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

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Winding the Storyteller's Path through High School Classrooms

by Gerald Fierst

As the year draws to its close, I have been thinking a lot about journeys.  Paula Davidoff and I have been creating an extraordinary program at Passaic Valley High School where the Superintendent of Schools, Joanne Cardillo, has asked us to mentor a select group of teachers in the use of storytelling in the classroom.  Our classes include Public Speaking, English Literature, Children’s Literature, and Identity in Literature    Our stories range from  Speak, a young adult novel about sexual abuse, to Antigone, to Little Red Riding Hood. 

Decades ago, Joseph Campbell popularized the interpretation of stories as a universal hero’s journey - birth, life, death and rebirth - forming an endless cycle reflecting the course of our lives.  Rick Riordan, the author of the Percy Jackson and Magnus Chase series, is the latest author to contemporize this concept into accessible adventures.  In the classroom, I have been reverting to folktales and personal story to illustrate that stories are not about what was, but what is.  Even at Halloween, I could tell the personal story of a ghost who appeared to me, evoking the most wonderful question a storyteller can hear, “Did that really happen?”  A story wouldn’t be told if it weren’t true.  All of us have faced a monster and been devoured whether by a stupid choice, a bully, or a final exam.  Yet, we do go on - wiser and stronger if we can take inspiration from the fools and heroes whose stories are a part of our human inheritance.

When we build curricula, we are not dramatizing the information which is already in the literature and text books; rather, we should be creating the portal through which the student goes Aha! and makes the connection for him/herself.  We are teaching a way to interpret the world through parallel and symbolic thinking rather than literal recitation oƒ facts.  The common trend is to teach that there is a right way.  The storyteller's way is to teach that the path takes twists and turns, and the lesson is not to get lost, but to discover and renew.

High school students in 2017 present challenges.  Tied to their digital instruments, they see the world within a small circle of communication, the triumph of the sound bite. Discussing Antigone,  I told the story of Sojourner Truth and her famous Ain’t I A Woman speech.  How is a black woman in 1848 like an ancient Greek princess, I asked?  A stunned silence.  The journey had to take us to the realization that the human struggle for dignity and justice is age old and as relevant today as it ever was.  A story from Yaffa Eliach’s Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust reinforced that we must all hold on to each other to rise above the monsters that wait to destroy. 

As someone who has defined himself as a storyteller over four decades, I have often thought back to the stories that set me on my course.  When I was in sixth grade, my teacher, Mr. Reed, had newly arrived from England and was shocked that we didn’t know such classics as Winnie the Poo and Charlotte’s Web.  So, every day he would read to us.  The magic of great words and simple truths was laid before us as lessons as we moved into adolescence.  So it is with this year at Passaic Valley.  I hope that the stories I tell, the words and rhythms I create, and the parallels we make to now, and then, and ever, will be more than an educational tool, but, in the full sense of education, a step forward on our students’ journey into their future.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

For 25 Years, State Festival Has Nurtured Storytellers

by Maria LoBiondo

25th Annual NJ Storytelling Festival at Howell Living History Farm
A simple phone call. A batch of handwritten letters. A beautiful afternoon. Voilà: a storytelling festival.

That in short is how the first New Jersey Storytelling Festival got started 25 years ago when the educational director of Allaire Village, Kit Crippen—fresh from a trip to the national festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee—dialed Julie Della Torre with a proposition. She wanted New Jersey to have its own version.
“She knew the logistics. I knew the tellers,” says Julie, who got to work sending letters of invitation to all the tellers she knew to promote the idea of showcasing New Jersey tellers and to give a those just starting out as tellers a chance to test their skills in public. 

