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

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Storytelling and S.T.E.A.M.

by Gerald Fierst

Gerald Fierst and Friends
 Having worked as an artist in education for four decades, I have been dismayed, over the last decade, at the attack that arts education has experienced within the call for standardization.  Since creativity is an individualized experience, standardization has been the excuse that schools have used to reduce the “frills” and save money. Thankfully the pendulum is starting to slowly swing back, as parents and local districts realize the failure of standardization as a true measure of a good education.  At first, the call was for instruction in STEM - Science, Engineering, Technology, Mathematics;  the rationale being to prepare our children to get jobs in the 21st Century. The United States ranks far down the scoring list in these field. Now, however, enlightened and progressive school districts are realizing that simple mechanical skill in these fields does not give an advantage in a global economy. Creativity is necessary to apply STEM to discovery and innovation. Therefore, Stem is being replaced by STEAM- Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics.

I first encountered this 21st Century thinking while working as a storyteller for the library system in Singapore. The government had brought me to work there to perform and run workshops in the schools. They explained to me the although Singapore ranks highest on standardized testing, they realized that their school system was merely preparing the students to do what is already there, and that to succeed, one must look at what is there and see what not one else has seen: to realize what can become.  During that same period, officials from the military also approached me, asking if I could teach senior officers to tell stories. They explained that their officers did not tell stories of failure and that the same mistakes were made over and over again because no one ever questioned the patterns they had been taught. The hero’s story that inevitably includes tests and failure which lead to  transformation and discovery was the skill that they wanted to practice and respect; and which they believed would inevitably lead their country to a better life and global leadership.

With Storytelling Arts, I am working on two extraordinary projects that incorporate this same educational philosophy. At Passaic Valley High School, Dr. Joanne Cardillo, the superintendent of Schools, has Paula Davidoff and me in a three-year residency, mentoring a team of teachers to use storytelling in the classroom.  She has also introduced us to the Little Falls Middle School with the hopes of starting a similar project with 5-8 grade teachers. Thus, students will eventually enter the high school with a storytelling culture incorporated into their academic sensibility. I find this a visionary ambition. The whole school district will be using storytelling as an educational tool to support abstract thinking and syncretic association. This is an ambition to build a creative community.

In Montclair, at Glenfield Middle School, the STEAM science teacher, Delia Maloy Furer, also operates a 78 seat fully equipped planetarium. Last year, I published Imagine the Moon, a book targeted for use in STEAM classrooms. Delia, puppeteer and sound designer Terry Burnett, and I have collaborated on a planetarium installation using performance, music, and the stars to teach myth, astrophysics, science, and history. We hope to offer this show to other districts as well as Montclair. The objective is to teach and also to inspire.

All of this used to be called good teaching. Great teachers are artists. Preachers, teachers, and storytellers, are all of a pattern, creating a moment of inspiration when possibility becomes connected to the practical. Stories aren’t just entertainment, or they wouldn’t have been passed down for millennia. The process of storytelling is the pathway to discovery. Genius is the Genie which the process of storytelling liberates from the imprisonment of assumption. When the A is placed into the STEM program, the formula is complete and magic happens.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Deep Learning Through the Arts

by Maria LoBiondo

Getting together with teaching artists of various genres to discuss our work not only helps give perspective, it also gives inspiration. That was the case when Luray Gross and I attended the New Jersey Arts Education Collective workshop “Building More Inclusive and Equitable Practices in Arts Education” this month.

Especially impressive was work described by Colleen Sears, an associate professor and coordinator of music education at the College of New Jersey. Sears founded the Institute for Social Justice in the Arts at TCNJ and walked us through several projects involving middle or high school band classes that went beyond making music to engaging with the ideas that inspired it — and explored empathy both for those the music commemorated and for fellow students.

In one effort, high schoolers learned to play “Walking into History,” a composition created in honor of the Clinton 12 who led the integration of a Tennessee school. The project, Sears said, challenged “the safety of history” and asked, “What does civil rights mean now?”

The project’s initial objectives focused on working with the band teacher to plan what the students would play, then on building trust and rapport with the group as they learned to play the piece and discussed the motivation behind its creation.

