of this work.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Finding Focus - A Workshop with Regina Ress

by Paula Davidoff

I love my job, but there are times when I feel like I’ve lost focus: I’ve grown too comfortable with my repertoire; I’m using the same activities in every workshop; I get so invested in a lesson plan that I can’t realize I should drop it when it’s not working. I found myself in one of those slumps at the end of February or the beginning of March and I couldn’t find my way out of it. So when I saw that Regina Ress was leading a workshop at my storytelling guild this month, I jumped on it.

I first heard Regina tell nearly twenty years ago during a concert at a MidAtlantic Storytelling Conference. At the time, I had been working as a teaching artist for only two or three years and the MAST conference was my first experience of a big storytelling event. I don’t remember who the keynote speaker was that year or which workshops I attended, but I can close my eyes and see Regina moving across the stage as she told a piece from the Dayak saga Adi, Song of Agan. I can hear her voice change as she slips from narrator to character. I can even remember what she was wearing. She is an extraordinary storyteller. She is also an important storyteller. Her work is varied, broad, and deep; and she does it all over the world.

Her workshop at the NJ Storytelling Guild’s May meeting was entitled, Storytelling on the Moment, and it addressed the question of what we, as teachers and artists, can do when we find ourselves on the coat tail of an event that has caused an emotional upheaval in the community. One answer, of course, is that we could teach the lesson or tell the stories we had planned, knowing that sometimes offering the opportunity to escape into story is the best gift we can give. But this was not the focus of Regina’s workshop.

Regina reminded us that our work is cloaked in metaphor and, therefore, has the potential to help listeners begin to navigate even the saddest or most frightening circumstances without forcing them to directly address the real life source of their sorrow or fear. She told us about the myths and folktales she has used when she found herself working in the midst of a crisis: teaching in a school near ground zero in the days and weeks after 9/11; telling at a winter solstice coffee shop gathering that happened to take place the day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School murders, and telling at an urban playground a few hours after one of the student counselors had gone missing. Her stories reminded us that we have in our own repertoires many tales that would be appropriate to offer at such times. We need only the presence of mind to realize that we're carrying the gift.

She conducted the workshop as a conversation between herself and the participants, telling stories that illuminated important points in the discussion. In other words, she modeled the lesson she had brought us, illustrating how metaphor, through story, helps clarify and organize the things we know but may not be able to say; how it speaks volumes in just a few words; and how it sprinkles light into darkness so we can begin to find our way.

I left Regina’s workshop uplifted, with renewed enthusiasm for my work. A reminder that good teachers have the power.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

by Gerald Fierst

The cover illustration of Gerry's new book
With the May publication of my new book Imagine the Moon, I have been thinking of the connection between oral storytelling and literacy.  When I teach storytelling, I encourage participants to take the story off the page and use their whole self, body, voice, and imagination, to create their story in the moment. On the other hand, I tell stories on a regular basis at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University.  There, in the illustration gallery, pre school and primary age children sit with me surrounded by original drawings made for books.  I often refer to some nearby image, a frog, a rainbow, a mother with a child, to inspire a story and to make the children look and listen as the story expands their imagination into their own inner images.

So do books make stories more accessible?

Storytelling is a sensory experience in which the storyteller makes the imaginary become real. In olden days, the storyteller and the alchemist shared this tradition of magic.  Story was a rhythmic spell that empowered the imagination into reality by associating descriptions of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.  In fact, modern actors train in just the same way, creating sense memory associations and  “as ifs” so that the imaginary becomes real.  A good actor doesn’t pretend, but fully incorporates the story so that body, voice and imagination are all present in the moment as if that moment were reality.

When I tell stories in the illustration room, the colors and images surrounding me, the books to which I refer, are merely the portal through which a new story will be discovered. Books are not an end, but a beginning of a journey.  So, I understand, as a teaching artist, I am a guide who introduces story and offers books as a beginning to discovery — I say the open sesame to reveal the treasure cave.  The marvelous experience of a book, the imaginative journey, the physical feel, look, and smell, is a reinforcement to using the whole self to experience, interpret, and create.  Literacy is not merely the ability to read and write.  It is the ability to process information -  expository, persuasive, narrative, and descriptive.-   creating one’s own story as we leave the magic cave to journey in the real world.

In my book, I have a verse:
“The moon is never constant but will always be there,
The stuff that makes magic out of thin air.
Poets and pranksters, kids and kings,
Imagine the Moon and dream.”

