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

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Making New Things Familiar

Unless I’m actively promoting myself as a storyteller, I almost never tell people what I do for a living. When I fill out forms that require me to state my occupation, I write “teacher,” and when asked about my job, I say that I teach literacy education. It’s so much easier than saying I’m a storyteller. I learned years ago that when I tell people what I really do, I have to explain myself. And the explanation is never satisfying because a person who has not experienced storytelling can’t understand what it is.
The conversation goes something like:
“You read aloud?”
“No, I don’t read stories, I tell them.”
“Uh huh.”
“I mean, I don’t hold a book, I just look at an audience and tell the story.”
“You memorize it?”
“Not exactly, I sort of perform it.”
“Oh, you’re an actress!”

So, after a while, I just stopped saying that I’m a storyteller. It’s too frustrating.

But a few months ago, I was sitting in my kitchen writing a check for a plumber who had just unclogged my bathroom sink. He was telling me about a wedding he had just attended. Mostly he was marveling about what it must have cost. When he told me the name of the venue, I said,
“Oh, I know that place. I did a job there once.”
Because it would have made no sense to say I taught literacy at a wedding venue, when the man inquired about my job, I had to come clean.
“I’m a storyteller,” I said, resigning myself to the inevitable nonexplanation.
The plumber’s eyes grew wide. He put down the pen he was using to write my receipt and said, “You mean you’re one of those people who can stand in front of an audience, and just by talking, make everyone feel like they’re in another world?”
I was floored! What could I do but say “yes” as modestly as possible?
“I saw a storyteller once,” he continued. “It was, maybe, fifteen years ago, when I was in high school. We had an assembly and this lady came out on the stage. At first it was kind of embarrassing, because the whole school was in the auditorium and none of us knew why she was there. Honestly, she didn’t look like much, but when she started talking, it was like she cast a spell over the room. Everyone was sitting at the edge of their seat with their mouths hanging open. I’ll never forget it.”

As we talked more about the experience, he told me that the storyteller had left a stronger impression on him than “shows or musicals or movies.” I wasn’t surprised to hear this, because I’ve had the same experience listening to my teachers and colleagues tell stories. The conversation did, however, make me wonder, once again, why the quiet art of storytelling packs such a big punch. I decided to begin asking my audiences about it. One of the places I asked was in the fifth grade classroom of my friend, Joan Kenny.
I have been telling stories and facilitating writing activities in Joan’s classroom for several years. At this point, I look for opportunities to teach there because I know I will always find myself working with a group of extraordinary students: children who are passionate, curious, thoughtful, creative, and willing to take risks to learn something new. Joan’s kids represent a cross section of public school students from a racially, culturally, and economically diverse community, but year after year, they defy the current stereotype of  the unmotivated and uninformed American public school student. You don’t have to be in that classroom for long to understand why. Joan is a wonderful teacher, one of the best I’ve ever seen. She makes everything exciting, and her classroom is a place where students know their thoughts and ideas will be met with interest and respect. When I told her what I wanted to ask her students about storytelling, she said,
“Tell them you need their advice. That always pulls them in.”
So when I met with the students, I asked them if they thought listening to a storyteller might help kids learn. Their answers were, of course, all positive, (They are very polite to classroom visitors!) but it was their actions that impressed me. Some of the things they said were,
“Listening to a storyteller helps you learn because it makes you imagine.”
“And get ideas.”
“Stories evoke emotions.”
“When you tell us a story, it makes new things seem familiar.”
“A story stays with you.”

When I asked the student who made the last remark to give me an example, he stood up and gazed at a spot on the ground in front of him with a worried expression. Then he spoke. 
“When the man saw the injured bird, he picked him up very gently.” As he spoke, he stepped forward and bent over, cupping his hands as if he were scooping an object off the floor. 
I realized that he was mimicking the actions and facial expressions I had probably used several weeks earlier when I told his class a story called “Just Rewards.” Before I could say anything, another boy jumped up and walked toward one of the desks. His hands were also cupped as if he were holding the bird, and when he reached the desk, he pretended to place the bird on it and make it comfortable.
“That’s the basket,” said a girl who was watching.
“He’s putting in a soft blanket,” added another student.
As I watched and listened, I was pretty sure that I was seeing a much more detailed version of the story than the one I had told. The movements were more elaborate and continuous, as were the visual details that students continued to describe.
When the second boy sat down, all of the kids had their hands in the air. One after another, they told bits of stories, using their faces and bodies as well as their voices. Each time, I saw and heard something new. The children were not simply imitating me; they had synthesized the information I gave them when I told the stories, and they were giving back their own interpretations. Moreover, they had processed the stories after hearing them only once, and could still recount them weeks or, in some cases, months later.

