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

Monday, December 22, 2014

Teaching By Ear

Written by Luray Gross

“This one,” Sam says, pointing, and I begin:
            Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall….
Rhyme by rhyme, tiny story by tiny story, we proceed through the book Sam has chosen.  A few weeks ago, discomfitted by my 3-year old grandson’s pre-school-induced interest in superheroes, and bored with the wooden prose in the two Super Friend books he owns, I pulled the collection of nursery rhymes from his shelf and began reading, though “reading” is not exactly what I was doing.  Many of the rhymes I sang; in giving voice those I did not sing, I emphasized their rhythm and rhyme.  Of course more than vocal play is involved.  We marched in place for “The Noble Duke of York,” popping up and down as his “ten thousand men” march to the top of the hill, crouching for “when you’re only half-way up, you’re neither up nor down.”

Since then, each time I’ve come, Sam – who decided to be Flash Kid for Halloween ­– has brought me the book and settled in for the entire ride, Humpty Dumpty to the sleep-time poems on the last pages.  

I thought of that last week, as my colleagues Helen and Gerry and I worked on plans for an upcoming residency at Stokes Early Childhood Learning Center in Trenton, NJ.  Our discussion ranged from scheduling complexities to the stories we want to bring to these preschoolers and their teachers.  Stories that involve movement and song are a necessity, for even in adulthood, we humans learn through our bodies.  We often forget how vital physicality is for all learners.

 When I am not telling stories, I visit schools as the resident poet.  In these projects, my aim is to immerse the students in creative expression, both through experiencing poems of others and making their own new poems.  One of my favorite activities is to write out a poem on the board and invite the students (third graders onward), to copy it.  I explain that when you write the poem out with your own hand, it gets into you more deeply than when you read it.  I often teach younger children a short poem “by ear” adding gestures for each line.  These brief poems become part of our shared culture, much in the way that certain texts and songs are part of what binds a group together, be it a Girl Scout troop or a congregation at worship.

Storytellers who have a sustained relationship with a school will tell you how there are certain tales they tell each year, some much more often because the students demand them.  Both teller and listener delight in the “superior” position of knowing how the story goes.  Both are comforted by the familiar music of the story,  that of certain words and phrases, as well as the dependable the shape of the story itself.  The only thing better than hearing a new story is hearing a story again.

I think the reassurance of the familiar is part of what makes the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, Bobby Shaftoe, and Wee Willie Winkie appeal to Sam over and over.   No matter what has happened in Sam’s life that day, the old woman will always put her many children to bed, Bobby Shaftoe will come home to marry the girl and little Jack Horner will pull that plum out of the Christmas pie exclaiming, “What a good boy am I!”  

Friday, November 21, 2014

Teaching Aeschylus in 8th Grade

One my projects this fall has been a collaboration with 8th grade social studies teacher, Darcel Deodato. Darcel is one of the teachers who participated in the long-term teacher education program that Julie Della Torre and I wrote about last spring. We are both back at the school, but this year we are each working intensively with only two teachers.
Eighth grade students in New Jersey study Civics. They learn about forms of government and, specifically, the organization of the United States government. When Darcel and I discussed how to embed storytelling into this curriculum, we decided to focus on stories that would help students think about why people need laws and how government serves society. Over the summer, I thought about a lot of stories: stories about justice being served, stories about the miscarriage of justice, and stories about people taking justice into their own hands. In the end, I decided to begin the year by telling the students the ancient Greek story of the trial of Orestes in Athens.

As I was preparing my lessons, I spent quite a bit of time trying to craft the myth into a tellable tale. This is always an issue when you’re working with a long and complex story, but with this particular story, I began my work with the goal of making it less graphically disturbing. The story of Orestes comes near the end of the Legend of the House of Atreus, a cursed family whose generations were blighted by murder, cannibalism, and incest. The horror begins when a first ancestor, Tantalus, cooks his son and serves him to the gods. It ends, five generations later, with Orestes in the court of Athens, on trial for matricide.
Orestes was the son of Agamemnon, the king who led the armies of Greece against Troy. The story of Agamemnon and his immediate family is beyond tragic. Not only was his sister-in-law, Helen, the cause of that bloody, drawn-out war, but he, himself, felt obligated to kill his oldest daughter, as a sacrifice to Artemis, before his armies even left Greece. While he was at war, his wife, Clytemnestra (Helen’s sister), took a lover (who was Agamemnon’s cousin) and plotted revenge for her daughter’s death. Upon his return from Troy, Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon and, in turn, their son, Orestes, killed her to avenge his father. 
The murders of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra are the subject of a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus. In the last play, Orestes, haunted by his mother’s ghost and tormented by her Furies, the Erinyes, seeks the help of the goddess, Athena. When Orestes arrives in Athens, instead of passing judgment, herself, Athena asks the help of the citizens of Athens to end the cycle of blood-for-blood revenge. She creates a jury to decide the case of Erinyes vs. Orestes.

At first, I thought I would follow Aeschylus and cut the pre-Agamemnon generations out of my story, but as I worked, I realized how important the stories of the early ancestors are to one of the most significant results of Orestes’s trial: Athena’s persuasion of the Erinyes, chthonic goddess of retribution and guardians of family bonds, to remain in her city. I began to think that a listener needs to hear about the horrible crimes of Tantalus and his descendants to understand why society needs the presence of these goddesses and, while Aeschylus’s audiences would have known the family history, my audience would not. Ultimately, I decided to tell the story from the beginning. 

