The two-room school was on the river side of Highway 97, about halfway between Wenatchee and Chelan. Fruit trees in central Washington were covered with the blossomed promise of a good crop.
Orondo was too small to offer much more than housing for farm workers and a handful of other families. Their tiny settlement was strung along the east bank of the Columbia River.
A quarter of a century ago there weren’t more than sixty children in the school. Kindergarten through third grade met in one room. Grades four through six had their own teacher in the other room. When I parked outside the school, curious children ran up. They knew the storyteller was coming and greeted me warmly.
I told stories to the younger classes, then to the older group. They were sponges, absorbing the stories through every pore. They were so eager, so responsive I was as entranced by the stories as they were. And then it was over, and I had promises to keep in other schools.
Two years later I toured the same schools in central and eastern Washington. Once again, I turned my vehicle into the small parking lot. Once again, curious children ran up to greet the visitor and escort me into the school.
I started with the younger children and told them a whole new set of stories, ones I knew I hadn’t pulled out of the hat for my first visit. Then I joined the older group. Two-thirds of them had been in the younger group two years earlier. I was eager to tell them stories that would be new to them, more challenging, more suited to their growing maturity.
They would have none of it. “Tell us about the hen and the giant. We want to hear about the giant pumpkin.” And so it went, story after story. After the fourth and fifth graders had heard the stories they remembered, the sixth graders insisted on hearing the ones they had heard in fourth grade. Forty-five minutes stretched to an hour, then ninety minutes, until I finally had to stop because the school day was nearing its end.
The children taught me an important lesson that day. I was still a fairly new storyteller and assumed audiences always wanted to hear new material. I was feverishly adding stories to my repertoire so as to never repeat one to a group I’d performed for before.
Stuff and nonsense. When we hear a song that stirs us, a melody that haunts us, we want to hear it again and again. We learn the words, sing it in the shower, belt it out as we drive, buy the track.
The same is true of stories. When they resonate, we want to travel that path again, and not just when we are children.
Years ago, Professor Spencer Shaw told me children want the same book read to them over and over because “the children know what’s going to happen, but the characters don’t”. The children in the two-room Orondo school knew what was going to happen in those stories. They also knew the characters didn’t. So I sent my mind back into the world of those earlier stories. Together, the children and I found out.
Start them young. Fill their heads with stories, and children will have the guideposts they need to find their way through life’s labyrinth. I remember meeting a young storyteller when I was touring American military schools in Germany. Her family was housing me during my stay in the community. I’m sure the six-year-old girl expected a magical being to get off the train. Instead, what she saw was a middle-aged, quite ordinary woman. Her face fell.
The two mothers who met me, along with the disappointed six-year-old, found a café in the city’s central square. We ordered lunch and sat talking about the storytelling performances I would be doing next day. The child was silent, watching me speculatively.
Lunch came, and I could see the little girl was shivering. I offered her some of my hot soup. That seemed to thaw things between us. She blurted out, “Would you like to hear a story?”
Encouraged by my enthusiastic reply, she began to tell a folktale with complete absorption and consummate skill. Thrilled with the responses of three admiring adults, she told another and then another. After several stories, her mother asked her where she had learned the stories.
Turned out her babysitter read folktales to her, and the girl learned them by heart. Her mother was astonished, as the child had never told her the stories. I was astonished because she was the most accomplished young storyteller I had ever met.
The two children in the videos were considerably younger when these stories were recorded. The little guy in the first video is off to a strong start. Hats off to his mother, who’s nurturing her child’s natural love of words, ideas, and stories. (You can check out her videos on WillowWeathers’s YouTube Channel.)
The second is young Capucine, the French storyteller who became something of a YouTube sensation with her charming storytelling. This video version takes the original story and turns it into a production, with Capucine’s storytelling woven through it.
The brown-eyed five-year-old proudly held up her new doll. As always, I asked what her new companion’s name was. You’ll know this was a while back when I tell you her response: “Strawberry Shortcake”.