None of this anwers the “why” of my original question. Why does my plumber have such a powerful memory of the storyteller he heard when he was a teenager? Why are Joan’s fifth graders able to remember and retell a story with so little effort?  I know that there are philosophical and physiological explanations for why people react to storytelling the way they do, and I think some of them are probably right. I also think that part of the answer to my question lies in something one of the fifth graders said: Story makes new things seem familiar.
When a storyteller gives a tale to an audience, she presents it in ways that touch each person’s mind and heart and spirit. The story becomes more than words. It is a gesture that a grandmother used to make, an expression on a father’s face, the sound of an old friend’s voice. Each listener recognizes something in the teller’s words and movements that helps him place the story within his own experience. The story becomes more than text or spectacle. It becomes a personal memory, part of the listener’s own life journey.
Receiving a story is a complex and unique experience. Which is why people who have never heard a storyteller just can’t understand what she does!

Paula Davidoff, Storyteller

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Need to be Heard, To Express, To Communicate

It's hard to think, or write, or even talk about anything right now, while so many of us in this region are whirling off balance over the sheer devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy.  But as I have been moving through my days this past week, what has caught my attention, as it almost always does (me being a storyteller, after all) are the stories people have and are sharing.  This even is so large and so all-encompassing for those of us in this area, that everyone has a tale to tell.  Whether it be stories of complete safety, or utter destruction, people seem to be yearning to share what their lives have been like in the last seven days.  I have seen time and time again this NEED, this absolutely primal need, to express what is in us, by way of a story.

 In the last year, I have been dazzled on so many occasions by how much storytelling is about relationship.  The relationship the teller has to the tale, the tale to current events, the tale to the audience, but the big one I keep coming back to is the relationship between the teller and the audience.  The way there really isn't a story until there is someone to hear it, before that, what is it?  It's a series of events.  But when there is someone to listen, someone to "hold" the words, the images, the experiences - THAT'S what makes a story come to life, whether it be a folktale or a person's saga of seeing their belongings blow away in a  storm.  It's the listening, as much as the telling - it's the communication between the teller of the tale and the listener - its relationship between one human being and another.

That's why storytelling has been around so long, and always will be.  Nothing electronic, nothing on our beloved i-phones, i-pads, or i-pods, that we were so desperately trying to charge this week (and I was as STRESSED out about this than anyone - believe me!!) can replace this basic human connection, this basic need - to be heard, to express, to communicate.  As we all struggle to get back to "normal", I think it might be nice to - along with remembering to be thankful for light, heat, water, plumbing, and public transportation, to remember that along with these things - and food and water - that there is a basic need in us all to have our stories told and listened to.  To communicate what is in us, to those who are around us, and in this beautiful way, we make community. 


JULIE PASQUAL is a self-proclaimed “creativity junky” whose first art form was dance. After graduating from New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, she danced and sang in numerous musicals across the country and Off Broadway. She has acted in everything from Shakespeare to the work of young playwrights in NYC high schools. Along the way she learned stilt walking, clowning, American Sign Language, and how to tell stories.

Her storytelling work encompasses all her skills as a performing artist, as she brings every aspect of a story to life. Her stories have been heard in such venues as the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the New Jersey Storytelling Festival, and in schools, libraries, bookstores, hospitals, radio and private events across the tri-state area. As an artist for Hospital Audiences Incorporated, Julie performs in halfway houses, drug rehabilitation centers and senior citizen homes.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Truth in "Lies"

Last week I told stories for nine groups of first graders: one in which a tortoise rides on eagle’s back, one in which a strange visitor arrives one body part at a time, one in which a wolf demands that a little girl sing to him, another in which a man’s doctor is none other than a python.  Midway through the second day, I realized I had not yet heard that oft-asked question, “Is that true?”


These six and seven-year olds seemed entirely comfortable in the imaginative world of folk and fairy tale, where every story is really a story about the human condition, providing metaphors which do not have to be analyzed in order to be useful.  They seemed to intuit that these traditional tales contain truth even if the events never happened.


As teachers and parents we want our children to value honesty and to be able to live in the everyday world where we cannot count on physical magic, understand the language of the animals, or witness a giant pumpkin’s sky-born seeds turning into stars.