Twenty-five years later, the effort is firmly planted. This year the event was held September 16 in its fourth location, at the Howell Living History Farm near Lambertville. It took many more phone calls to get it arranged. More than a flurry of e-mails. Another beautiful afternoon.
Visitors sat on hay bales, benches or chairs at four different locations where rolling farmland and animals filled out the vistas. Howell Farm staff said it was the biggest crowd they had seen on a September Saturday, with an estimated 250 people who strolled from site to site to enjoy stories.
Julie Pasqua at the 25th annual NJ Storytelling Festival
Some things have changed, some have stayed the same. For many years the festival has offered morning workshops for tellers, educators, and all interested in story. A Story Slam was introduced more than five years ago to kick off the afternoon’s festivities.
The number of tellers is bigger—some 40 tellers now. Individuals as well as teams from swap groups sign up for 45-minute slots over the afternoon. Bigger, yet its roots have stayed the same: a venue for storytellers from novice to professional.

Julie Della Torre telling at the festival. (photos by Ken Galipeau)

Although Julie gave up the reins to running the festival after about ten years, Storytelling Arts’ tellers have continued to be involved as tellers, workshop leaders, and festival committee members. For a time the festival was affiliated with the Folk Project, a music and dance association, and Julie Pasqual attended meetings to keep communication between parties flowing. Helen Wise served as liaison with Grounds For Sculpture. I’ve served on the festival planning committee since 2005.
And in what might be seen as a fitting bookend to starting the festival, Julie Della Torre, with co-presenter Paula Davidoff, kicked off this year’s celebration of story leading the morning workshop. “Gleaning Insight from Critical Moments: Working Below and Between the Lines of an Oral Text” introduced new tellers and fortified practiced ones—more than 40 interested participants—with a deeper understanding of the storytelling tradition.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Interview with Storytelling Teacher, Diane Rudd

by Julie Della Torre

A Storytelling Chart created by Diane and her kids
Storytelling Arts began a three year residency in 2013 at Alexander Hamilton Academy in Paterson, NJ. I worked with 4 teachers the first year and then exclusively with Maureen Errity in fourth grade and Diane Rudd in Kindergarten. Diane Rudd’s goal was to learn to tell stories and integrate storytelling into her classroom. (See blog post: September 4, 2015 to see some of the work we did together) I keep in touch with Diane and she told me recently that she was busy setting up her room for storytelling. I decided to interview her to find out more. Last week we met and talked.

JDT: You told me recently, “I’m setting up the room for storytelling.” What does that mean, setting up the room for storytelling?

DR: That means to teach the students where to sit number one. Their body language number two. And the whole protocol how are they going to act when they tell or listen to a story? What’s their job, what’s my job?

JDT: And what do you tell them?

DR: I tell them to sit on the outer part of the carpet in a horseshoe. But, with 25 kids well, to sit close, but not that close. Cross-legged if possible, hands in their laps, some in chairs. It takes a while. Then we have our yellow tape border, one in front of them, one in front of me. That’s our stage area. It takes practice.

I start slow with them. We do fairy tales they are familiar with.
Maybe just two characters to start with. Grandfather Bear and Chipmunk is a good one to start with. Just two characters. I’ll have them draw one of the characters, or both. Then I bring them back to the carpet and ask them, “Now where do you think the story takes place?’ It’s all new to them so you have to go step by step with them.

JDT: Tell me about your storytelling sessions.

DR: For instance, if I want to get a lot of kids involved I’ll do characters. We did Boney Legs. I told the story, then we acted it out. That was fun because the kids really go into that and then they went back and drew a picture of what they thought Boney Legs looked like. I don’t like to show them the pictures. I like them to use their imaginations. They love Boney Legs. They want me to do it again and again.

We act out the stories, or parts of a story. You pick the kids who are really good for the parts sometimes. I model. I’m the mean, big Billy goat, I’m the little baby Billy goat, this is how I would walk. I’m the Troll. Some of the trolls are great and some of them are, uh, that’s a terrible troll. You can be meaner than that. You’re giving them permissions to be angry. You’re giving them permission to be mean. It gives them permission to act out all these feelings which are not really acceptable during the course of the day.

You’ve got to get the kids ready to tell stories.

JDT: I remember when we were there you were doing charts with them, mapping charts, character charts, problem/solution charts?