Children in the K-3 school where I spent my last two years as a school librarian loved to show off their new doll, plastic duck, stuffed animal, or train engine. I always oohed and ahed appropriately, and I always asked what they had named it. I can’t remember a single time when they had given it a name they hadn’t heard in a commercial for it.
I’d never had children, but I figured not re-naming toys gave story-making power to the corporations that created them. My job was to return that power to the children.
“Does she have another name? A special name you gave her?”
“No. She’s Strawberry Shortcake.”
“What does she like to eat? What’s her favourite game? Does she sleep in her shoes? Does she wear her t-shirts inside out?”
Question by question, I’d encourage the children to create a story about their new toy. Give it character, eccentricities, preferences, secrets only the child could know. Some gave up quickly. They couldn’t imagine a life for the toy that existed outside the confines of the marketing story. I was sad for them but hoped all the stories they heard during their library visits would fill them with enough colourful details to stir their imaginations.
Others entered into the game, whether quickly or reluctantly. After they had answered a dozen questions, I’d say to them, “That doesn’t sound like a Strawberry Shortcake (or whatever other name they’d given). Ask her if she has another name she likes better, a name that is hers alone, a name she’d like you to call her.”
For the children, the new names became signals for the toys’ stories. For me, they were a way to combat the weighty power of marketing by encouraging children to believe in the power of their own story-making abilities. They were born with them, but advertising had been having its way with them, robbing them of some of their belief in their own creativity.
My insistence on children’s giving names and stories to their toys was a tiny gesture in the big scheme of things. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Missing a chance to shine
“Sol’s” story is true, though I’ve changed his name out of deference for the young hero. I met him while working as Storytelling Director for Stagebridge, the US’s oldest senior theatre company
Marijo Joseph, a talented performer who often worked with Stagebridge, was teaching Sol and some of his classmates to be storytellers. The day of their school performance, Sol nearly missed his chance to shine.
When I stopped by the office to sign in, Sol was there on “house suspension”.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“The teacher said I was talking, but it wasn’t me.” Whatever the case, at that moment Sol was about to miss one of his few chances for positive recognition.
Marijo set off to persuade his classroom teacher to give him a reprieve long enough to perform. I chatted with him briefly, then went to the auditorium.
Sol becomes the story
Minutes before he was to take the stage, Sol hurried into the room. When his turn came, he gave a first-person narrative of a slave who had rowed hundreds of others to freedom. Sol was a natural storyteller. When he performed, he was the story. Though he was the only white child in his class, Sol crawled so completely into the character his skin color didn’t matter.
My eyes were on Sol so I didn’t notice a few classmates lifting their arms to sniff their armpits in a gesture of disdain. The mockery was cruel, but Sol often did reek of unwashed clothing on an unwashed body. His home was a van with no electricity. If he did homework it was by the glow of battery-operated tap lights. Baths and clean clothes were luxuries.
The children’s teasing was not surprising. I’d seen turkeys do the same thing. They’d spot a bit of blood on another turkey and keep pecking at it, sometimes until the victim died. In this case it was Sol’s spirit they were pecking.
Sol was one of those children who talk easily with adults but have trouble finding a niche with their peers. He was one of the few white children in the school, but deep poverty and a lack of age-appropriate social skills were what isolated him from his classmates.
He adored Marijo, who inspired him to stand tall in spite of the stones life was throwing in his path. As we left the gymnasium after the performance, Sol came up to her. “Thank you,” he said. “Stagebridge has provoked my interest in storytelling.”
Wondering how to help
Success in storytelling did not improve Sol’s classroom behaviour. When she couldn’t handle him any more, the teacher transferred him across the hall, to a classroom with a male teacher.
At Stagebridge we pondered how we could help the talented but troubled young man. We decided on a modest plan to focus his energy on something besides stirring up trouble.
