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

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

Another Artist's Experience from Jack McKeon

The three days at FMS went very well, I think.  The teacher, Renee Marchand, was happy with what I proposed and let me go for it.  Basically I taught the classes for the first two days. When we had time on the second day, Renee put some topics on the board about community and had the kids write post-its and went over them. 

It was a very enjoyable three days. The classes were very different and their reactions to things varied.  They all loved the stories.  I told Jack and the Beanstalk and Tatterhood, both to illustrate figures who have to make their own individual ways into the larger community.  Jack worked particularly well since they got the notion of leaving a small community (family) to get into something broader but that this means facing large, scary things that might swallow them up.  Good lesson for the sixth grade.  The first class was largest and giddiest so the discussions took a little longer and they didn't immediately get to the point, but they finally made it.  The second class was actually slower in some ways but they nailed the stories and their relevance to individuals and community.  The third class was "honors" and more serious and more perceptive.

I told Hardy Hardhead on day two for the movement exercises.  We discussed the contribution of different skills to community. They were puzzled by Jack's doing very little until they considered his generosity and his leadership.  For movement I started with a walk-like-the-character and freeze exercise (thank you JP).  All groups got it, though the responses were fairly obvious. Group one was again more giddy.  I tried an artist/statue activity but it was too complicated for group one and it became a bit chaotic.  Went on to tableaux and let them draw on all the stories.  Not a lot of imagination but enough so that the class could guess the story and scene.  I bagged the statue thing for group two. The rest went very nicely, though when one group made a tableaux with Tatterhood's sister below decks, one kid went under a table.  They loved it so that every group after had to have someone under a table.  Sixth grade.  
We had time leftover so Ms. Marchand reviewed the post-its and tried to generate a bit of discussion that didn't get too far. I re-instituted the statue for the third group (at the teacher’s suggestion) and they were much better at it. I demonstrated the idea using Ms. Marchand as the statue. They all had a lot of fun and it helped them remember the stories, but I'm not sure they got into the stories any further with all this activity.

Ms. Marchand was absent for the third day but there was a good substitute.  I reviewed all the stories I'd told, reminding them of the points they were all supposed to make.  The first group needed more prodding. The other two were right on it. I told The Gecko about animals combining to dig a well, discussed it a bit and the sub presented the writing assignments. All three classes dug into the assignment and worked on it for the rest of the period. There was time left in the last class so I told Br'er Rabbit and He-lion as a parting gift.
In general I think it was a success. The students certainly loved the storytelling and seemed to get the connection to their own lives and the theme of community.  I'm on for next year.

written by Jack McKeon

Friday, October 17, 2014

Middle School Residency: A Teacher's Perspective

The Storytelling Residency was such a valuable experience for my sixth grade students. The experience connected to so many different areas of our curriculum and skills that we are working on in our reading and writing class.  More specifically, asking students to really think about community at the start of the year is beyond helpful in creating an environment conducive to learning.  Through her storytelling Paula was able to help students recognize what helps make a community thrive, and what can deter one from becoming a functioning group.

As a reading teacher, I found it inspiring to see students who were usually afraid to participate raise their hands and provide insightful thought to a discussion. Even during the stories, the level of engagement of all students was astounding. In one class, students took a risk and acted as a character from one of the stories Paula shared with us. My students stood in front of one another and allowed themselves to feel and speak as a character from the book. It was beyond moving to see these children let go of their inhibitions and speak freely in front of one another. Even more, you could see the pride and happiness they had in themselves when they were done sharing.

I feel as though the discussions and activities lead by Paula really allowed students to let their guards down and bring us closer together as a community, both in and outside of the classroom. It has also given me a renewed appreciation for the art of storytelling, and I hope this is something that we can continue to implement at various points throughout our 6th grade year.

