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

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Rhythm and Rhyme Makes a Lively Storytelling Time

by Maria Lo Biondo

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.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018


by Julie Della Torre

Hansel and Gretel by Otto Ligner (1857-1917)
Jack, Paula and I have been telling stories at a program in Paterson that helps women and children with food, shelter, education and anything else they may need. We tell stories to students on Friday afternoons, presently to fifth graders. It seems as if it would be a struggle, horrible time, end of week, end of day, but the kids are enthusiastic and engaged. They fizzle out before 6:00, but they love the stories and the activities we do.

This week Jack and I told ‘Hansel and Gretel’ in tandem. Together we discussed different images in the story and certain symbolism. At one point we focused on the body of water and the duck at the end. He had told ‘Water of Life’ previously and we noticed that the heroes often have to travel over water on the way home from an adventure. When did this body of water enter the story of ‘Hansel and Gretel’?  Looking in New Tales For Old (De Vos, 1999) we learned it was added in the second addition. 

Our activity following the telling of the tale was illustration. Many articles contemplate the idea of illustrations informing the text of the story.  Bottiehiemer notes a letter that Wilhelm Grimm wrote to his bother Ludwig who was illustrating their famous collection of stories. Ludwig had portrayed Gretel proudly pushing the old witch into the oven and releasing her brother from the cage. Wilhelm was not happy. He wanted Ludwig to instead show Gretel helplessly weeping near Hansel. Here is yet another example of Jacob and Wilhelm manipulating the tales.

 We brought in multiple copies of numerous illustrated versions of ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ After telling the story we listed the images the students hoped to see in the books.  The students worked in small groups examining the illustrations of the tale. We had to start them off, giving examples of differences to look for, but once they got the idea we didn’t need to do a thing except exclaim over the discoveries they made. They traded books, went from one table to another to share their examples.  As an aside, I was amazed that the bread/candy house was fourth or fifth down their list of images. First and foremost they wanted to see the children abandoned in the dark forest by the fire. The second image they all asked for was the mother and father fighting in the bed. Third was the witch herself... was she the mother? They spent much more time than I would have imagined poring over these pictures, examining all of the details. 

5th grade tableau of H&G lost in the forest

We passed out paper and crayons and they didn’t need any urging to start drawing.  Showing so many different types of illustrations freed the students to create their own images.
5th grade rendering of the forest in H&G

All of the reading and reflecting I’ve been immersed in this month has truly informed my telling and my look at illustrations of fairy tales. I believe it has enthused the work I am doing with colleagues and students.