Aside from Marijo, he also knew one of our skilled elders, Lady Laura. She had been his classroom’s special storyteller. She was the one who had first sparked his interest in storytelling. We decided to enlist her in our scheme.
Lady Laura was a retired black school teacher. She had dealt with every kind of challenge a student could throw in a teacher’s path. She graciously agreed to go into the school and let Sol interview her, then help him write a story about her good enough to record on radio.
With Lady Laura and Sol’s teacher both supportive, I drove to the school and spoke to Sol. I reminded him that we thought he was a very talented storyteller and asked if he would be willing to interview Lady Laura and write a story for radio. He would have to agree not to act out in class between then and the radio taping, and he would have to keep up with his studies in spite of the extra work. Sol was thrilled and promised to adhere to his end of the bargain.
A small success
I’d like to report the next few weeks were smooth sailing. They weren’t. Lady Laura found working with Sol challenging. His listening and writing skills were not well developed. And, to be honest, being in close proximity to a child with no washing facilities was not always pleasant.
But they both persevered, and on the day of the radio taping, Sol was one of nine children whose stories were recorded for future broadcast on KPFA.
As usual, I had loaded my van with children and adults needing a ride to the studio. My last stop on the return trip was Sol’s. A day earlier, when I offered to pick him up at the school and take him home after the taping, he told me I could drop him off at the bus stop. He’d catch the bus home.
So I was honoured when he felt comfortable enough to let me take him all the way to the beat-up van he and his mother called home. It was parked on a freeway overpass in a neighborhood so rundown the police probably didn’t bother with anything as insignificant as a broken-down van piled high with a family’s few worldly goods.
The school year ended shortly after the radio taping. Next fall Sol was no longer in the same school. No one knew where he had gone. I’ve no idea what happened to him and don’t kid myself his life was forever transformed by his brush with storytelling.
I do know that for at least a while he knew others saw him as talented and valued. For at least a few weeks he believed he was strong enough to draw gems from the rough stones of his life. I hope the memory was a source of courage on the rough path ahead.
And sometimes, when I think of him, my heart just hurts.
From February 2004 through April 2005 I was Storytelling Director for Stagebridge, America’s oldest senior theatre. My job was to work with seniors who were taking stories into the inner-city schools of Oakland, California. At the time, the position was supported by a federal grant intended to support literacy programs. Though reading improvement is hard to correlate with any one thing, the researchers working with the program were able to measure a statistically significant difference between students in classes with a storyteller and those without. “We’re Not Dumb Kids” is just one of many stories from an extraordinary year.
When Jim McWilliams walked into the class, a room full of fifth graders fell silent. They knew something good was coming.
Jim was “their” storyteller. Once a month the retired lawyer came into the inner-city Oakland school to tell stories to the class. When he spoke of leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, he called them Medgar (Evers) or Martin (Luther King). They had been friends and fellow activists, not just names he read in the newspaper.
The school lay in the heart of a city pocked like a bombing target. Some neighbourhoods were so derelict they looked as if they had been abandoned, and in many ways they had been. Drugs were sold openly. Violence was so common when children talked about gang beatings or drive-by shootings they were generally not referring to television shows.
Most of the houses surrounding the school were in good repair. The streets were home to Black American families with middle-class aspirations, but many of the children in the school were from families barely scraping by or living in poverty. The hills above them were populated be comfortably middle- and upper-class white families. That kind of social disparity has high costs. The average academic ranking of the students in the school was low.
I visited the school to watch Jim in action. He started out with a short folktale, something surefire to warm up his audience. They listened, as they always did when Jim spoke, but they were listless and distracted.
Jim finished his story and looked around. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
The children answered glumly, “They’re closing our school.”
School closures were being announced regularly in the Bay Area, a curious consequence of the federal “No Child Left Behind” program that was mandating standardized tests and minimal performance standards. Schools that didn’t measure up to required standards were losing funding.
“Why are they closing your school?” Jim asked.
“Because we’re dumb kids.”