The unit took five class periods. The story worked in the social studies curriculum. Not only did it introduce the idea of a judicial system based on trial by a jury of peers, it was also relevant to the lives of the students who live in a city where neighborhoods are torn apart by retaliatory gang killings.  As the story unfolded, we stopped to allow time for students to discuss the moral issues involved. For example, students debated Agamemnon’s choices at Aulis. Should he kill his child so that the Greek Armada could sail to Troy? This discussion raised important questions: Is it ever justifiable to take a human life to further a cause or ideal? What about if taking one life might save others? We also talked about ‘laws’ that seem basic to our human instincts, like those against murder and incest. Students spoke passionately about these questions.
Near the end of the story, before I told the outcome of the trial,  Darcel divided the class into prosecution and defense teams who presented arguments for each side based on the story and our related discussions. During the debate, six students sat as jurors. The outcome of the 8th grade trial differed from that of the original. The jury felt strongly that Orestes should be punished for his deed. The next day, students did a dramatic reading of the trial scene from Aeschylus’s play (We used Peter Meineck’s translation which is easy to read and lends itself to performance.) and discussed its outcome. Much of this discussion focused on Athena’s appeasement of the Erinyes and why it was important for her to persuade them to become guardians of the city.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Annual Board & Storyteller Meeting

A few weeks ago SAI held the annual Board Members/ Storytellers meeting. It was a huge success. This is a day for Board Members and Storytellers to meet and discuss storytelling, our mission, what we storytellers have been doing in the schools and ways we can help one another. This meeting helps all of us clarify goals and strengthens the bonds of the organization.

The last couple of years we have met at an idyllic historic house near Princeton. Though we don’t have time to hike around, we do have a glorious fall view surrounding us. The morning is spent in separate groups. The Board Members meet in one room to discuss the things Board Members discuss and we Storytellers have a luxurious few hours of professional development provided for us. We don’t discuss our work, we play, dance, write and otherwise get creative with our stories. I feel honored and appreciated that Karen (Executive Director) and the Board Members realize how important it is to spend time and money on such an activity. Like all professionals, we storytellers need to grow and get reenergized. The afternoon is spent in a pot-luck lunch and combined gathering. Some stories are told. We Storytellers present the work we’ve been doing and answer questions. Board Members tell us what they’ve been working on... But, what I want to tell you about is the morning workshop.

This year the workshop was presented by Carolyn Hunt a Playback Theatre Director. After a brief introduction to Playback Theatre we dove right in moving, growling, stomping and interpreting. Carolyn is an amazing workshop leader. She led us through general Playback exercises but she listened to our questions and observed our explorations and immediately adapted the exercises she had planned to our work. The more she saw us working with parts of our stories, places in our stories, questions we’ve always had about certain motivations, the deeper she pushed us; still using the exercises she had planned. At times the work became uncomfortably intense due to issues the story was revealing. Then we stopped to talk about how these tensions could be balanced in a classroom. I could go on and on but the post would be too long. Thank you Carolyn for a terrific workshop. I have already used fluid sculptures a couple of times in a school. Thank you Board Members and Karen for offering this workshop. Thank you fellow storytellers for playing with me.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Revaluing the Ordinary

A group of Storytelling Arts performers including myself just finished a residency at Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morristown.  Our theme was community.  The story goes that first you shoot the arrow, and, then, you draw the bullseye.  So it was that, as I told my stories, I once again realized that the oral tradition by its process is a lesson in community.  Whether to a group of two or two hundred, storytelling follows an alchemical formula that creates not only a shared experience, but an empowering experience, that turns the everyday into gold.  One of my stories was the Great, Big, Smelly, Small Toothed Dog.  My friend Margaret Read MacDonald has published it as a picture book, but the story is far more powerful as an oral tale with the teller and audience using body, voice, and imagination, to be in the midst of the story instead of an observer looking at illustrations.  The dog tests the princess three times before he can reveal his true self.  When, at last, he pulls his smelly fur aside, there is a gasp of aha!, not because we are surprised, but because our community’s values are confirmed-  i.e. A prince hides under every smelly dog skin.  Storytelling is a journey, not only to strange and magical experiences, but to a revaluing of the ordinary that is too often taken for granted.

illustration by Walter Crane
Even with sixth graders (or should I say especially with sixth graders) verbalizing these recognitions is an affirming experience.  When we share the stories of popular culture, television, film, music, we often excuse the experimentation and rebelliousness of preteens and teens as a natural part of growing up.  Too often, we encourage middle schoolers to explain away behavior; but when we tell the old stories, we see that the journey is only complete when it includes wisdom and restoration.  Thus, the final day of my residency was spent telling and retelling Little Red Riding Hood.  This story has been distorted as a warning against strangers.  In fact, it is an investigation of rebellion.  Dont go off the path, Little Reds mother warns, but Little Red just rolls her eyes.  The class improvised various scenes from Little Red Riding Hood as we discussed the theme and consequences of actions.  One of the most interesting moments came when we personalized the wolf.  I have always wondered why the wolf doesnt just eat Little Red up.  In this sixth grade, I got my answer.  The wolf became a bully and a self promoter who enjoyed the process of toying and teasing Little Red.  The students recognized this character as everything from the advertising that assaults them everywhere, to the temptations of drugs and alcohol that they hear lie down the way, to the personal actions that individuals choose as a way of defining themselves.  All this came from telling the story and making space for the Aha!

Our final writing project was to write an ode to something or someone we take for granted.  Stories are tools for observation and appreciation.  One girl wrote an Ode to a Door.  Who has passed through you? What feet and hands have left marks and scratches? What cries and sounds have been shut out?  What strangers have been welcomed?  Each question was the seed of a story to ponder and cultivate and develop; for one story is the doorway to another story, which is why, when people gather, one story inevitably leads to another. 

Students often ask where do storytellers learn their stories.  Books and sharing are the obvious answers, but a good storyteller doesntt just repeat a story.  Good storytellers puts themselves into the story, opening the door so that the listener can enter too.

written by Gerald Fierst