Thursday, September 20, 2018


by Julie Della Torre
It is often said that the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the ‘Golden Age’ of collecting folk and fairy tales. As seen in the previous post, the Grimm brothers popularized the gathering of oral folk literature, and the immediacy of this type of collecting continued and the study of folklore and society became a part of academia.
Harold Courlander, a noted collector of folktales from the world, worked in the following era.  I happened on a biography of Courlander written by Nina Jaffe, A Voice for the People: The Life and Work of Harold Courlander,1997.  It was extremely interesting to discover the similarities and the differences between the stories, the collecting and the rational for preserving stories between Courlander and the Grimms. 
Jaffe is a prominent storyteller and compiler of folklore. Her works include, Patakin: World Tales of Drums and Drummers and The Cow of No Color. A Voice for the People was gleaned from Courlander’s writings and interviews Jaffe held with the man himself.  Because the book is written for children, the writing is not as smooth as Paradiz (see previous post). The language is sometimes stilted and the ‘lessons’ Jaffe wants us to leave us with can be blatant. 
Both Courlander and the Grimms were influenced by the country and the times in which they lived. But, where the Grimms wanted to build and preserve German nationality, language and cultural identity, Courlander had a different view. He never romanticized the past or the stories. He grew up in Detroit between WW I and WW II. He was surrounded by immigrants speaking different languages, eating different foods and telling different stories. Detroit was a destination during the Great Migration of African Americans from the South.  All the adults worked together and the children went to school together. To Courlander this diversity was America and was to be celebrated.
Harold Courlander
Right after college Courlander went to Haiti. He lived among the people there and began to gather songs, rhythms and musical instruments. With these came stories.  Folk music was his first work, just as it was for the Grimm brothers. By this time a number of developments changed the way of collecting folklore. For one, technology made it possible to audio record musical and storytelling sessions. Another was the many fields of academic study that became interested. Anthropology, ethnography, philology, musicology, all had criteria for collecting from social settings in cultures. Courlander was curios, a good listener, and patient. He learned to ask questions to better understand the setting of the story/song, the teller/singer, the occasion for the story or song.  He noted all of this and these notes can be found in his collections of stories and his collections of folk music. (He worked for Folkway Records and has many recordings on Ethnic Folkways Library.) One area of interest for Courlander was the similarity of stories and the idea that stories from the Afro-American culture might have direct roots to those stories of Africa. Like the Grimm brothers, he edited the folktales for language and ease of understanding for modern readers.
Like many of you, I rely on Courlander’s many books. I trust his scholarly research, though he never worked at a university. His Treasury of African Folklore: The Oral Literature, Traditions, Myths, Legends, Epics, Recollections, Wisdom Sayings, and Humor of Africa. (1995.) and Treasury of Afro-American Folklore: The Oral Literature, Traditions, Reflections, Legends, Tales, Songs, Religious Beliefs, Customs, Sayings and Humor of Peo0ple of African Descent in the Americas. (1995) have been fundamental in helping me put programs together and to tell these stories with a deeper understanding. His list of books is too long to include here, but other well-known titles include: The Cow Tail Switch, The Piece of Fire Terrapin’s Pot of Sense and People of the Short Blue Corn. He spent years traveling; gaining the trust of people in the society he was studying and learning the ways and culture of that community.
Uncomfortable issues can arise while reading biographies. Just as issues of German nationalism and the lack of attribution to the female sources brought up in Paradiz’s book, so too, thoughts came to mind while reading this biography. Harold Courlander was a white man collecting stories in African countries, in African American communities of the Caribbean and the Deep South and on Hopi reservations. Unlike the Grimms, he credits all of the help he received in each of these communities, in background knowledge, stories and songs. However, it was noticeable how Jaffe goes out of her way to frequently mention and quote letters from prominent black writers and scholars who were Courlander’s contemporaries, friends and admirers.  Henry Louis Gates Jr. , in his new book,  The Annotated African American Folktales, (2018) notes that The Folklore Society of America had begun in the late 1800s and had already established a branch to gather African American folklore and explore the connection of these tales to those of countries in Africa. Nora Zeale Hurston was collecting stories and she and Courlander met in Haiti. Though I do believe that Courlander was able to gain the trust of the musicians and storytellers in these diverse cultures, I wonder how different it would have been had he been an American black scholar.
Another issue that arose for me was the fact that Courlander was male. Of course, the whole time I was reading this book I was thinking of Diane Wolkstein. She also went to Haiti with a tape recorder to gather stories. She also went to the storytelling sessions on site, recorded, took notes and published her work. (The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales. 978).  Somewhere there is an interview Wolkstein did with Courlander. How interesting that would be to hear two scholars talk about their work and the stories they heard. I have no answers, and I’m sure it wasn’t discussed in their conversation, but I wonder how different it is for a white woman to be traveling, living and learning about a black culture and where, when and how stories are told.  Would a woman collector be included or excluded in different kinds of ceremonies? Would women in the culture have different obligations and tell different stories? Would a female collector ask different questions, be interested in different aspects of society, in different stories? How did such life work impact the families of the male/female collectors?
Due to new technologies, few cultures or societies have not been touched by modernity. New collections of world folktales are being published every day. Are these compilations of previously printed tales or stories newly collected? Personally, I will pay more attention to who compiled/collected the tales and how and even why these new collections came to be.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Clever Maids

by Julie Della Torre

I came across a pile of books I have always meant to read and have moved from one spot to another for years. This summer I decided to start at the top and work my way down. The first book I picked up was Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Valerie Pradiz, 2004. 

Reading the title closely, I should have known what the book was a bout, but, I opened the book expecting an analysis of Grimm’s stories featuring clever maids. Not this book! This was more of a biography of the Grimm’s brothers and their world of collecting. The clever maids referred to in the title are the clever young women from whom they collected their stories. The book also paints a historical and social picture of the Germanic world at this time.

Valerie Paradiz is a German feminist, activist and author. Her scholarly research of the historical and social culture of the time and her analysis of the tales allows for some interesting connections between the life lived by the Grimm brothers and the tales they collected.

The Grimm’s family (5 boys and one girl) lived a good, middle-class life until the father died, the children still quite young. The mother suffered from what was called melancholia, became dependent on her father and then on offerings from her own siblings. Paradiz portrays the dire straits for women of the time, both monetarily and socially.  She sites tales that feature such women setting the collecting into the social climate and women’s place in it.

The Grimm brothers lived a significant part of their lives during the Napoleonic Wars. Germany had never known a nationalistic unity like France and England due to the many nation states that made up Germany.  The brothers chaffed under the rule of the French in their city and never lost their zeal for furthering the German language, literature, cultural identity and national pride.

It was the beginning of the Romantic period.  In philosophy and literature there was longing for simplicity, of nature and natural feelings. The brothers yearned for a simpler time, a time of their young childhood in the German countryside. They built the romantic illusion that they collected these old fairy tales from peasant women throughout the German countryside. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The brothers fondly remembered their aunt telling them stories when they were young, but they began their collecting by compiling and cataloguing folk songs for their benefactor/mentor, Brentano.  This collecting grew dissatisfying, for it entailed gathering from written sources. It wasn’t long before the brothers began collecting stories in a new and different way. Their sister, Lotte befriended a family in the neighborhood, a family of six sisters. The Wild family was a middle class family and the girls well educated.  The girls knew many stories and delighted each other in the telling of them. Soon weekly gatherings occurred in which stories were told round; the brothers jotting down the stories as they were told. Soon they began soliciting these stories. The girls would write them down and send them to Jacob and Wilhelm. Some of the stories the girls had heard, some they made up and some were a combination of the two. 

