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

Friday, May 26, 2017

Brainerd Residency 2017

by Luray Gross

It’s a rainy evening and I have not yet unpacked my suitcase after a four-day stint in the central Jersey town where I used to live.  I was there as the teller for a four-day storytelling residency at Brainerd Elementary School. Brainerd opted to have me see each of their sixteen kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade classes for one 45-minute introduction to storytelling.  This seemed to work out just fine.

In each session I told three or four tales, including at least one story in which the children participated through chanting, singing, and/or movement.  My hope was to activate not only their mental image-making facilities, but to create a situation in which they helped the story unfold with their participation.  I was quite pleased with the involvement of the students and touched by their wide-eyed attention and the many connections they made with other folktales and with their personal lives.

Luray telling to Brainerd Elementary School students
Near the end of a session with one of the second grade classes, a boy I’ll call Manny raised his hand to say, “I have a connection to that dress story.  It’s like my mother.”  The first story I had told his class was the Haitian tale, “Tipingee,” in which the main character is left with her stepmother after both her parents have died. As the story unfolds, Tipingee asks her friends to wear dresses the same color as hers and thus help her stay safe. In my telling of the story today, I found myself inserting an explanation for the selfishness of the stepmother who offers Tipingee as a servant to a man demanding payment for carrying a bundle of wood.  I said something like, “When Tipingee’s father married again, his new wife was kind and caring, but after he died, something in her heart cracked, and she became mean and selfish.”  A few other students had comments and questions about the stories, then Manny raised his hand again to quietly ask, “Do you want to hear about my mother?”
   “Would you like to tell us?” I asked.
Manny nodded and quietly explained that his mother’s parents both used “bad drugs,” and sometimes they didn’t even give her anything to eat, but her grandmother realized what was happening, took Manny’s mother to live with her and took care of her.  “And she grew up and met my dad and got married and they had me, and now she is happy,” Manny concluded.  All simply told.  All from a deep place.

This kind of happening is far from rare when age-old stories are brought to life in a classroom.  Children explode with energetic laughter over silly antics and grow thoughtful when the dilemmas of characters resonate with their own challenges. One of the most rewarding things for me is when this occurs for a teacher.  That too happened at Brainerd School.  In another second grade class I ended our session with the Native American story, “Gluscabi and the Wind Eagle.”  In the tale, the larger-than-life boy Gluscabi gets fed up with the wind and finds a way to trick the great bird, the source of that element.  He succeeds in stopping the wind, only to discover how much we need it.  Then he must reverse his actions to restore the great bird to its mountain top.  I tend to end this tale by saying, “And so it has been to this day:  sometimes the wind blows so hard we cannot stand against it, sometimes it is a gentle breeze, and sometimes there is not a breath of wind at all.”

Mrs. H, the teacher, was sitting behind her students for all of the stories, attentive and drawn in, but the wind story was different.  Her whole body was leaning into it, and when I finished, she was the one who raised her hand.  “That reminds me of something our pastor said in a sermon about the winds of adversity.  That’s what they can be.”   Without her having to say more, I understood that she knew what that adversity felt like and had found a way to stand up in its presence.  When we saw each other again in the faculty room, that bond of understanding remained.   For me, one of the deep rewards of this work.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Finding Focus - A Workshop with Regina Ress

by Paula Davidoff

I love my job, but there are times when I feel like I’ve lost focus: I’ve grown too comfortable with my repertoire; I’m using the same activities in every workshop; I get so invested in a lesson plan that I can’t realize I should drop it when it’s not working. I found myself in one of those slumps at the end of February or the beginning of March and I couldn’t find my way out of it. So when I saw that Regina Ress was leading a workshop at my storytelling guild this month, I jumped on it.

I first heard Regina tell nearly twenty years ago during a concert at a MidAtlantic Storytelling Conference. At the time, I had been working as a teaching artist for only two or three years and the MAST conference was my first experience of a big storytelling event. I don’t remember who the keynote speaker was that year or which workshops I attended, but I can close my eyes and see Regina moving across the stage as she told a piece from the Dayak saga Adi, Song of Agan. I can hear her voice change as she slips from narrator to character. I can even remember what she was wearing. She is an extraordinary storyteller. She is also an important storyteller. Her work is varied, broad, and deep; and she does it all over the world.

Her workshop at the NJ Storytelling Guild’s May meeting was entitled, Storytelling on the Moment, and it addressed the question of what we, as teachers and artists, can do when we find ourselves on the coat tail of an event that has caused an emotional upheaval in the community. One answer, of course, is that we could teach the lesson or tell the stories we had planned, knowing that sometimes offering the opportunity to escape into story is the best gift we can give. But this was not the focus of Regina’s workshop.

Regina reminded us that our work is cloaked in metaphor and, therefore, has the potential to help listeners begin to navigate even the saddest or most frightening circumstances without forcing them to directly address the real life source of their sorrow or fear. She told us about the myths and folktales she has used when she found herself working in the midst of a crisis: teaching in a school near ground zero in the days and weeks after 9/11; telling at a winter solstice coffee shop gathering that happened to take place the day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School murders, and telling at an urban playground a few hours after one of the student counselors had gone missing. Her stories reminded us that we have in our own repertoires many tales that would be appropriate to offer at such times. We need only the presence of mind to realize that we're carrying the gift.

She conducted the workshop as a conversation between herself and the participants, telling stories that illuminated important points in the discussion. In other words, she modeled the lesson she had brought us, illustrating how metaphor, through story, helps clarify and organize the things we know but may not be able to say; how it speaks volumes in just a few words; and how it sprinkles light into darkness so we can begin to find our way.

I left Regina’s workshop uplifted, with renewed enthusiasm for my work. A reminder that good teachers have the power.