I am an artist of the ephemeral.  I tell a story, weave a spell, and it is gone —  Or does the power of inspiration, the magic of memory, and the experience of heightened awareness, provide a teaching tool far more powerful than the right answers to a standardized test, for in story we learn to put the facts to use, to use our books to make the leaps of the imagination that empower us in our lives and transform our world.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Speaking Stories: Face Time vs Screen Time

by Paula Davidoff

I’m sure that all professional storytellers have had an epiphany about a tale in their repertoire as they worked on its retelling. It has even happened to me in performance: the story that I have deconstructed, reconstructed, practiced and, perhaps, told to audiences many times, shows me something new and important midway through a telling. I think people have similar experiences with true, personal stories. Telling it over and over leads to deeper understanding.

For the past eleven years, I’ve taught a writing and theater program for teen girls called Girls Surviving. Twice a year, the girls in the program write, rehearse, and perform a new play that is based on stories from their own lives. Although we use traditional oral storytelling in the program, it’s not a central focus, but a few weeks ago, something happened that reminded me how important it is to tell stories out loud.
To set the stage, the Girls Surviving playwriting process goes something like this:
-       the girls chose a topic or theme they want to write about (past topics include racism and stereotyping, parental desertion, parent/teen conflict, sex and dating)
-       program directors introduce texts – oral and written – that might stoke ideas about the theme,
-       girls listen to or read the material and begin to discuss and write about it,
-       they create characters who have problems related to the chosen theme,
-       everyone writes independently; writing is shared with the group,
-       each day’s writing, which is done longhand in notebooks, is typed by group leaders and copied for everyone,
-       and, finally, the girls construct scenes using pieces of everyone’s writing.

This last part, putting together a scene, is very intense. It demands a great deal of concentration as girls read and re-read texts created through several weeks of writing and fit pieces of them together into a dramatic scene of dialogue between characters. It’s not unusual for some of the girls, especially those new to the program, to lose focus and interest during this part of the process. So, a few weeks ago, while we were struggling to put together a new scene, my colleague and co-director asked the girls,
“Can you think of an easier way to do this?”
Another staff member suggested using computers, that is, giving each girl a tablet or laptop so that she could work on a screen, cutting and pasting text. After a short discussion, the girls rejected the idea. My colleague and I thought it was interesting that the girls, who spend a lot of their socializing, entertainment, and study time in front of screens, rejected the idea of bringing computers into our workshop, but we were glad that they did.

I have often used laptops and tablets to facilitate collaborative writing projects for students, and these tools do make some things easier for me. No transcribing and making copies of student writing. Everything is on a Google doc which is available for minilessons on various writing elements. Students can revise and critique each other online – cutting, pasting, and rearranging each other’s contributions as they perfect the text. But in the programs in which students use computers to organize a collaborative text, a final, polished text is the overriding program goal.
In Girls Surviving, our focus is different. Our main program goal is to help the girls find their own voices and feel comfortable using them as they navigate their way to adulthood and beyond. Although each season’s culminating performance is an essential part of the program, it is not the most important element. It is the give-and-take between the girls, as well as between the girls and program staff, that allows participants to gain confidence in their own ideas and abilities, and to bond them into a cohesive collaborative troupe of actresses. This back and forth happens in conversation: before and after independent writing, during the sharing of the writing, in improvisational theater activities, throughout rehearsals, and in putting together the scripts. And, as with all artistic processes, results come through practice. They often come surprisingly – a flash of insight; a breakthrough piece of writing or performance that comes seemingly out of nowhere after days or weeks of tedious work; or the moment a scene comes together, actresses all in synch with each other and the script.
Something like this happened in the workshop I referred to above. The girls had been creating the scene they were struggling to put together since well before winter break. For weeks, they had been writing, reading, discussing, and analyzing the characters and the action. Then, on the evening they were trying to construct a completed script, Bianca, one of the freshmen in the troupe, said, “You know, I just realized that this scene is a lot like something in my own life,” and she told us a story that was very similar to the one the girls had created in the scene. It was a tale of heartbreak and resilience, and listening to Bianca tell it was a moving experience for all of us.