DR: I don’t have as many now because I have to hang up other things. But, I hang up the work they do with the stories.
Another chart in Diane's classroom

JDT: When do you fit storytelling into your day?

DR: I try to have storytelling either after reading or before a writing activity. It depends on what my goal is. If I want them to develop characters I’ll do a story with a lot of different characters. If I want them to do settings I’ll do a story with a good visual setting. It depends on what I’m teaching for that day and it depends on the group of kids, too. I tell stories about twice a week. Last year I made sure to tell stories on the days we didn’t have breaks for specials. I also break up a long language arts period with storytelling.

Or I’ll do it if they’re off the wall. They’re all over the place, can’t focus, then I’ll bring them to the carpet and I’ll tell them a story.

JDT: And that seems to focus them?

DR: Yeah, because they know it’s time to act out and have fun.

JDT: I know your curriculum, and I know the standards for Paterson in general. You work on finding the meaning in a story and Beginning, Middle and End and...

DR: Always Beginning, Middle and End, characters, setting, finding the problem and the solution. Storytelling ties right in with our writing program which is having them draw pictures and tell stories.

We are also teaching them to work indepently both personally and in small groups. While I’m working with one or two students the others have work to do at their tables. Storytelling fits in perfectly with this as well. I told the Gingerbread Boy and each table had to do one part for the story. One table did characters; one group did setting and so on.  They did a really good job. I put them all together and made a book of it.

Storytelling is fun. I enjoy it. I’d rather tell a story than read a book because, when you tell a story, they get much more out of it. Especially when you get to ‘what’s the problem in the story?’ How did the character solve the problem? Some of the things they say are amazing.

JDT: It’s amazing the difference in listening between read-alouds and storytelling.

DR: Yeah, when I read a story aloud they’re in la-la land. They’re not paying attention. You have to pull this one in or that one. With storytelling, they’re all engaged because they have to listen. If they want to act it out they have to listen. There is an extra layer that helps them get the most out of the story.

JDT: What are some of your favorite stories to tell?

DRL Oh my goodness. Lizard’s Song, Mabela the Clever, I did that for my observation last year. Tops and Bottoms. Goldilocks, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, Oh, Frog and Toad: The Lost Button, The Lion and the Mouse, The Big, Noisy House, that’s a good one. Why Bat Flies??? (Diane was unsure of the title)  Wait; let me look at my journal. (She opened an old journal she started when we worked together in 2014.  Her goal that year was to learn how to tell stories and become a storytelling teacher. As she looked for and learned stories, she kept a journal of different exercises she did to learn stories, lists of stories and what made a particular story good to learn.)

JDT: You still have your journal?

DR: Oh yeah, I look back at it to remind me of the stories. Oh, The Little Red Hen. Oh, The Name of the Tree, that’s good. Another one is Anansi and the Yam Hill, remember that one? I love that story! Some of them better than others?

JDT: What makes some of them better?

DR: Maybe the more involved I get in telling the story.  When there is a lot of action, things they can identify with. It has to be a certain type of story. You know what the problem is with read-alouds with 25 kids? It’s always, “I didn’t see the picture.” With storytelling I tell them, “think about it. Whatever the picture is that’s the picture.” And they have to listen.

JDT: Does anyone else in the school tell stories?

DR: I think Ms. Z does. Maureen E. is now in second grade. Maybe she’ll tell stories. I’ll help her find some good ones for second grade.

I’m going to start right away. I’m going to tell the first day.

JDT: What are you going to tell?

