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

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Report from the 18th Annual NJ Storytelling Festival

Yet another rainy festival. We should probably call it ‘festival weather’ at this point. Nonetheless, people showed up, tellers and listeners and all had a good, cozy time. As Carol Titus, current coordinator of the festival said, “We have no trouble in the rain, we’ve got it down pat at this point.” The rain held off enough for short walks around the beautiful Grounds For Sculpture.

The day started with a workshop for storytellers and teachers. Judy Freeman had us clapping, snapping singing and chanting. Perfect for a rainy Sunday morning. Judy Freeman is best known in New Jersey for her annual Winner’s Conferences she holds throughout NJ. At these well-attended conferences she calls out the top hundred children’s books published in that year. She gives quick book talks and demonstrates activities and suggests thematic ideas for the books.

The two-hour Storytelling Festival workshop had more of an emphasis on storytelling. Judy’s forte is the quick, snappy story that is perfect to use as fillers. These are stories in their own right. Peter and Iona Opie say that the nursery rhyme is the child’s first story. And just think of the journeys taken by Jack and Jill, and the mouse up the clock, and our own selves as we go to market to buy a fat pig.

Judy Freeman helped us all recall the old camp songs and risqué children’s’ chants we all told to each other, though never to our parents; songs and chants that are based on these older rhymes.

Then she ran through drawing stories, paper folding stories, finger plays and stories with puppets.

I am amazed at Judy Freeman’s generosity. She gave totally of herself darning the workshop. And we all went away with a handout of all of the stories she used. The pages of storytelling tips we received can also be found in her book, Once Upon a Time: Using Storytelling, Creative Drama, and Reader’s Theatre With Children in Grades Pre-K-6. It is a book worth looking into, full of tips and techniques for learning how to tell stories.

Her handout also included a list of Internet storytelling links that she developed with Carol Titus.

The rest of the day was filled with stories and song. We have such wonderful storytellers here in New Jersey. Many of you reading this blog will be familiar with what a festival atmosphere is like. We have four stages set up with four performances taking place at once. The audience is encouraged to dip into as many sessions as they wish. It is at a festival like this that we realize how many stories there are in the works, and how many different styles of storytelling there are as well.

But, the Festival is also a gathering where we as storytellers are able to meet together, hear each other’s new work and catch up on personal stories. It is in this way that we support each other refresh our commitment to the community of storytellers around the state and are nourished by wonderful stories.

My favorite spot is always the spot where the Storytelling Groups perform. For those of you reading who may not know, New Jersey has at least six storytelling groups representing all corners of the state. When the groups perform their ‘set’ at the Festival, three or more members take turns telling a story or two. We learn a bit about their group, what their meetings are like, what they do in their meetings, how often they meet, where else they may tell as a group, and who their members are. Usually the members telling are not professional free-lance tellers, but tell to their families, library classes, classrooms, church groups, and any other such gatherings. It is delightful to discover new storytellers and new approaches to storytelling. I think this year we were all impressed with the upcoming young teller Shifra Willick.

I would also like to say ‘hats off’ to Carol Titus for pulling the whole thing together this year. She had many to help and SAI was well represented on that front. It was great seeing you all there and hearing many of you tell. But, one idea I think Carol carried out on her own was the announcements to be made before each session. She covered every aspect of storytelling in New Jersey… the groups, events, the Internet and the Telebrations to be held around the state. It was such an easy, unobtrusive way to cover so much information. Go to to see what she has developed.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Moral Play

Hello, I am Julie Della Torre, Master Storyteller with Storytelling Arts, Inc. I have been working as a Professional Storyteller since 1985 and have 9 years of elementary school teaching experience along with the study of child development and curriculum. More information about our work in storytelling and education can be found on the Storytelling Arts website

The best book about storytelling and playing with ideas that I’ve read this year is Big Ideas For Little Kids by Thomas Wartenberg. The subtitle is Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature, and he runs a wonderful website I’m rereading the book right now in preparation for the upcoming school year.

I read about the book in the NY Times and received it as a gift for Mother’s Day. I devoured it that very day and put it into practice the very next day. The book is all about holding deep discussion with children after sharing picture books with them. Storytelling offers an even more immediate and intense philosophical experience. The old folktales and fairy tales and myths are full of inherent moral and ethical problems. The reason for their existence is to help us figure out life and to teach us ways of being in the world.

I was ready for this book. I have read widely and deeply on this issue of holding deep conversations with children. Vivian Paley is an inspiration. She truly listens to children and tries to figure out what they are really saying. As I reported last week, her many books have been invaluable. Robert Coles and his The Spiritual Life of Children and his The Moral Intelligence of Children helped me realize that very young children are dealing with very big issues. Children are trying to make sense of the world.

Back to Wartenberg. The first discussion Wartenberg reports is on wondering about bravery after reading a Frog and Toad story. (‘Dragons and Giants’ by Arnold Lobel) The day after I read this chapter I went into a third grade class to tell stories. I told the same stories I had planned to tell, but used the concept of bravery in the follow-up discussion. I told the story of Baba Yaga’s Black Geese (many versions exist), in the story a little girl is left in charge of her baby brother. Inadvertently she leaves the boy alone and Baba Yaga’s geese kidnap him. The little girl has to go and save the baby boy. She does so with the help of three animals.

Before the story I asked the students what they thought about bravery, how they might define it, what they thought it meant to be brave, and had they ever been brave. In the free wheeling discussion many points were made.

