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

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Making Time for Success


Illustration by A.B. Frost
When I walked into the fifth grade classroom on January 16
th, the students cheered, “Yay, we have storytelling!” They were not mistaken. There was going to be storytelling in their class that period but, although I had been their storyteller for over a month, I would not be telling. I took an audience seat at the back of the room to listen as their English Language Arts teacher took the stage to perform a rollicking interpretation of Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby. No one who walked into the room during that telling would have guessed that the woman in front of the class was not the professional storyteller. She moved naturally in the tale, changing posture and voice to create characters, and building the story landscape with a turn of her head or a sweep of her arm. The performance was flawless.
And it didn’t end with the story. After receiving accolades from her class, the teacher began the lesson she had designed to follow the telling, a lesson that incorporated aspects of the fifth grade literature, writing, and social studies curricula. Students discussed the story with their teacher, and then with each other in small groups. Each group talked and wrote about some aspect of the story. How did the story motifs and archetypes compare or contrast to those in other Trickster tales? Why was Trickster such an important character in African American slave stories? What is Trickster’s power?
During the next period of the day, a sixth grade history teacher leaned comfortably against her desk to tell her students the myth of Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the Underworld. Her movements were sparse, her voice expressive, but calm. Her style of telling was completely different but that of her fifth grade colleague, but again, the telling was flawless. Students sat motionless. Every eye was on their teacher teller. At the terrifying climax of the tale, it seemed as if every breath was suspended, then exhaled in concert as Sedna settled at the bottom of the sea to rule her new kingdom. This lesson also ended with an activity that was designed to both extend the story and address the teacher’s other instructional objectives.

Similar scenes were played out that day in kindergarten and fourth grade classrooms where teachers were using oral storytelling to enrich student learning. The lessons were part of a project funded by the Countess Moira Foundation and designed and implemented by Storytelling Arts artists. In early December, Julie Dellatorre and I began teaching and mentoring a group of elementary school teachers who had been selected by their principal to pilot a program designed to teach them to use oral storytelling and traditional tales to deepen student learning.
On the day we first met them, some of these teachers were apprehensive about the amount of time the project might take from their other teaching responsibilities. We assured them that they would be able to use what we were teaching to help them meet their instructional objectives, and then we told them stories. Julie began with Young Kate by Eleanor Farjeon. When the story ended, there was a moment of silence followed by a rush of conversation. The teachers were hooked. As the project progressed, their enthusiasm did not wane. They learned to tell stories, selected stories, and embedded storytelling in their lesson plans. For me, the project produced a perfect collaboration between teaching artist and classroom teachers. We taught and learned from each other and, as in all good collaborations, the whole was much more than the parts. I found myself delving more deeply into the stories I was researching and learning. The experience has improved my own telling in all of the workshops I’ve been teaching this winter.

So, what made this project work? I have been involved in many residencies that were designed and taught by good teachers and artists, and although they have all been successful on some level, I don’t think that they have given me the sense of accomplishment I feel in this project. That’s not to say we haven’t had faced obstacles. The project site shares the problems of many urban schools: low student performance, conflicting and confusing top-down mandates to building administrators and teachers, and the ever-present pressure imposed by the status of standardized student assessments. Then there was the weather. Most of our workshops were scheduled during the deep freeze that has ushered in this new year. Two or three days were postponed because of snow, and because of this, the two culminating events of the project have yet to be rescheduled. But in spite of these frustrations, my spirits are high.
I think that the two most important factor in this project’s success were the understanding of our funders that successful arts education programs take time, and the willingness of the school administrator to arrange a schedule that gave us adequate time for teacher education in and out of the classroom. The main goal of this project was professional development: giving teachers the skills necessary to be successful teacher tellers. To accomplish this, we planned teacher workshops at the beginning, middle, and end of the residency. In between teacher workshops, Julie and I worked with the teachers for fifteen days in their classrooms. Teacher workshops and classroom lessons were designed to scaffold teacher education. In the first five student workshops, Julie and I modeled our craft, in the second five, we collaborated with teachers to plan and implement workshops, and in the last five, classroom teachers did most of the telling and all of the planning. The final – yet to be accomplished – activity will be a day of fishbowl lessons modeled by our focus teachers for their colleagues who were not involved in the project. The model lessons will be supplemented by a professional development workshop taught by Storytelling Arts artists, Julie Pasqual and Gerald Fierst.
Although the two factors mentioned above may be most important in this project’s success, there are other things that made it strong. They are, in two words, collaboration and communication: involvement of more than one artist and collaboration between teaching artists through every stage of the process, from initial planning to the final assessment; ongoing communication between the arts organization administrator, the school administrator, and the artists; thoughtful selection of participating teachers by the school administrator; and true collaboration between classroom teachers and teaching artists.  

Also, the ultimate success of a project like this takes years. During this first year, Julie and I have learned things about the school culture that will help us improve a second year program. Then, as every storyteller knows, it takes three times to get it perfect. I have my fingers crossed.