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

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Winding the Storyteller's Path through High School Classrooms

by Gerald Fierst

As the year draws to its close, I have been thinking a lot about journeys.  Paula Davidoff and I have been creating an extraordinary program at Passaic Valley High School where the Superintendent of Schools, Joanne Cardillo, has asked us to mentor a select group of teachers in the use of storytelling in the classroom.  Our classes include Public Speaking, English Literature, Children’s Literature, and Identity in Literature    Our stories range from  Speak, a young adult novel about sexual abuse, to Antigone, to Little Red Riding Hood. 

Decades ago, Joseph Campbell popularized the interpretation of stories as a universal hero’s journey - birth, life, death and rebirth - forming an endless cycle reflecting the course of our lives.  Rick Riordan, the author of the Percy Jackson and Magnus Chase series, is the latest author to contemporize this concept into accessible adventures.  In the classroom, I have been reverting to folktales and personal story to illustrate that stories are not about what was, but what is.  Even at Halloween, I could tell the personal story of a ghost who appeared to me, evoking the most wonderful question a storyteller can hear, “Did that really happen?”  A story wouldn’t be told if it weren’t true.  All of us have faced a monster and been devoured whether by a stupid choice, a bully, or a final exam.  Yet, we do go on - wiser and stronger if we can take inspiration from the fools and heroes whose stories are a part of our human inheritance.

When we build curricula, we are not dramatizing the information which is already in the literature and text books; rather, we should be creating the portal through which the student goes Aha! and makes the connection for him/herself.  We are teaching a way to interpret the world through parallel and symbolic thinking rather than literal recitation oƒ facts.  The common trend is to teach that there is a right way.  The storyteller's way is to teach that the path takes twists and turns, and the lesson is not to get lost, but to discover and renew.

High school students in 2017 present challenges.  Tied to their digital instruments, they see the world within a small circle of communication, the triumph of the sound bite. Discussing Antigone,  I told the story of Sojourner Truth and her famous Ain’t I A Woman speech.  How is a black woman in 1848 like an ancient Greek princess, I asked?  A stunned silence.  The journey had to take us to the realization that the human struggle for dignity and justice is age old and as relevant today as it ever was.  A story from Yaffa Eliach’s Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust reinforced that we must all hold on to each other to rise above the monsters that wait to destroy. 

As someone who has defined himself as a storyteller over four decades, I have often thought back to the stories that set me on my course.  When I was in sixth grade, my teacher, Mr. Reed, had newly arrived from England and was shocked that we didn’t know such classics as Winnie the Poo and Charlotte’s Web.  So, every day he would read to us.  The magic of great words and simple truths was laid before us as lessons as we moved into adolescence.  So it is with this year at Passaic Valley.  I hope that the stories I tell, the words and rhythms I create, and the parallels we make to now, and then, and ever, will be more than an educational tool, but, in the full sense of education, a step forward on our students’ journey into their future.