  • Being brave is when you’re never afraid.
  • No, being brave is when you are afraid but you do it anyway.
  • Being brave is when you don’t even think about it. You do something scary without even thinking about it. Like when a fireman saves someone. You just do it.
  • You have to do something for someone else.
  • Being brave is when everyone else can do something and you’re scared, but you do it anyway. A girl was uncomfortable with this and came back with the thought that maybe if the ‘others’ were doing something bad, then maybe it would be more brave NOT to do what everyone else was doing.

After I told the story we talked about bravery again. All the third graders thought the Little Girl was brave according to our definitions. It was very scary to go to Baba Yaga’s hut to save her brother, but she did it. However, new issues surrounding bravery came up because of the story.

  • During the discussion before the story, the students didn’t think you could be brave if someone helped you. After the story many changed their minds. But, there was a condition. “You have to listen to the help and follow what they say.” Well now, that’s interesting.
  • One girl said, “The girl was lucky that Baba Yaga was asleep.” This led to a discussion of whether luck has anything to do with being brave.
  • And then there is the whole problem of the little girl. She left her brother alone. That wasn’t very responsible. It was her fault the boy was taken. In part, she was trying to save her own skin. Is that considered being brave?

The ideas in this book resonate now with stories I learn. I just learned a delightful story of the Hodja and the Moon in the Well. I did not learn this story as an example of bravery, but now I see two more questions of bravery arise

  • Can you be brave if you do something you think is brave, but no one else thinks is brave?
  • Can you be brave if no one is there to witness it?

The New Jersey Storytelling Festival is being held this Sunday, September 12th at The Grounds For Sculpture. (Find information at New Jersey Storytelling Network . Or go directly to the Grounds For Sculpture website at I will be telling a whole program of stories about being brave. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Importance of Play in Education

Hello, I am Julie Della Torre, Master Storyteller with Storytelling Arts, Inc. I have been working as a Professional Storyteller since 1985 and have 9 years of elementary school teaching experience along with the study of child development and curriculum. More information about our work in storytelling and education can be found on the Storytelling Arts website

It's September and schools are starting up. What are we thinking about? A friend sent me this article about the importance of play in education.

The article deals with play in the early years, but I would like to broaden the discussion and think about the importance of play in the older grades, and in truth, even in ourselves. When our minds are at play is when the real learning takes place. Einstein played with numbers and thought pictures. It is said that Jacques Cousteau came up with the idea for the aqualung while playing.

You may be asking, “What does storytelling have to do with play?” I contend that stories are the foundation of play and that language is the vehicle of play. I believe this to be true when play takes place in the doll corner, or in a literature discussion group, or in a play writing or poetry writing session. Some of my colleagues can certainly add their own stories to that!

Research shows that children who engage in complex forms of socio-dramatic play have greater language skills than nonplayers, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean. They are less aggressive and show more self-control and higher levels of thinking (see article above)

I have also been reading Vivian Paley’s book, A Child’s Work: the Importance of Fantasy Play.

…fantasy play is the glue that binds together all other pursuits, including the early teaching of reading and writing skills…. It is in the development of their themes and characters and plots that children explain their thinking and enable us to wonder who we might become as their teachers. If fantasy play provides the nourishing habitat for the growth of cognitive, narrative, and social connectivity in young children, then it is surely the staging area for our common enterprise: an early school experience that best represents the natural development of young children. (p.8)

Storytellers bring folk tales and fairy tales into the classroom in a unique way; different from books. Tellers and listeners alike engage differently with the oral story as opposed to the read story. The old folk literature deals with real developmental issues children are working through. And when children are given time to play, they are given time to play out their own interpretations. And as the children are reinterpreting the stories they are doing so in language.

Other studies have shown that by the age of three, many children of poverty are already behind in readiness for school, one big concern being little exposure to language.

They (the children) need a solid introduction to books, which most middle-class children have from infancy onwards, and they need to hear language used in conversation, storytelling, song, and verse. Equally important, they need to use language. Play is the foremost way that children use the language they are hearing. (Crisis in the Kindergarten, above)

Through this language play children are using rhymes, rhythm, metaphors, spells, new vocabulary and fresh concepts. They are learning to form and speak questions and opinions, and learning how to hold conversations. They are practicing oral language.

Think of the kindergarten child using ‘meadow’ in his play after hearing The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Or the fifth grader who ponders whether the idea of a magic potion gave a character ‘hope’ in The Tiger’s Whisker. When do we use such beautiful language in today’s world?

I have notebooks full of examples.

  • The girl who writes the following poem after hearing The Gunniwolf:

Brendan, Brendan,

Why for you move

  • The whole second grade class dancing in a Congo line to gym class chanting The Name of the Tree is Ungali!

Listening to a story together builds community. There is a shared story we can all reference in play. A friend, a Kindergarten teacher, tells a story.(I had told Tom Tit Tot in her classroom.) She reports, “I feel so badly. I always mix up Frankie’s name. I had his older brother and I keep mixing them up. I hate not remembering his name. But today, I just laughed with him when I made the mistake and said, “nimmy, nimmy, not your name is Frankie!” A shared story playfully eases the situation.

However, we as professional storytellers are not in the classrooms during creative play, whether discussion, poetry play, or block play. The professional teacher is the one who will take the shared oral texts and create an environment where creative language is allowed to flourish. This collaboration between two professionals bringing rich stories and language to students, laying the foundation for creative play, can’t be beat.

Next week I will be thinking about how storytelling encourages children to deal with deep, profound developmental issues.