For the past few years I’ve made a pilgrimage to Lititz, Pennsylvania, for an annual storytelling festival, an opportunity to hear nationally and internationally recognized tellers in a congenial setting. This year, the seventh gathering, Charlotte Blake Alston from Philadelphia was among the featured tellers.
|Charlotte Blake Alston|
Charlotte is a former preschool, kindergarten, and second grade teacher who tunes in to language for this age group in a lively way. She also is in her 25th season as host and storyteller of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s preschool concert series, Sound All Around. Her repertoire of African and African American stories has been heard in venues as varied as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Women of the World Festival in Cape Town, South Africa.
Her workshop on Telling Stories to Our Youngest Listeners underscored the importance of employing rhythm and rhyme with preschoolers, not only as a way of developing language but also — especially when mixed with music — engaging body and mind together. Added bonus: the repetition of words teaches children to anticipate the rhyme, and in doing so, is a first step in helping them to make predictions.
This may sound elementary, but as you might expect, it is the way Charlotte engaged story, sound, and movement that inspired. The well-worn but beloved Three Billy Goats Gruff transformed in her telling, with the “trip trap” of the goats marching over the bridge into a chant that played with the sounds: “Ba Bupup, Ba Bupup, Ba Oom, Trip, Trap.” She signaled with facial expression and motion when to come in with the chant, inviting participation. Can’t you just see preschoolers bopping along as they sing this? It was hard for those of us in her workshop not to tap and clap.
While I enjoy using song and movement when telling to young audiences, Charlotte’s workshop had me thinking about where to add more rhythm and rhyme to invigorate and refresh familiar tales. What came immediately to mind is a chant and introductory exercise Luray Gross taught me — and she learned from storyteller Ellen Musikant — that works for all ages.
We’ve opened storytelling sessions for children ranging from ages 5 to 15 at Home Front, for middle school girls at a summer arts camp, and in a Burlington County Community Action professional development workshop with preschool teachers, all to delightful effect.
The chant goes like this: “My mama told me/for me to tell you/to do my name/the way I do.”
The instruction is simple. Everyone stands in a circle, all repeat the chant, followed by each person taking a turn saying his or her name and a motion to go with it. Then everyone around the circle mirrors the name in the same way and the action in response.
What has tickles me is watching children and adults enjoy the rhythm of their name and play with an improvised action to go with it, as if discovering something new about the sound and power their name can make. They can punch up a syllable or whisper, sing their name or shout it. The motions add a kinesthetic kick.
In her workshop handout, Charlotte wrote: “Singing, rhyming, and storytelling are part of every culture. By singing and rhyming to children, parents and caregivers are not only keeping traditions alive, they are teaching children to articulate words, practice the pitch, volume, and rhythm of their native language, and develop the listening and concentration skills essential for brain development and memory.”
Let’s add that the delight in these practices doesn’t end in preschool, but continues for all ages.