Perhaps it was partly this desire to prepare children for “the real world” that was behind one teacher’s consternation when a boy in her class told me that his father had gone to a skeleton doctor (not an orthopedist, but a doctor that was a skeleton) and got better.  “I forgot to tell you,” she quietly told me as I left the room,  “He is always lying.  He’s been referred to counseling.”  Her concern for her student was palpable.


In the days since that session, I have found myself trying to “unpack” this brief episode.  Many of us often feel the need to soften or stretch the truth, and we sometimes to go even further in both our discourses with others and our internal conversations.  The stories told by this little boy, new to both the school and the community, may come from his need to be acknowledged and to fit in. 


For me, his claims certainly confirmed that he had absorbed the story I’d just told, a folk tale from Zimbabwe called “Nyangara, the Python.”  In the tale, a group of brave children accomplish a task from which the men of the village flee.  They carry a chief’s doctor, a huge snake, down from his mountain cave and the very ill chief, gently tended by Nyangara, immediately regains his strength.


Coming to this story as an adult, I have always focused on the irrepressible innocent courage of the children, rather than on the magical powers of the snake.  But I am guessing that the boy who spoke of the skeleton doctor was hearing something very important about a child/father relationship.  In the tale, the chief refers to all of the kids as “my children” and prepares a great feast for them because they were able to do what the men were too frightened to do.  It is clear that the children save the man’s life.


Though I know nothing of this student’s family, I do know how it feels to be able to make an ailing parent feel better.   I vividly remember the months before my own father had the back surgery he so needed.  I was seven, the oldest of five, living on a busy dairy farm.  In school, I was a rather timid second grader.  At home, I was the capable one who could feed and dress my baby twin sisters while my mother was out in the barn or keep my two other sisters occupied by reading to them.  Nothing, however, made me feel as useful and as important as giving my dad a back rub.  “Press hard,” he’d say as I leaned into the tight muscles along his spine.  “That’s right.  That helps.”  


Now my father is 87. His heart is failing, his memory in shambles.  Sometimes, instead of dutifully working on his checkbook or cleaning his kitchen, I tell him a story I’m working on.  He is an attentive listener, still a thoughtful man, one who appreciates the truths wrapped up in the “lies” of the story.  I am grateful.

LURAY GROSS works extensively in schools and the community presenting workshops and performances for all ages. She is a believer in the power of stories and poems as resources nurturing heart, mind, and spirit. Under the auspices of Storytelling Arts, Inc., she brings multicultural folktales into the classroom and facilitates response and elaboration, particularly through writing. Her own love of the spoken and written word, of the outdoors, and of music were all nurtured by her experiences growing up on a busy dairy farm in Pennsylvania.

Luray is the author of three collections of poetry: Forenoon was published in 1990 by The Attic Press in Westfield, NJ, and Elegant Reprieve won the 1995-96 Still Waters Press Poetry Chapbook Competition. The Perfection of Zeros, was published by Word Press in 2004.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Watching Snow White by Storyteller Julie Della Torre

There was no escaping Snow White in early 2012. At least two feature films were made of her, and made with big box office stars. So I took my adult daughter to Snow White and the Huntsman, and then borrowed a number of Snow White films from the library and sat down to watch.
Since  reading an article “Creating Variants With Illustrations” by Patricia Cianciolo (Blatt: Once Upon a Folktale), I’ve been studying picture book versions of stories I tell and noticing how the stories are informed by choices the illustrators make.  Different scene choices, styles, and character illustrations make their own variants of the story. As a storyteller, I have also been working with the Snow White story and its many print variants. I decided to explore this same concept of variants through film by watching films with an eye to specific choices made by script writers and directors. Here are some discoveries I made. Please note that my discussion of the movies will not be focused on the actors’ performances, the quality of the film or the director. I will not recommend, nor will I dismiss the films. These notes are not film reviews.

What I watched (Though I watched many more films, these are the ones I would like to discuss)

·         Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) with Charlize Theron as the Queen and Kristen Stewart as Snow White

·         Mirror, Mirror (2012) with Julia Roberts as the Queen and  Lily Collins as Snow White

·         Willa: An American Snow White (a Tom Davenport film  1998) with Caitlin O’Connell  as the Stepmother and Becky Stark as  Willa (Snow White)

·         Snow White episode in Fairie Tale Theater (Shelly Duvall 1984  ) with Vanessa Redgrave as the Queen and Elizabeth McGovern as Snow White

·         Snow White, Fairest of Them All (made for TV 2001) with Miranda Richardson as the Queen and Kristen Kruek as Snow White

What makes Snow White Snow White? What needs to be included so that we know the tale is a Snow White tale?
·         an evil, beautiful stepmother
·          enchanted woods
·          a particular season
·          dwarves
·          a mirror
·          a huntsman
·          a prince
·          magic killing objects
·         coffin, sleep
·          and of course, Snow White

I’ll concentrate on only a few of these.

