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

Monday, October 13, 2014

Storytelling and Community: A Tale of Middle School

Image by Arthur Rackham

A great, great experience at Frelinghuysen Middle School this fall. Sixth grade ELA teacher, Sarah Satkowski, is a joy to work with, an amazing teacher. I loved watching her extend the discussions and writings to fit the needs of her different classroom communities. She really knows sixth graders.  Sarah took lessons from the stories, characters from the stories, and words from the students and expertly wove them into mini-lessons of respect, character, language building and community formation.

As a storyteller hired by an ARTS council, I wanted to emphasize the ‘art’ part of storytelling in all three sessions. (Paula subbed for me on day 2, but we were in conversation). I researched storytelling performance and culture from Haiti and Africa. Paula spoke to the same in the Artic. Because the underlying theme was community I wanted to stress how storytelling brought (brings) communities together, and how storytellers are responsible for keeping the traditions and cultures viable in these communities.

Another underlying conceit was that of storytelling as a form of communication in all forms, oral, physical and written.
In discussion via email Sarah and I developed the following plan of attack.

Day 1: What is storytelling? What is community? Listening and oral response were the focus.
We started with blank chart paper titled “What is storytelling?” The students worked in groups with post-it notes and developed ideas of what they thought was going to happen. These were put on the chart and added to or subtracted from as the students got to hear stories. A few of their ideas were: Storytelling is  the art of creating a story, suspenseful, entertaining with creativity and imagination, beautiful language, connect to audience, magical, stories explain the unexplainable.

I told a story from Haiti. We discussed briefly answering such questions as “Why did so and so do this?” “What happened to so and so?”  Then another post-it note session for students to generate ideas to answer, “What is Community?” Some of what they wrote: Community is working together to solve a problem, to be respectful and responsible, rules and laws, connecting to each other, a civilized group.

I spoke about storytelling in Haiti and then told more Haitian tales from The Magic Orange Tree. Deep oral discussion followed. Inevitably the question arose, “Are these stories true?” Staying quiet, I waited to hear how they would respond. One girl said,” It could be true without the magic in it.”

Day 2:  Exploring stories and characters through movement
Paula told The Girl Who Dreamed Geese and led the class in movement exercises.  Sarah and students told me all about it. As you will see in her response (below) Sarah honed in on the aspect of empathy. She brought this up as we listened to stories on Day 3. I believe it’s true. We feel empathy for the characters as we listen. Even if it is only for those 6-10 minutes of the story, we have at least experienced empathy.

Day 3: Exploring storytelling and community through writing
Sarah came up with some great questions to be used as writing prompts. These were written on chart paper. Before we even talked about what students were going to write, stories were told and discussed. This time stories came from countries in Africa. Again, we explored storytelling traditions and cultural values.
At this point students wrote. Sarah lets them chose from different writing prompts. 

These were posted.
1)    How are storytelling and community connected?
2)     Chose one story and explain what it tells us about community.
3)    How has the storytelling experience changed our classroom community?
The students chose one prompt,wrote and then shared a bit. We made sure to save enough time for a short wrap up story.  Here are some of the students’ writings. Sarah’s is here as well.

Excerpts from student’s writings:
·       “The community and storytelling are both alike because the stories that a storyteller tell (sic) can be true.”
·      “Storytelling is time when you need a community to talk and discuss about storytelling People participating is a sign of community.”
·      “The story I chose was Anansi’s Six Sons. This story tells us that to have a good community everyone has to do their part. All of Anansi’s sons helped him in their own way...”
·      “A story that involved community was Tipingee. When the girls teamed up and saved Tipingee from becoming a servant, they worked together as one little community.”
·      “Most storys (sic) or folk-tales are about a community coming together or working together just like a community would. The things we need to have to have a successful community is another thing we learned from storytelling. Story telling helped us learn more about communitys (sic) work and how important it is to have a successful community.”
·       “I think we have changed in a happy way because we enjoy storytelling and love hearing the fun stories and activities we do. That’s why I think storytelling has changed our classroom and also we learned about different cultures.”
Sarah Satkowski (teacher) This was written in the time, at the same time, allotted to students.
     “Over the three storytelling sessions with Julie and Paula I think that our classroom community has changed dramatically. To begin, I feel that listening to stories leveled the playing field and really allowed everyone equal access to understanding and engagement. The content of the stories we heard facilitated conversations around many of the pillars of community and allowed us to examine our roles in communities. I believe the most challenging aspect of this experience has been our willingness to share, increased comfort level with one another and our ability to empathize. (Something that is often sorely missed in middle school.)
     Overall--- I think we are all better community members because of storytelling.”

Post by Julie Della Torre

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