Jim was startled, but he understood after their teacher read part of a news release. It named schools being closed because they were “underperforming”. The kids knew what that meant. They were dumb.
“Are you dumb kids?” Jim asked.
“No,” they chorused.
“So what are you going to do about it?”
It hadn’t occurred to the children they could challenge the school board’s decision. As Jim talked with them and asked them questions, the gloom in the class lifted. Jim organized students to write letters to the school board. He taught them how to protest the closure of the school and their portrayal as underachievers, how to get on the speakers’ list at the next board meeting, how to stand up for themselves, how to contact media and enlist allies. (They learned the lesson well and talked him into coming with them to the board meeting and speaking on their behalf.)
The children’s eyes were shining when we left. They were sitting tall. They were afire with enthusiasm and not because they expected the school board to reverse its decision. Jim had been clear that was unlikely.
Jim had given them something more important than winning a battle to keep the school open. He had given them a new story. They were not “dumb kids”. They were smart, socially active fighters for justice.
I don’t know how long they held onto that new story. I don’t know how many lives were changed that day. I do know a room full of children learned they could refuse to be labeled.
And that is a powerful story.
Friends of the Earth have created a very powerful short plea for the “men in suits” to act on what they already know to avert disaster due to climate change. Using a child as narrator and some clever visual storytelling, the video is a graphic summary of the problem and the need for urgency.
I found this through a new Twitter friend, Nick Kellet. He’s CMO and Product Strategist for HuStream, a company that “mixes human psychology video wizardry and web-based technology to redefine viewer engagement.” Browsing around their site gave me all kinds of ideas for using storytelling for promoting, informing and inspiring.
One very exciting example is a “video conversation” that features children from a school that raised $16,000 for a project called “Free the Children“. A second example is a promo video for Isagenix’s Beyond Courage personal development retreat.
There are lots more good examples on the Friends of the Earth YouTube Channel and on HuStream. Have to say I’m proud to know the latter is a company right here in my own home town of Kelowna, British Columbia.
As adults we often squirm when a folktale ventures into the charged world of violence. I’ve known storytellers to avoid these tales or to temper them, particularly with child audiences.On the other hand, I’ll never forget what the Canadian doyenne of storytelling, Alice Kane, told a workshop audience in Rochester, New York. This was years ago so I’ll have to paraphrase.
We’d seen her take the stage the night before. She was in her early 80s at the time. Before she walked onstage, a young helper brought out a chair. I assumed she was going to sit in it, which seemed appropriate for an elderly teller.
She didn’t. She placed a hand on the back of the chair, for stability. For the next hour she—and the audience—barely moved a muscle. No sweeping gestures, no exaggerated character voices, just a confident and sure mastery of stories that had us all in the palm of her hand.
Next day she gave a workshop on storytelling. One moment in particular stands out in my mind. Someone wanted to know how she dealt with violence in stories.
In her candid and direct way, she said surely we didn’t think children were unaware of the violence around them. Television was not the only teacher. They witnessed it on the playground, in classrooms, in their own homes.
Alice Kane told us we would lose credibility with children if we avoided the gritty tales. What children needed from us was assurance that justice would, in the end, prevail. The folktales that niggled our adult sensibilities reassured children that things would work out.
I wish I could remember her exact words. I can’t, but this quotation from G.K. Chesterton captures the essence.
“Children are innocent and love justice, while most adults are wicked and prefer mercy.” ~ G. K. Chesterton
Someone said to me the other day that good storytelling can’t be taught. People are storytellers or they aren’t, and no amount of coaching can change that.
The same could be said about the best dancers, musicians, and painters. Some have such innate talent that, when they move to music or pick up an instrument or brush, inspiration seems to flow from them.
On the other hand, I’m reminded of the oft-quoted Henry Van Dyke, “Use what talents you possess, for the woods would be very silent if no bird sang except the best”.