DR: I don’t know I’ll find one. Last year I started with Grandfather Bear and Chipmunk.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Revelation

by Julie Pasqual

Julie telling to the littles
There have been a lot of articles, lectures, and discussions about how storytelling makes connections between people.  How the audience and the storyteller have a shared experience.  How there is no storytelling without the audience – teller and listener are in this thing together.
         And I have experienced that – from the adult that begins to reminisce after hearing a story, to the jaded teen that reveals themselves when they say they “get” where a character is coming from – even if that character is an animal, or a wizard, or has 16 arms - to the youngest listeners who are eager to tell me about their dog, after hearing about a dog in a story, or calling out that they know someone named Jack, like the boy in the story.  These little revelations are often touching, sometimes amusing, but one that happened just recently was troubling, and reminded me, once again of the need for folktales.
          For the last three summers, I have been fortunate enough to tell stories at day camps and child care centers in Paterson, NJ, through a program of the Paterson Library.  Instead of the children – mostly ages 4 – 6 years old, having to be brought to the library, this program brings several professional storytellers to the facilities, as well as providing volunteer readers, that come regularly.  Each site has been a joy, full of eager listeners and lots of fun!!
           On my next to last day, I went to a day camp that was run in a school.  I felt bad for both the children, and their teenage counselors, because there was ZERO air conditioning, and it was a REALLY hot day.  It would be too hot for the kids to go out even, so it was a day they would stay indoors.  The volunteer reader must have been great, because when they heard there was someone from the library there, the kids perked up!  The overheated, but very game staff, lined up the kids to take them to the cooler of the two rooms, and as the kids got up, I began to “read “ the crowd, to see who I would be telling my tales for.  I did this as I usually do – by acting silly.  Soon there were smiles, and laughs, and they pulled in closer to me, and I began to ask some of their names.  One little girl, who was, as a friend of mine says,  “happiness on legs” came very close to me.  Her giggle was like soap bubbles – light, floaty, and irresistible.  Her little face looked up at me, and then she said, quite merrily, “I have a stalker.”
         Whatever game I had been playing with the group came to an abrupt end – I did that thing we adults do when we don’t want kids to see we are worried or upset, I breathed deep, put on a kind, but straight face, and spoke in a decidedly even tone. “What do you mean?” I asked, knowing kids make things up – I mean that is the gift of childhood, an imagination as wide as an ocean.  It is this imagination that I fear that our children are losing faster and faster each year.  But, even as I waited to see if there was anything real about this statement, the reality hit me that the prospect of a stalker was in this little girl’s consciousness.  It wasn’t “I have a pet unicorn”, or “I have flown to the moon” – it was, “I have a stalker”.  This kid had been exposed to the concept of a stalker – in some way – either in life, or in TV, or in overheard conversations - enough that at age 5, she got what it was.  The counselor, no older than 16 years old came out, and I had the girl repeat what she said.  The counselor looked puzzled, and then was quickly taken away by another child who needed her. 
      “He comes by my window at night,” she continued, cheerfully.  “But, my big sister scares him away.  She has a gun.  She is big and strong, and will protect me.”  By this point, the line was moving towards the room I was to tell in, and the kids were hustled into the room, and made to sit down.  There was no senior staff in the room, so I began my telling.  The little girl was one of the brightest lights in the room.  My brain burned with the question, “Is she telling the truth???” even as I turned myself into lions, frogs, and one sassy fox.  It was one of those performances that, after I was done, the kids got up and gave me a group hug. 
             I alerted my contact at the library, so she could tell the person in charge of the program – I feared I was over reacting, but I feared MUCH MORE turning on the news and seeing a report about a little girl shot in her bed.  I was told it was “handled” – so I will never know whether the stalker was a figment of this child’s imagination, or someone who wished to harm this young innocent – but to me, it doesn’t matter.  Instead of magic, fairies, and talking animals, this child’s head was full of danger and guns.  Whether real or not, in truth, it was her reality, because what we hold in our consciousness IS our reality.  Somehow, the things that filled my head as child, weren’t even a moment’s thought to this girl – she could not conceive of the wonder that fills folktales, because all she had been exposed to was the harsh reality of a society that spews out violence to all ages 24/7. 
            As I drove away that day, I felt a mix of powerlessness and determination – I cannot eradicate the ills that are “downloaded” into the hard drive of young minds today, but I could, at least, offer them something else. Another view – a softer view, someplace where imagination could land, and allow them to picture a world, where danger wasn’t a given, where they could be what they were actually  meant to be – CHILDREN!!!