In subsequent sessions, Sears said the discussions grew more personal and related to the individual experiences of the students themselves and the stereotypes with which some of them wrestled.

As Sears described the project’s progress, similarities with Storytelling Arts programs came to mind. When Storytelling Arts residencies begin, a meeting between teachers and tellers establishes expectations and once in the classroom, tellers also spend important time building trust and rapport there. 

Where the band students learn a specific musical composition, storytelling residencies explore folk and fairy tales and may include students learning to tell stories themselves. And in Storytelling Arts residencies discussions, writing exercises, movement activities and other explorations delve deeper into the tales so connections can be made, both on the stories and personally.

Sears asked questions at the end of another project that can be made applicable for any art making that seeks to go beyond entertainment: How has music been a refuge or a light for someone you know? What song has been a light or refuge for you?

In these meaningful interactions a community is formed. In the safety of that community understanding of varied points of view can be shared, explored — and deep learning can take place.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Old Mother Goose Goes To Kindergarten

by Julie Della Torre

 Old Mother Goose
When she wanted to wander,
Would fly through the air
On a very fine gander.

SAI was approached by a Kindergarten teacher. “Could we teach her Kindergarteners to tell stories?”. We met, professional teacher and professional storyteller and collaboratively and came up with a plan.

Personally, I have taught many students to tell stories, both children and adults and decided to follow the same format using many of the same exercises I use for everyone. Together, the teacher and I decided to use Mother Goose rhymes as the stories the Kindergarteners would learn.

Why Mother Goose?
I once heard Iona Opie say that nursery rhymes are the child’s first narrative. I have always remembered that. Peter and Iona Opie were collectors and scholars of childhood rhymes of England. Another academic, Halliwell, was one of the first to study nursery rhymes as literature. “The nursery rhyme is the novel and light reading of the infant.” (preface to The Nursery Rhymes of England) And Delmar in her Mother Goose From Nursery to Literaturewrites, “Here in Mother Goose literature is the world. Her works run the gamut from sense to nonsense. There’s simple truth humanity- good and bad, fact and fantasy... Children who have been exposed to Mother Goose have learned not only the basics of life, but have had their minds stretched to outer limits.” What’s more, these rhymes are fun and catchy and there are many beautifully illustrated collections to pore over.

The Project
Working in a five day residency meant that the project would be focused and concise. The teachers were an integral part of this project. Four classes of Kindergarteners would choose rhymes, learn rhymes and share them with an audience for a great celebration.

Teacher Workshop
The structure of the residency was explained and rhymes explored. The teachers’ main job was to help students choose appropriate poems. They decided to have Mother Goose rhymes be their reading workshop for the following two weeks. Students would read many rhymes at home and at school and at the end of the first week choose the one poem they wanted to learn. The teachers would read Mother Goose rhymes to their classes and follow up after the model lessons and most importantly find time for students to practice.

First Workshop
I told stories. Only one teacher had heard storytelling. None of the other teachers and none of the students had participated in a storytelling session previously. We discussed what they noticed: facial expression, voice, gestures and more.  They would try to incorporate these techniques into their own storytelling. They would tell their poems, not read them. They would start looking for the rhyme they wanted to learn.

Second workshop (one week later)
Every story takes place somewhere. We worked on the setting of their rhyme. I told a story with vivid setting and we visualized the setting, using our imaginations. I used one rhyme to model for the rest of the sessions.  I worked with ‘The North Wing Doth Blow.’ We made tableaus of their poems and then they drew the setting of their rhyme in their reading journals.

Third Workshop
Characters and character traits came to the forefront. Using my poem as a model we discovered that poor robin was the main character and that she was cold and worried. Everyone found their own character and tried to describe them and make a statue of them. That day pictures of their characters where drawn in their reading journals.

Fourth Workshop
Gestures make a story come alive. Everyone tried to find a gesture to add to their telling. We spent the majority of this session practicing knee-to-knee. The students were a bit shocked to learn that they couldn’t look at their papers. This is the same reaction I get from teachers when they learn to tell stories.