I would argue that what Barbara Ueland, in If You Want to Write, says about writing is also valid for storytelling: “Yes, when you get down to the True self and speak from that, there is always a metamorphosis in your writing, a transfiguration.”
When someone tells a story from the “True self”, both the teller and the tale are transfigured. Sometimes all a person needs is permission to be her true self or to speak from his deepest wisdom.
When I began teaching storytelling, I tried all these tips with students. I soon found they were just as successful with adults.1. Use pantomime as a means of preparing students to tell stories. Push a heavy box across the floor, up a hill. Walk on a log high over a rushing river. Eat a banana. Be a slug, a seagull. Learn to ride a bicycle.
2. Do action-conversation skits. Be three fish and a heron in a polluted inlet. Be a garbage can, being filled, being emptied, standing in the rain. Be a car with a nail in its tire. Be the tip of an artist’s paintbrush. In each case, accompany the action with the character’s verbal reaction to the situation.
3. Convey impressions through gestures. What kinds of gestures, motions, poses, and facial expressions convey confusion, concern, friendliness, gregariousness, boredom, shyness, tension, fear, joy, confidence, uncertainty, surprise, interest?
4. Tell a story solely with gestures. Have a partner mirror them.
5. Use a painting or photograph as the basis for a story-building session.
6. Pose a character and a conflict, and do a story in the round. The leader starts the story; each person adds a few sentences, and on through the conclusion. Have students rewrite their own versions, letting their minds free for wild flights of imagination.
7. Make up excuse stories: Why I didn’t do my homework. Why I can’t clean my room. Why I lost the library book. Why I’d rather eat with my fingers. Why I can’t comb my hair.
8. Tell personal experience stories: I was so embarrassed… I’ve never had a pet like that before… That was my best birthday ever… I was so scared… I really got in trouble for that… I laughed until I cried… I’ll never forget my favorite tree…
9. Tell stories into a tape recorder. Listen to them. Improve on them. Add vivid description, lively dialogue. Record them again. Tell them to other students, to your family, to the class.
10. Tell folk tales. Learn the story as a series of images rather than as memorized words. Read the story over and over. Draw pictures of the important scenes. Use them to tell the story, then just tell the story.
NB: In my opinion, Barbara Ueland’s book on writing is still one of the best. I’m delighted to see it is still in print.
Storytelling in the Classroom
10 ideas for bringing storytelling into the school day
15 ideas for expanding students’ understanding of a story
The tips below can also be used as writing prompts and not just in schools. I started using these years ago, when I taught a group of third-grade students to become storytellers.
One child in particular stands out in my mind. Robbie was a shy boy, the kind who can easily be overlooked because he never speaks up, never acts out, always does his homework. I was stunned when he applied to join the school’s first storytelling troupe.
I was a school librarian at the time and asked his teacher if she thought Robbie could learn to be a storyteller. I can’t remember her exact words, but it was on the order of, “If you can teach a dishrag to dance.” She wasn’t being mean, just honest.
Still, Robbie’s mother was my best volunteer. I’m not proud of myself for having approved Robbie’s request to keep his mother onside.
Within a few weeks, Robbie not only chose and learned his own story. He learned everyone else’s. He became the troupe’s coach. When a storyteller froze on stage and couldn’t remember the story, Robbie quietly fed her lines until she recovered. When another fell ill, Robbie stepped in and told his tale.
And Robbie could spin stories like a master. He didn’t just recite the stories. He became the stories. You could see it on the enthralled faces of his audiences, children and adults alike.
At the end of the year, his mother told me she had been shocked when Robbie asked her to sign his application. “Why do you want to be a storyteller,” she had asked. “You’re too shy.”
Her quiet son had replied, “I think it’s time I stopped being so shy.”
I’ve no idea if Robbie’s life was changed by his transformation from invisible boy to animated storyteller, but I know mine was. If I’d had the slightest doubt of the transforming power of storytelling, I lost it as I watched Robbie take the stage.