Snow White is a tale of winter and return of spring. Willa is set in the southern part of the United States. No winter here, but all the other films have scenes of cold winter, ice and frozen lands. Sometimes winter is just mentioned at the beginning… three drops of blood on the snow. Sometimes just including an animal associated with winter is enough. Interesting in Fairest of Them All that the film starts with apple blossoms falling like snow. Father wishes for a daughter with skin as white as snow, etc. There is snow throughout this movie. The enchanted forest in Mirror, Mirror is blanketed with snow.

Going over and into the enchanted woods is a part of all of the movies. The woods Barker goes through in Willa are realistic, but scary woods. The time she spends with the ‘dwarves’ is on the road in a traveling medicine show. Duvall’s woods are supposed to be just realistic woods. The others are truly magical. We know we are in an enchanted place. In Huntsman and Fairest we are transported to these woods with sweeping aerial views.

Be she Queen or not, all the stories have a beautiful, evil stepmother. It’s a wonder that the title is Snow White since the strongest character is really that evil Queen. What’s motivating this stepmother? Choices made by scriptwriter and director give different impressions. In Huntsman and Fairest of them All, the Queen is surely beautiful, but more than vain, she is power hungry. Theron wants to rule the kingdom and live forever. She doesn’t just need to see Snow White dead; she needs to eat the girl’s heart. Richardson does eat the girl’s heart… or so she is led to believe. The message here is beauty equals power. Julia Roberts also wants to rule the kingdom, but more than craving power, this Queen is vain and terrified of aging. She can’t bear to see the daughter, young and beautiful. Redgrave is only concerned with beauty and age. O’Connell (an aging actress, not a Queen) is obsessed with aging and a fading theatrical career soon to be usurped by her beautiful stepdaughter.

Watching these women lose control and come unraveled was quite intriguing. Redgrave does it just with her hair. The more her hair is out of control, the more crazed she becomes twirling madly to her death at the end.  Only in Willa does the Evil Stepmother meet her demise by fire.
Some of the films bring in mythological allusions. In Mirror, Mirror and Fairest of Them All, there are explicit references to the moon goddesses through use of jewelry and moons. And peacock feathers can be found in Disney’s queen and on Julia Roberts. Is that mythological?

The mirrors were the most fun to study-- some fantastic mirrors and what a different message the physical properties of the mirror send. First of all, who or what does the stepmother see when she looks into it? Who or what responds? Do the mirrors have any other magical powers? In Huntsman and Duval’s Snow White the face/voice of the mirror is a man. In Duval’s the mirror is Vincent Price and is the narrator of the story, holding conversations with the Queen: a mirror with attitude. In Willa, the mirror is a vanity table mirror that reflects the stepmother’s last performance of Romeo and Juliet with all of the ovations she received clearly audible. Apparently, all mirrors are dangerous to her for all are covered throughout the house or locked up in drawers. In Mirror, Mirror, Julia Roberts walks into the mirror (like Alice?) and sees her beautiful self-reflected. She also holds conversations with the mirror (herself): another mirror with attitude.

I thought the Huntsman mirror was the most arresting. (you can see it here YouTube) Then I saw the mirror in Fairest of them All. The concept for this mirror outdid the rest. It’s a bit complicated. The Queen is ugly at the beginning of the movie. She is given an evil mirror which she breaks because she is afraid to see her reflection. A piece of it flies into the eye of the King. (Anderson’s Snow Queen?) He sees her as beautiful and he is now in her power.  But one bigger piece remains and it is placed on a special stand in a special room. This room is a dressing room and the mirror is a dressing room mirror, the kind where you see your full self-reflected on and on and on. I had done some study on labyrinths and one labyrinth is just such a mirror. You can lose yourself in a mirror like this. Very fitting. Richardson sees her whole self-reflected until Snow White becomes more beautiful and from then on Snow White reaches out from every mirror and answers “Who is the fairest of them all?” with “I am, I am, I am…” The remaining piece of mirror has other powers as well. It can show the Queen exactly where Snow White is. (I remember this quality in some other films as well) It can transport the Queen when she steps into it. It can transform the Queen once, to look like Snow White’s mother.  It is the weapon used to kill the huntsman. Quite a powerful mirror indeed.