It’s not unusual for Girls Surviving scripts to reflect episodes in the girls’ lives, but we never consciously retell a girl’s story in our plays. I think in Bianca’s case, she really did become aware of the connection between the script and her real life for the first time on that night. Sometimes we need to hear our story told by another before we can recognize that it is, in fact, our story. Life has a definite beginning, but it doesn’t unfold like a plot. Our lives unfold so slowly and so seamlessly that we don’t realize that, in the eyes or ears of others, some of our experiences tell like stories with rising action, high points, and, sometimes, resolution.
Bianca discussed, wrote, and listened, examining a crisis in the life of a fictional character, and when, that night, she recognized in it a part of her own story, she was able to articulate, maybe for the first time, the details of a defining life experience. I don’t think that would have happened if we had been working on laptops. I think that she may have recognized the similarity between our script and her real experiences, but I doubt she could have shared it with – told it to – the group. And I believe that telling is crucial to making meaning of experience.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Working It Together

by Paula Davidoff

illustration by Marcia Brown
Storytelling Arts artists have been working together in the Morris County Youth Detention Center since 2010. The work is usually rewarding. For the most part, the kids like hearing stories and they like learning about them – about where the stories originated, and about the customs and people of those places. On a good day, students will discuss the stories and make insightful connections to their own experiences. There are, however, times when our lessons fall flat: those days when the students just can’t focus, or when one kid seems determined to sabotage the workshop. Those days are hard.
I have been telling stories in detention centers and other facilities for teens at risk to themselves and others for nearly twenty years. So I know that when classroom dynamics aren’t working it’s usually not the fault of my lesson planning or my instruction. The lives of children in such facilities are in turmoil, so it would be solipsistic to imagine that a student’s disruptive behavior was about me.  That said, after a hard day, I always reflect on what I might have done to make it easier for the kids. Should I have ignored disruptive behavior? Could I have more clearly articulated my problem with behaviors that crossed the line of what I find acceptable? These are the kinds of questions that are hard to answer when they remain internal. When there is only one person in the conversation, it’s hard, if not impossible, to be objective. So, when Storytelling Arts was first awarded funding for the detention center program, it was a no brainer that the work should be collaborative.
There are five artists currently teaching in this program. Workshops are scheduled on two consecutive days every other week during the school year. About half of these workshops are taught by pairs of tellers; the other half are solo. The five us mix and match the pairings so that each of us has opportunities to teach with everyone else. We plan together in face-to-face meetings twice a year, and we fine tune lessons and debrief in between on a private wiki site constructed for this purpose. Even with this support, bad days are still bad days.

This fall, when we resumed workshops after the summer, we had a particularly hard run. For starters, protocol for classes at the facility had changed since our spring workshops, and for the first time, there was no guard present in the classroom while we were teaching. Although we discussed the question of whether our personal safety might be threatened by this change, we didn’t really think it was an issue. We have a good working relationship with facility staff and administrators and trust their ability to keep us safe. The officers on duty are always just a few feet away and they always have us in sight. A word or gesture would bring them into the classroom. But the officers who sat in the storytelling workshop had added a dimension that was suddenly missing. Most of them participated in discussions and activities and, because they knew the students much better than we could, they were often able to spot a potential problem and stop it before it became an issue. So, when things began to go downhill this past fall, our first thought was that the job was just harder without an officer in the room.
And things really did go downhill. For months, discussions on the wiki became downright depressing. The kids seemed angry and discouraged. They argued with each other and with the storytellers, they talked and gestured to each other during the stories. A couple of times, tellers had to stop and send the kids back to lockup. Some of us began to dread the days we were booked to teach the program. But, as bad as it was, it was better – five times better – than it would have been if we had been on our own. Through the hard time, we worked together, taught together, planned together, debriefed together. We were always in communication.
Teaching artists knows how unusual this collaboration is. Most of us are on the job on our own. We work in schools with teachers but, at least in my experience, it’s rare to have an opportunity to create a true collaboration in single residency or workshop. During the tough months at the detention center, I questioned the value of our presence there. If I hadn’t had my colleagues to remind me of better days, and that we can’t always tell what sticks with a kid and makes a difference, I might have thrown in the towel.
The experience made me realize, once again, how important it is to work in a community of peers. I encourage teaching artists who don’t have the opportunity to work with an organization like Storytelling Arts to create their own networks for planning, discussing, and assessing their work. It makes us better teachers and enriches our artistic lives.

And things are better at the detention center. When we returned after the winter holidays, the energy in the building had changed. You could feel it as soon as you walked into the common room. Staff was more relaxed, kids were calmer, and storytelling workshops have been fun again. What happened? That’s another story.