Fifth Workshop
The Celebration! Buddies from older grades were invited to be the audience. The Kindergarteners were in groups of four with their buddies as listeners. The rhymes were so short that groups got to shift two or three times.  As I went around and listened, I saw the Kindergarteners grow as storytellers with each telling. They became more confident, their voices stronger and their tellings smoother.

This residency was a true collaboration of teachers and storyteller. The teachers were the ones who scheduled and organized everything... even down to the cookies. Quickly grasping the concepts of storytelling they helped and guided their students to success.

I had such fun living with Mother Goose rhymes in the weeks leading up to this residency.  I had stacks of collections around the house and compared illustrations. Two invaluable resources are listed below.

Delmar, Gloria. Mother Goose From Nursery to Literature
Thistle, Louise. Dramatizing Mother Goose.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Flying Across Languages with Story

by Luray Gross

Illustration by Arthur Rackham
All the rainbows were finished, with rows of crunched-up tissue paper glued in arcs on the paper plates we’d handed out.  Our small team of volunteers had at least ten more minutes to spend with this class of third graders, and it seemed a shame to waste them.  But with all but one of us unable to converse with the students and their teacher, it seemed we were out of options. 

Of course that’s when having a story in your proverbial back pocket (and a bilingual companion), comes in handy.

“We can tell a story,” I said to Francis.  “I’ll tell “Tortoise Flies” in English, and you tell it in Spanish.”  I’d known Francis only since we’d met on our way to the airport  three days earlier, but I’d immediately been taken with her energy and her background. Although she lives in Philly, not so far from me, her mother is from Puerto Rico and her Dad is a professional musician from Cuba.  Spanish is her mother and father language, and English the language of her day-to-day life in the world.

“Tell a story!  I can’t do that.  I’ve never done that,” was her immediate reaction, but it didn’t take long to convince her to give it a try.  As new friends and roommates on this service trip to Costa Rica, it seemed to me we were well equipped for the effort.  After all, I’d told that version of the Aesop’s fable many times, and Francis, although she had no teaching experience, seemed to be enjoying our work with the children.

So we began:  “One morning Tortoise woke up early.  It was a beautiful sunny day, a good day for a walk.” 
   “Un dia, la Tortuga . . . .”

Tortoise was on her way to her beg a flying lesson from Eagle, and we were on our way as a telling team.  By the time Tortoise was riding on Eagle’s back, Francis was flapping her arms and winging through the rows of seats.  I can be a fairly animated teller, but Francis had me beat. She had become a storyteller, a lively one, in a magical blink of an eye.  I’d never seen and heard the story told with as much verve.

At least that was true until last week when I was working in the Spanish-only room during a poetry residency with second graders. Two of the groups are in a dual-language program. The way it works in this school, kids in the program alternate day-by-day: one day in the English-only room with that teacher and then in the Spanish only, and so forth.  Usually the benefactor (and once in a while the victim), of my tendency to say “Yes” to any teaching challenge, I’d agreed to do one session a day in Spanish.  It was relatively easy to find enough catalyst poems and not too hard to muster my limited facility with the language.  I knew the teacher would be a great help, and of course she was, providing vocabulary and helping me with verb tenses.  

With second graders, I often introduce poetry-writing activities by telling a traditional story. I was doing so again, but only in the two other classrooms.  I knew: no way I had enough Spanish to tell a story, so I let the idea go.  That is, until Action Poem day when flying came up, and once more I drafted a translator partner so this group of children would not miss out on.  Best of all, the teacher and I were a true team. 

Once more, a story came to life in a way I alone could not accomplish.
Turtle flew, at least she thought she did, and the story flew across languages, from one teller through another, into the minds and hearts of the listeners.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Finding Happily Ever After

by Paula Davidoff

       “…and they lived happily ever after.”
No matter how often I say those words as I move from classroom to classroom through a school day, they make me feel, well, happy. Other traditional endings to folk and fairy tales are clever or amusing but, for me, “happily ever after” is the most satisfying. It puts the world back into balance.
Except when it doesn’t.

Recently, in a high school where Gerry Fierst and I are teaching a long-term Storytelling Arts residency, I told the Grimm’s Allerleirauh to an eleventh grade English literature class. The story is a tale of the Arne-Thompson grouping 510B, unnatural love. The classroom teacher and I choose it because we thought a discussion about it would deepen students’ understanding of events in the novel they were reading for class.