written by Ashley Daly, 6th grade ELA teacher at Frelinghuysen Middle School

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

More About Community and Imagination

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship (postcard illustration)
"Over all what I learned from this experience is that a community is a very powerful and that imagination is very big." This comment is from a 6th grade student I (Paula) taught in the storytelling project described by Julie in the previous post. 
For this project, tellers and 6th grade ELA teachers were paired to collaboratively plan and teach a three-day storytelling program that would reinforce the teachers’ literacy goals in their English Language Arts classes and give all participants an opportunity to reflect upon the role of community in various aspects of our lives, and on the responsibility of the individual to his or her community. Although we had guidelines in the form of a general residency plan for each day, storytellers were given the freedom to choose own own material and plan specific workshop activities. Each day of the residency focused on an aspect of working with story: discussion, movement, and writing, respectively.
I collaborated with Ashley Daly, an experienced English language arts teacher whose enthusiasm for teaching and learning is obvious in everything she does in the classroom. She made me, a guest teacher, feel welcome and comfortable, and it was clear that, even at this early stage of their first year in a new, much larger school, sixth graders feel safe in her classroom. Although we began the residency with a detailed lesson plan for each day, we continued to tweak the plan from day to day and, even, from class to class, as we worked through it.

The first day, the discussion day, was also an introduction to storytelling for most of the students and for Ashley. For this reason, I choose to tell three stories during the eighty minute workshop. I began the workshop with Stone Soup because the story provides an example of how collaboration enhances everyone’s experience, but it also reminds us that successful collaborations may require creative persuasion to get the ball rolling. My second story, Sungara Muddies the Water Hole (, also provides an example of how successful communities put aside differences when working towards a common goal. However, because the main character is Trickster, the story raises the question of how the community deals with an uncooperative and, possibly, destructive presence.
Students recognized themselves and each other in the Sungara character when they talked about the kid who refuses to do his or her part in a class project, or whose behavior diminishes everyone else’s experience of a special event. Most of them had come up with or been given strategies for dealing with the character. They also recognized that Trickster has strengths that could enrich the community.
The third story I told this day was Tatterhood. I chose it after discussing plans with my colleague. Jack McKeon, who paired the tale with Jack and the Beanstalk as examples how a non conventional individual struggles to integrate into a community. I thought Tatterhood would provide students with an interesting contrast to Sungara.
Students really enjoyed Tatterhood, but it was the most difficult story for them to discuss. In all of our discussions, it was hard for students to admit their connection to the outcast character. I don’t think they weren’t empathetic, but that the fear of being ostracized is so integral to the sixth grade psyche that public discussion of it is taboo. I imagine, judging from the comfort level she has already established, that this will change in Ashley’s classes as the year progresses.

Day two of the residency was creative drama day. For this workshop I told The Girl Who Dreamed Only Geese from Howard Norman’s collection and used a series of creative drama exercises that gave students the opportunity to ‘live’ in the tale. I could write pages about this story, but I will only say that was perfect for our theme. Ashley and I adjusted the creative drama activities throughout the day based on the impact we thought they made on previous classes. We had a very strong workshop by the end of the day and I was lucky to have a second chance to teach it in Sarah Satkowski’s classroom. Here is what we ended up doing: After hearing the story, each student was assigned a character. (We began by letting students choose a character, but after the first session, we felt that imposing the character would better suit our goal which was to help students empathize with story characters and understand how characters change as the narrative progresses.) A visualization exercise allowed students to become their character. After walking and talking in their new persona, students told, in first person as their character, a part of the character’s story that wasn’t revealed in the story narrative. These narratives were often insightful and, sometimes, quite moving.

Day Three was writing day. I told The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship and asked students to compare it with the first story of the residency, Stone Soup. Students wrote about how their experience with the stories and with storytelling changed their ideas about community. Here are some of the things they wrote:

Story telling really changed the way I thought community was because I thought that community was just a town... Now I learned that community is a very important thing in our lives.

At first all I knew about community was that it’s a group of people who help each other to make a better place. After the stories I learned that in a community everyone depends on each other. It’s somewhat like an ecosystem.

I’ve learned that you should always be cautious about what you say about other people because they might not be what they appear to you.

From Tatterhood, I learned… it’s okay to be you. Also I have learned from the Fool that not all intelligence starts off as clever.

Sometimes 1 person can ruin all the hard work you had worked on.

The stories taught me to give people a chance to prove themselves.

I learned that a community can turn a weak and small person into a big and strong person. What I’m trying to say is that a community is stronger than just one person because everyone has a useful talent and with a group of talents, you can do anything.

Overall I learned that if you build a better community or help out with things in your community you may meet people you never really would have or try new things you didn’t know you could do and maybe even make friends by what you are doing in the community with the people you meet.