Some other things I noticed and found intriguing
The sashes in Duvall’s piece and in Fairest of Them All were worth noting. Vanessa Redgrave’s beribboned crone twirls around making those beautiful ribbons impossible to resist. And the magical sash in Fairest quickly turns from a pretty, tied bow to a suffocating knot.

Puppets played prominently in Mirror, Mirror and in Willa.  Both movies start with puppets. The beginning of the tale is told through puppets in Mirror, Mirror. Later Julia Roberts is able to destroy the dwarves’ house by manipulating puppets. Willa opens with Willa (Snow White) playing out a fairy tale with her little puppet theatre. Learning of her stepdaughter’s interest in theatre, the stepmother is enraged when she finds this puppet theatre.  The whole of Willa is about acting and theatre.

I was fascinated to find a Betty Boop cartoon (1933) of Snow White on YouTube. It is of its time, but it does include many of the attributes of Snow White discussed above. Watch and notice the Evil Queen, the mirror, snow, the huntsman (prince?) the ice casket and the demise of the queen.  (Betty Boop 1933 Cab Calloway "Snow-White" on YouTube - Betty Boop)
Julie has been telling traditional and literary fairytales to audiences of all ages since 1985. Her nine years of elementary school teaching and her study of child development and curriculum have made Julie finely attuned to stories that are age appropriate. Julie says, “My background in education helps me to choose stories that are appropriate to students’ developmental levels. The myths and folktales which I tell are filled with ethical dilemmas which provide a catalyst for deep discussion and reflection. For this reason I prefer classroom telling.” 



Monday, July 30, 2012


Wishing on the Stars

By Storyteller, Maria LoBiondo
Maria believes that a story is a gift from heart to heart between teller and listener. A professional writer and editor, her love of fairy, folk, and wisdom tales has been lifelong, although studies leading to her bachelor’s degree in education from Boston College and years as a preschool teacher deepened her appreciation.
Serendipitous discoveries make travel all the sweeter and so it was when my daughter and I came upon a beautiful garden in an otherwise nondescript Tokyo neighborhood on our recent trip to Japan.

After watching turtles basking on rocks and carp swimming below as we crossed the bridge, my daughter settled down to sketch the scenery and I rested under a wisteria bower outfitted with picnic tables. On two sides of the structure bamboo branches festooned with multicolored streamers flapped in the breeze. On closer examination, the streamers had Japanese characters on them. Then I saw a table with markers, blank papers, and the invitation (thankfully in English as well as Japanese) to write a wish and attach it to a bough.

The colorful branches celebrated Tanabata, the Star Festival, held on the seventh day of the seventh month. On Tanabata, so the story goes, two lovers – now the stars Altair and Vega -- meet annually on the Milky Way. Originally a Chinese legend, the Japanese tale revolves around a weaver princess and her love for a cowherd. Her father, Emperor of the Sky, separated the lovers when the princess neglected her work but allows this night to reconnect. The lovers hope for clear skies; if it rains they must wait another year for the chance to be together again. Wishes are made for their happy reunion – and for personal dreams to come true.

The simplest version of the Tanabata story is a how and why tale about two stars in the summer sky. But I had stumbled upon a more complex version in preparation for our trip when I read several Japanese folk tale collections as well as touring guidebooks.

“The Woman Who Came From Heaven” in Folktales of Japan edited by Keigo Seki (University of Chicago Press, 1963) includes the well-known motifs of wooing by stealing the clothes of a bathing girl and impossible tasks for a hero to fulfill, and ends with the two lovers becoming Altair and Vega.

What I noticed in this story as well as many of the folk tales was the sense of a more serious mood, sometimes mysterious and sometimes melancholy. Consider the well-known story “The Crane Wife,” in which the crane sacrifices herself for her husband and then flies away. In Margaret Read MacDonald’s Look Back and See: Twenty Lively Tales for Gentle Tellers (H.W. Wilson, 1991), “The Singing Turtle” dies in the story.

I learned that there is a literary construct that helps illuminate the Japanese view: mono no aware. Most often associated with cherry blossom season, mono no aware  is not so much an expression of sadness as an acute appreciation for the beauty of the moment, knowing it will not last forever.

“The Woman Who Came From Heaven” hints at this. Seki’s book is a rich source for tellers and teachers who want to use this story or others to compare and contrast cultural perspectives on familiar motifs. Before each folk tale are cross-references with story types as well as explanations of the tale’s Japanese roots and particular Japanese terms.