I had been telling stories in this classroom since the beginning of the year and, on this day when I stood up to tell, students quickly settled in to listen. The opening of the story is familiar: a king’s beloved queen becomes ill. But it quickly moves into murkier territory. Before she dies, the queen makes her husband promise to remarry only if he can find another wife as beautiful as she. He promises, and years later, realizes that the only woman who meets his dead wife’s criterion is their daughter. So he decides to marry her.

At this moment in my telling, students woke from their listening trances with a collective groan. Questions came quickly.
“He wants to marry his daughter?”
“That’s disgusting!”
“Yes,” I confirmed, “and all of the king’s advisors reacted to his proposal exactly like you are. Listen.”
The students settled down and I continued.

When the king declared his intention to marry his daughter, everyone in the castle was aghast. The princess, especially shocked and disgusted, was not in a position to flat out refuse her father’s wish. So she agreed to marry him if he could accomplish four seemingly impossible tasks, the last of which was the gift of  “a mantle of a thousand different kinds of fur and hair joined together. One of every kind of animal in your kingdom must give a bit of his skin for it.” 

The king accomplished all of the tasks and, when he presented his daughter with the cloak of many furs, she realized that she must take more drastic measures to protect herself. To this end, she left the castle and, wrapped in the cloak of many furs, journeyed past the borders of her father’s kingdom. Here she was discovered by the huntsmen of another king. Because she was covered by her cloak, the men mistook her for a strange animal and, at their king’s command took her to his castle where, when they realized that she was, at least, part human, she was put to work in the kitchen. 

In her new home, the princess was given the name Allerleirauh, or “All kinds of furs.” She was given the lowliest tasks in the kitchen and was forced to sleep in a small, dark closet. Eventually, her luck began to change when she contrived an opportunity to attend the king’s ball. She went dressed in a gorgeous gown so no one recognized the half-wild scullery maid who went about clad in a patchwork of furs. After the party, the cook ordered Allerleirauh to make a bread soup for the king. When it was ready to be served, Allerleirauh dropped a golden charm into the bowl. The king discovered the charm, asked the cook who made the soup, and demanded that the girl be sent to his chambers. When she arrived, he asked, “Who are you?”  And she replied, “I am an orphan; my parents are dead. And I am good for nothing but to have boots thrown at my head.”

There are two more nights of dancing in the story and this routine is repeated on each of them, three times in all. On the last night, the king discovers Allerleirauh’s true identity and she becomes his wife.

Once the princess left her father’s castle and the story got back into conventional “Cinderella” mode, students relaxed. They listened intently. I saw smiles of anticipation on the faces of several girls as the end of the story approached, bringing the inevitable reveal of the princess’s true identity and her marriage to the king. I sympathized with their pleasure when I gave the fairy tale couple the ritual blessing of “happily ever after,” but this time, I was not satisfied by the words. For this heroine, they didn’t ring true.

Tolstoy famously said that all happy families are alike. That may be true in some world, but in the world of fairy tales, I think that every happily-ever-after family is happy in its own way. Allerleirauh’s response to the king’s question about her identity can surely be interpreted to reveal the self-blame that is often felt by victims of incest. The trauma inflicted by her father’s desire led her to transform herself into a sexless, not quite human, being. The story doesn’t give us a timeline. We don’t know how long she worked in the kitchen, scouring pots and raking ashes every day and crawling into her closet each night, before she remembered that she had another identity. But her response to the king shows that, in spite of her courage to dress and dance like her former self, she had not completely overcome her shame.

Many fairy tale protagonists endure trauma: the loss of a loved one, parental abuse or rejection, narrow escapes from death. Some, like the sister in Grimm’s Seven Ravens or the youngest brother in The Wild Swans, still bear the physical scars of their trial at the end of the story. Yet, the stories end with the prediction that they will be happy. And we believe that they will; I believe that they will. Because the stories also give evidence of the characters’ strength, courage, and willingness to overcome the obstacles they encounter.