The brothers collected from these girls for many years. When the girls married and moved off Wilhelm discovered a new source of stories, the girls in the Hassenphlug family. Like the first, this family consisted of well educated, middle class girls who delighted in stories, were well-read and had leisure time.  The Brothers Grimm found a number of such families, gathering and soliciting from these young women. Many of these women went on to become the first well-known German female authors. Later the two brothers happened on their ‘ideal’ source. Dorothy Viehamann, an older, illiterate German woman 

The Grimm brothers offered only one story from their childhood for their collected edition Children’s and Household Fairy Tales. All of the other stories came from these ‘clever maids’. The brothers collected the stories, selected the ones they liked, chose and consolidated the most salient parts of similar stories and edited them all.  The Brothers Grimm were surrounded by and influenced by women all their lives. The women who lived their stories and the clever maids who told them were never given any credit by the two brothers. This book strives to right that wrong. 

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Finding Folklore in Russia

by Jack McKeon

  We’re back after two weeks in Russia, five days in St.Petersburg, five days cruising through reservoirs, canals and a small part of the Volga, and four days in Moscow. The trip was fascinating in many respects. Insight into Russian folklore wasn’t, in general, one of them.

            I had anticipated catching some feeling for the forests and wildness that fed Russian folklore and fantasy, but we were too far west for it.  On the cruise part of the trip we often floated past banks of birch and pine forest, dense enough to present the illusion of what I was looking for, but I think that was mostly a wish projection.

            The overt appearances of folklore were inevitably commercial. On the boat there was a lecture billed as Russian Fairy Tales which I attended with a notebook and pen.  It was given, however, by the young woman in charge of the gift shop who had brought with her relevant merchandise.  She read (my heart sank) three tales, “King Frost”, a truncated and unadorned version of “The Firebird, the Princess Vasilissa, and the Horse of Power”, and an audience participation version (with funny hats) of “The Turnip”, all stories I have told.  The audience loved it but it lacked any real information and really needed a storyteller.

 In the merchandise stalls in the various stops, amongst the Matryoshka nesting dolls, I could sometimes find stuffed cloth representations of Baba Yaga.  She was presented as clearly a witch with the big hooked nose and pointed chin, but she was dressed like a babushka in the kitchen, nice friendly clothes, no black cape and pointed hat.  She was comforting rather than frightening.  To my disappointment, however, every doll carried the stereotypical broom.  At one stop, in a shop selling “registered, authentic” lacquered boxes, one very elaborate box was in the form of Baba Yaga’s shack on its chicken feet, covered with beautiful scenes from the stories.  It was impressive and tempting but too expensive for a tchotchke.  I settled for a smaller box with a painting of Baba Yaga, Vasilissa, skulls and, maybe, Koshkei the Deathless, looking very much like a devil, lurking in the background.  I bought it, though Baba Yaga is still riding the damn broom, not a mortar and pestle to be found anywhere.  I also bought a nice book of Russian Fairy Tales illustrated in a similar fashion.  Since I already own a similar book of Pushkin’s tales (on sale at the same stall), I think I now have a complete set.

            There were, however, unexpected parts of the trip that did deepen my feeling for Russian tales and fairy tales in general. In place after place, Catherine’s Palace, the Hermitage, the Tretyakov museum and the Armory in the Kremlin there was on display a jaw-dropping abundance of wealth. The onion domes on the cathedrals are often surfaced in gold.  Rooms were decorated with it.  Gold and silver appeared on and in everything.  Carriages, furniture, gowns, fur crowns and Tsars’ robes were encrusted with rubies, emeralds, diamonds and pearls. I can’t even get into the Faberge eggs made for Tsar Nicholas. I’ve been accustomed to take the descriptions of the wealth of kings in tales as gross exaggeration for effect.  Here I discovered that they are true.  When the Tsar in “The Firebird” receives the golden feather and demands the whole bird, I now understand that lust and entitlement. When the soldier goes in search of Vasilissa, the Tsar’s intended fiancee, and finds her in a golden boat with silver oars and invites her to his silver tent with golden decoration, it no longer seems like a fantasy.  The vastness of the luxury of the Tsars is mind-boggling.  No wonder there was a revolution.

            Finally, in one painting in the Tretyakov museum of three guardsmen, I could see in the animals what might have been referred to as a “horse of power.”  They were astonishing, heroic creatures, shaggy and beautiful.

            Perhaps I expected too much.  Russian folklore was there, alright, but it wasn’t for sale.

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.