My daughter and I each had a chance at different times to add our wishes to Tanabata branches. But one of the most noted Japanese Star Festivals, marked by the lunar calendar and held around August 7, is in Sendai, near where the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, did so much damage. It was still held there last year, and will be held again this month.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Telling Stories: Assisting Living

I recently attended a workshop entitled “the art of story listening and creating a personal mythology.” The stories told by the presenter were personal ones, and although to him they may have been contained truths representative of his life, to me they were just anecdotes. I left the workshop wondering what the term “personal mythology” could possibly mean.
Although I wasn’t inspired by the presenter’s strategies, I think I understand his motivation. He, as I am, was well past the midpoint of life, and I think that as we age, we feel more urgency to make meaning of our pasts and find meaning in the time we have left. And I do believe that stories help us make sense of life. So I decided to seek my personal mythology.
By simply combining the two terms, “personal” and “myth,” I came up with a working definition: personal mythology is a story, or cycle of stories, that expresses deep truths about one’s life and personal beliefs, truths that are impossible to articulate without the help of metaphor and narrative.  It wasn’t great, but it was a start. So now my question was, can an individual find a way to make sense of his or her own life through its stories? 

My reflections about how my own aging effects my life have been brought into focus by recent experience. For a year, I have been facilitating a writing workshop in an assisted living apartment complex in northern NJ. The complex houses older people who want to live independently, but need help with some of the day-to-day tasks they can no longer safely or effectively do on their own. Before this project, I have never taught a whole group of people older than myself, and all of the people in this workshop are at least a generation older than I. When I began the workshops, I didn’t think I would tell stories. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think my concerns had something to do with the fact that telling to my elders was putting things upside down. They should be imparting wisdom to me, not the other way around. I also worried that workshop participants might resent my storytelling because of the common misperception that it is an activity for children. Having reached the age where I am addressed too loudly, smiled at too brightly, and called ‘dear’ by rank strangers, I know how humiliating it can be to have people perceive you as childish or mentally deficient just because you have grey hair and wrinkles. I also think that the tendency of our society to treat “seniors” as if they are less capable than their youngers can make very old people especially sensitive to anything that hints of condescension.
 However, after the first couple of workshops with no stories, I realized that the group needed the common metaphors that story would provide. The people in my workshop lived in the same building and even shared a daily meal, but they didn’t know each other well enough to converse comfortably. Also, although they are of the same generation and of similar cultures, they couldn’t easily make life-to-life connections with each other because there was no web of common experience or familiar stories to hold the group together. They are a diverse group of people who find themselves thrown together because age has deprived them of the physical ability to live independently in the community of their choice, and they are all trying to navigate strange waters.

‘Assisted Living’ is a term that softens the harshness of ‘Old Folks Home’ or ‘Senior Housing’ and, actually, the assisted living facilities I have visited bear no physical resemblance to the places in which my grandparents dreaded to end their lives. The building where I teach is not new, but it’s clean and homey. The library, where the workshop takes place, is well stocked with books and films, and it opens out to a patio garden graced by a pretty gazebo. The building staff is friendly and helpful, and the monthly calendar is filled with options for daily activities. It seems a nice place to live. But I wouldn’t want to live there.
Yet, I know, first hand, the difficulty of finding a suitable place for an older person to live. When my mother-in-law realized that she could no longer live on her own, she had been living far from her children for more than thirty years. She and her husband retired to a warmer climate when they were in their sixties and, little by little, she had seen the support system developed there: friends, family, and her husband, drop away. When she first moved back north, she lived with my husband and me, but we both work during the day and, because she had no network of friends or relatives outside our house, her days here were lonely and, occasionally, dangerous. She gave up her independence reluctantly, but assisted living was her best option.
Assisted Living facilities have become a social necessity. The mobility in our culture that allows young people to move away from families and hometowns, and encourages older people to colonize with their peers in exotic locations, has left us with monogenerational communities in which there are no old people to watch over the very young, and no middle generation to keep their eye on the frail elderly.