When Allerleirauh remembered that she was a princess, she dressed herself for the balls in gowns given to her by her father, gowns made of miraculous cloth she had thought he could never procure. Each dress shone like sunlight, glowed like the moon, or sparkled like stars. Like the light of recollection that was beginning to awaken in her heart, the gowns were unavoidably connected to the darkness in her past. Nevertheless, she used them to get on with her life.

I think that in a sequel to Allerleirauh, we would see that the princess did get on, but that her life was conditioned by her suffering. She may feel the experiences made her stronger or more empathetic to the effects of suffering in others, but they also made her sadder. She will remember her own father as she watches her husband interact with their children; she will wonder how different her own childhood might have been had she not been denied a mother’s love; and she will relive her days in the scullery whenever she visits the castle kitchen. But these thoughts may also help her treasure her children, appreciate her husband, and be kinder, even to the scullion.

And, like her fairy tale brothers and sisters, she will find her own way to happily ever after.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Finding a Universal Language in the Emirates

by Julie Pasqual

         I am writing this as I am high in the air, returning from an all too brief stint in the Emirates, where I was telling stories for students from ages 4-15 at the American Community School, an international school in Abu Dhabi. I am fortunate enough to have had several experiences like this in the last few years – and while yes, I was in some very different cultures – Thailand, Argentina, China, none were as different as this.  For although the malls in Dubai make the Mall of the Americas in the Midwest look like a bodega, the fact that this is a truly spiritual land is never completely lost.
          As I strolled past the Dolce Gabana store, and gazed at the indoor ice rink in one massive shopping complex, the call to prayer rang out even there, and shops that sported the most opulent merchandise imaginable put out signs saying “Closed for Prayer”.  The greeting – 
As – Salamu Alaykum - meaning “Peace be with you.” is their hello, and for many  people, the traditional robes, while not dictated here, are their preference, a way of showing their dedication to their faith.
       What I know about Islam is slight, and so as I was thinking on what stories I would tell and yes, what I would wear, I grew worried.  I feared being disrespectful, and being the quintessential “Ugly American”.  In a time where hate is swirling around like leaves in the fall, I in no way wanted to add to that, especially since the company that was producing this, Pana Wakke run by my dear friend, Sonia, is all about educating from the heart.
             My list of questions for the school administrators was long – what animals – I already knew pig and donkey were out  - what words – I knew magic was probably not a good idea – were appropriate????  And that is when, ONCE AGAIN, folktales saved me, for the school’s core values are: Courage, Curiosity, Compassion, and Integrity  – I almost laughed when I saw that for what they did not know was that it is rare to find a folktale that doesn’t  have those things.
      So, my favorite story about my Nanny and the Voodoo Woman was out, as was the pig in Juan Bobo and the Pig.  Lazy Jack  picked up a horse, instead of a donkey.  My demon in one story, was just a monster, but the core of the stories remained, because these marvelous tales teach the very things that the teachers at the school wanted their students to learn. And folktales have been doing that for longer than anyone can remember – all around the globe, in countries that would never say they have anything in common with other lands, their stories run parallel to, and echo each other.  Because, and this is just my opinion, the Core Values of the American Community School, and the Core Values of Folktales speak to the heart of all of us, no matter where we live or what call to prayer, if any, we answer.


Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Reflections on the Morris Youth Detention Center - Part III