When I began telling stories to open the assisted living workshops, the group became more cohesive. By providing impersonal material for conversation, stories allow people to speak more openly, and of course, find common ground to tell their own stories. Stories do other things, too. They entertain, and take people out of themselves for a bit. Also, the intricate texture of even the simplest story allows each person to find an intellectually satisfying approach to the tale. Good stories never condescend to the listener; they offer ideas that match the understanding of each individual. 
The first personal stories told in my workshop were stories of the past. Some of these were clearly painful for people to remember and more than once someone said, “I don’t want to think about these things.” I encouraged them to write about the stories I told, but an allusion to Cinderella’s slipper inevitably reminded someone of the ill fitting and shabby shoes she had worn as a child, the mention of a cruel king brought memories of Europe between the wars, and no one could even begin to entertain the idea of “happily ever after.”  However, even with ghosts from the past gibbering around the circle as people told and retold stories of childhood and youth, we began to move past individual stories to the realization that the members of our group shared stories. We were telling a collection of stories about living through the first half of the twentieth century and there were threads connecting each person’s stories to those of others. There were stories of fear, poverty and loss, but there were also happy memories of parents now long gone, and children who are now grandparents, themselves. We were getting to know each other through our stories.
Conversation in the workshop became more comfortable and people began to talk and write about the present, about the circumstances that had brought them to the assisted living apartments, and about trying to adapt to that change. Again, the stories shared themes and motifs. But could you call them personal mythology?

We began talking about the mythology that the workshop members think of as their own – the stories of the Old Testament and the traditional midrashim that have become attached to them. These are stories that observant Jews read or hear, in a long-established order, year after year. The first five books of the Bible are read in weekly segments over the cycle of a year’s Sabbaths; and each season and holiday has its own story. The Binding of Isaac is told at the New Year, Jonah on Yom Kippur, the Miracle of the Oil near the winter solstice, The Redemption from Egypt in the spring, and Ruth at the beginning of summer. What is the effect, I wondered, of hearing these stories –  stories of family trials and triumphs, of community struggles, of war and affliction, of victory over tyranny, of man’s struggle to understand the inequities of life and to reconcile them with the idea of an omniscient creator –  over and over, year after year, in their own time, each on its own occasion? Does listening to these stories give us a structure for telling our own? Do they help us make sense of our own life experience? Aren’t these stories the ‘real’ personal mythology of the people who hear and tell them?

Myth is much larger than the story of any individual’s experience. It expresses the truths, dreams, desires, and fears of  whole cultures through many generations. In a community that knows and retells its own mythology, there is no need to search for a personal story to bring self-awareness.  The story has already been told, over and over and over again by all the generations up to our time. Furthermore, the Community of Man, has passed on its myths in the form of folktales, fairy tales, and legends, as well as in the myths of specific religions. It is telling and listening to these stories that allow us to make meaning of our own life experience, and to transcend it.
After several weeks of storytelling in the assisted living workshops, a participant said, “I keep coming back here, not because I want to write, but because I always leave feeling that something has touched my soul. It uplifts me and leaves me with something to think about.”
This is the magic of story – its ability to pluck the heartstrings in a way that brings harmony to the spirit. It frees the soul even when the body is an unremitting prison. The understanding that it brings isn’t intellectual, although we can analyze it to our benefit, and the stories that have the most power to affect us are the ones that have been in the world forever. I think we find our personal mythology in the myths of mankind. It’s why we need to continue telling and listening to them.

Monday, March 5, 2012

“I’m shocked by how much J____ remembers and how much he had to say,” Ms. D____ quietly tells me as I put the cloth carrot and two small stones back into my storytelling sack, then turn to give her first graders a cheery good-bye.

They have been sitting crisscross applesauce style in the carpeted corner of the classroom for an hour, not counting the stretch and breathe break we took halfway through. I can simply see how their capacity for listening and reflecting is growing.

This is day three of a seven-day storytelling residency at the Florence L. Walther School in Lumberton, NJ, where I have been working with eight groups of first graders and their topnotch teachers. Designed to support the language arts curriculum and to further the goals of community building, this brief residency brought me to each class for three hour-long sessions, one in the fall, one this past week, with another scheduled for April. A two-hour teacher workshop in December focused on engaging students in responding to and extending the stories they hear and read through movement, conversation, and retelling.

This is year two for the residency. Last year I also worked with the first grade staff and students, presenting an October teacher workshop on learning to tell stories. That year, each teacher added at least one story to her teller repertoire and told it before my winter visit. With great delight, the students told me about the stories their own teachers had told. And they remembered them, replete with details. The value of the Walther residency has been due, to a great extent, to the way in which Principal Janet Horan and her entire staff have embraced the process and integrated story into their work.

The immediacy and intimacy of eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart communication of storytelling provides a subtle, yet powerful, contrast to reading silently or even aloud. Caught up in the rhythms and music of the language, and physical presence of the teller’s gesture, posture, and facial expression, the listener takes the story directly into his or her mind. Each student in the classroom creates the story along with the teller, feeling its structure, getting to know the characters and imagining the scenes. Story recall, as in the case of young J. is heightened.
I believe, however, that there are even greater advantages to this ancient and always fresh art. When stories are told, a profound gift exchange is taking place. The teller offers, not only the story itself, but perhaps more important, her whole attention to those who receive the story. Without altering the essential lineaments of the tale, she improvises, responding to raised hands or quizzical looks, incorporating suggestions or gestures and dialogue suggested by the listeners. The story becomes a living thing, nurtured by both teller and listener. No wonder a six- year old or 16-year old or sixty-year old recalls with delight the trick fox played or the way a silly boy found his courage when he had to deal with the ugly troll hag on his own.
This is the kind of gift that allows a boy like J, whose expressive language has been so limited that he is being referred for testing, to find his voice. It is a gift that teachers, as well as professional storytellers can amply offer to their students and to each other.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Hop online

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

I find I'm hopping online more and more often when I need to find a story. I'd like to share a few of my favorite sites with you, and hope you will respond with a few favorites of your own.


By far the site I visit the most is SurLaLune hosted by Heidi Anne Heiner. It is a site that is quite easy to use and I recommend you play in it and discover all it has to offer. The site has stories galore as well as essays, illustrations and so much more.

When you first open the site you immediately see on the left, an index of popular European fairy tales. Click on any one of these and wonders appear. The full text of the story is given with annotations. Another index appears on this new page and you can find a history of the tale, illustrations of the tale, similar tales from across cultures, modern interpretations, a bibliography and a book gallery. For some of the most popular tales there are links to other explorations of the tale.

But don’t stop there. Go back to the home page and across the top is another menu. Click on Introduction and a number of essays can be found. Yet another index pops up and you can go to discussions of such subjects as Disney and Fairy Tales, Women and Fairy Tales, a Guide for Teachers, and many more.

Speaking of discussions, the discussion board is a place to find out what storytellers, authors, folklorists, professors, and illustrators are thinking and working on in the field of fairy tales. There are current discussions as well as archives covering many topics of interest.

And there is more on the home page. Scroll down and you will find an empty box with ‘search’ beside it. Type in any word, for example, wind, or daisy, or self-control, and the whole of Surlalune will be searched for your topic. You may find annotations, or discussions, or illustrations. It is a very useful search engine.

And one more overlooked feature. Under the search engine is SurLaLuune Storytime. Here you will find ideas for preschool story programs developed around themes.

SuLaLune has recently introduced a blog to the site. I find it to be funky and eccentric. I go to it for fun, but am still trying to get used to it. You will find many reviews of new books, movies and movie trailers, advertising, allusions and the like, all related to fairy tales.

Story Lovers World

Another site I frequent is Story Lovers World hosted by Jackie Baldwin. This site is more for gathering ideas around themes, countries and educational levels. This site does not have stories available, but when I am working on programs, I find this site quite useful indeed.

The site is a little overwhelming and a bit more confusing than SurLaLune. That’s because there is just so much information tuck away in different places. Go to SOS Site Map (Searching Out Stories) and scroll down and down and down… You will find categories based around theme, age of audience, country, holidays, emotions, and many more. Keep on scrolling because the list is extensive. If you stop at a find at the top of the scroll, you may miss some very interesting stuff. If you wait to the end though, you will have forgotten what’s at the top.

When you click on an interest, you will find lists of books and stories, as well as ideas and discussions from other storytellers. Most of these discussions are from the popular listserv STORYTELL. My creative juices get flowing as I explore what other storytellers have chosen for a particular project.

Jackie Baldwin is a very generous storyteller and has complied stories, activities and books around such themes as water, winter, January and so forth.

Briefly, here are other sites that are bookmarked on my computer.

D.L. Ashliman’s Home Page:

This is the site I go to for the text of stories.

Aaron Shepard’s Home Page:

All Aaron Shepard adaptations. But, he does have some good activities and some readers theatre that I send teachers to.

Generosity of Spirit: Myths and Folktales

This site is sponsored by the Fetzer Institute. I found it and used it when I was collecting stories to accompany a program on character education. I used some of the stories, but found that the stories listed made me remember other stories in my repertoire. A site to explore at least.

Sacred Texts

Texts of many books of myth and fairy tale.

Spirit of Trees

A beautiful site of folktales, myths, essays and poems of trees.