by Jack McKeon

Many, many good things happened in our workshops at the Youth Detention Center. Often these would occur fleetingly, a quick laugh, a searching question, an eager listening pose, an insightful comment. It would be impossible to list all of these, but they happened frequently. Here are some that were important to me.
The boys, and finally, girls really liked the stories. They would come into the workshop sullen and resentful with their heads down. As we told, the heads would rise, eye contact would be made and, eventually, faces and body language showed total involvement. New residents, who didn’t know what to expect and who started out with embarrassed giggles, very quickly saw that the residents who had previously participated in Storytelling were listening and listened themselves. Students remembered the stories from day to day. Even after my first solo venture, when Julie P came in the next day they could repeat what I’d told them. 
There could be genuine enthusiasm. There would be amen corner responses, often obscene and incredulous that the characters could behave this way or angry at the frequent injustice. There could be energetic discussions afterwards. If time was up and a story wasn’t finished, they would insist on knowing how it ended. They could retell the stories. Occasionally they would tell their own. Boys who had been released and found their way back would greet us and tell us which stories they remembered we had told them. Once, a boy who expressed his disgust at the silliness of the stories provoked this response (more or less). “Just listen. These stories have a lot to do with us.”
The workshop aspect of each session usually involved some sort of creative response to the story. Most of these were very successful. They painted masks, made dream catchers, constructed collages of magic trees and monsters, painted and drew and used markers. They often worked with an intensity and focus that surprised me. If one session wasn’t enough to finish the work, they wanted to continue the next day. Often they wanted to take the results back with them to the residence area. They wrote vivid poetry drawn from their own experiences and were pleased to have it read aloud. It’s hard to imagine where else in their lives the opportunity for this kind of expression would arise
With those boys who were there for an extended period we did develop a trust and familiarity. W was a prime example. He was there for a year, waiting to reach his majority so he could be sent to real jail. When he first arrived, Julie DT and I were using the tarot cards again. He was clearly miserable. I gave him The Tower and told him just to look at it. He did. He cheered up as time went on, listened closely, had much to say and became a favorite of ours. We have kept a running commentary on our sessions on a wiki site and during that year, the comments increasingly mentioned W, his responses and general participation, even whether or not he was there, as if that in itself were an important point. I wished him well the last time I saw him before he left. I couldn’t shake his hand because at that time were were not supposed to touch the boys, but I would have. On his way out he said that he would see me again. He didn’t know how but he would. I think we still miss him.
There’s the story of A. When I first met him, I referred him in my wiki post, to my lasting shame, as a dope. He giggled constantly and blurted out inappropriate comments, and did strange disruptive things with whatever was at hand. He was, of course, a damaged person with something like Tourette’s, though I have no idea whether that was it. Julie DT and I went in one day to find, to our relief, that he was gone. As part of this work at the Morris County facilities, we would spend a third 45 minute session at the youth shelter down the hill (a story for another blog). When we arrived this time, there was A. He told us that his favorite story was “The Ugly Duckling”. Julie asked why. He said that he felt like the duckling, hated and avoided.
That day, we were telling stories about the goddess and A contributed excellent observations about the powers of women. Julie sort of told the “Duckling”. When I told my story, I think it was Baba Yaga, he focused, was quiet, and tried hard to articulate his response when I was through. It was a stunning example of the power a story can have. A was touched, focused, brought back for a time from his usual disruption. It was a session neither Julie nor I will forget.
Finally there was H who spent his classes, when T was present, with his head in his hands. He never looked up. At this point we were in a different room with no guard so we let him get away with it. When T left, H’s head would come up for a while. He began to comment on the stories from within his arms. “Just because my head’s in my arms that doesn’t mean I’m not listening.” Sometimes he came in and was totally there. His re-emergence was another example of the way trust would build with a resident who was in the Center for a long time. During our last few sessions last Spring, we had the boys writing dialogue and acting it out, often improvising. (Without a guard present, we were able to move around and interact.) The sessions were noisy and delightful. It was play. H wrote at length. During one of those sessions I told “The Golden Bird” again. He had a lot to say, and anticipated events in the story as it went along. He was impatient with the foolishness of the hero. At the very last session, Paula and I decided just to tell stories. Paula announced that it might be our very last time there. H looked up, mouth open in astonishment and, I think, dismay. After Paula explained why, he went back to his writing, one ear cocked to our stories. He was leaving the facility shortly thereafter.
We rarely knew what these residents had done to bring them to the Detention Center and we did not want to know. We were working with something else. Except for what we could see once in a while during the sessions, it is difficult to know if we made any impact. Did W take some part of us or our stories with him to help sustain him through his hard time? Did any of the residents, as they lay in bed at night, in lock-down, think about the story they had just heard? Did it make a connection? We can only hope so. Was it all worth it? Absolutely.
As a postscript, I need to say that one of the wonderful things for me about working at these facilities was the chance to interact so closely and cooperatively with four great storytellers who were full of ideas and offered wonderful support, all under Paula’s capable guidance.