1. Identify the beginning, middle, and end of a story. Draw pictures for each. Retell the story using the pictures.
2. Act out scenes from familiar stories. Crawl right into the characters. How would a troll rise from under a bridge? How would a wolf speak to a child in a red cape? How would a chicken run from a falling sky?
3. Compare as many variants of a folktale as you can find. Choose variants that come from different cultures. In a study of world cultures, folktales reveal both similarities and differences. The Cinderella story is a good example. Similar stories are told around the world: Aschenputtel in Germany, The Magic Orange Tree in Haiti, Vasilisa the Beautiful in Russia. Nancy Keane has put together a list of many of these variants.
4. Write a different ending for a familiar story. Supposing the queen had not guessed Rumpelstiltskin’s name? What if the frog had never turned into a prince? What if the three bears had lived in a city apartment?
5. Retell a story from the viewpoint of one of the characters. How would the witch tell the story of Hansel’s and Gretel’s nibbling on her house? How would the oldest step-sister tell the story of Cinderella?
6. Write imaginary conversations between characters. Have Jack and the Giant talk about the magic beanstalk and all the things Jack stole. Bring together characters from different stories. Molly Whuppie and Jack could compare notes on their adventures with giants. They could write letters to each other.
7. Have students retell a familiar story in pairs. One begins; the other takes over when you call, “Switch.” This is a challenge to listening, sequencing, and memory skills.
8. Change the motivation of a central character. Rewrite the story from that point of view. Make Snow White’s stepmother into a sympathetic character. What if Rumpelstiltskin was trying to save the queen from a king who only wanted to marry her because she could spin gold?
9. Describe characters in a story. What does little Red Riding Hood look like? The Frog Prince? The giant who confronts Jack?
10. Describe the landscape of a story. What does the Three Bears’ house look like? What kind of a forest surrounded the house of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother? What was the weather like when the goats came tripping over the bridge?
11. Read pourquoi (how-and-why) tales that contemplate the origins of natural phenomena. Then have students write their own. What are rainbows? How did skunk get his special weapon? What formed the mountains? Why do koalas sleep most of the day?
12. Experiment with body language. What one gesture could characterize the princess who slept on a pea? How would the Beast stand and move in the presence of Beauty?
13. Have students write in a journal as though they were a story character. What would one of the dwarfs write in his on the day Snow White appears? What would a robber write in his after being frightened by the Brementown musicians? What would Cinderella have to say about her stepsisters?
14. Publish a newspaper with folk tale headlines and articles. “Chicken leg fools witch.” “Blowhard wolf meets his match.” “Hundred-year sleep ends with kiss.” (Imagine how the Personals column would read!)
15. Ask students to write a song or chant for the characters in a story. What does Jack sing as he climbs the beanstalk? What does the princess chant when the frog asks her to take him home?
©2010 Cathryn Wellner
My storytelling career began back in Rochester, New York, where I was a school librarian in a suburban community (Greece) north of the city. I didn’t think of it as storytelling when I told high school students stories in order to lure them into reading. Sometimes it backfired when a whole classroom of students would rush to borrow the one copy of the book.
It wasn’t until I asked the school district to move me to an elementary school that I began to put a name to what I was doing. Placed in a school with grades K-3, I found myself with 24 classes a week trooping into the library. Teachers got a 45-minute break, and I got a library full of squirmy children. They did not need the research skills I’d been teaching teens. They did need stories.
One day I decided to try telling them a story, instead of reading it. “Where’s the book?” the kindergarten class wanted to know.
“In your head,” I replied.
As I started the story, I felt an unfamiliar stillness in the room. This class had always enjoyed hearing books read to them. This was different, as if every child in the room was holding his or her breath while the story unfolded in their heads.
A five-year-old with straight brown hair and wide brown eyes leaned closer and closer as the story unfolded. When it ended, her eyes were still glazed, as if she were reluctant to leave the landscape of the tale. Finally, her whole body relaxed and she sighed, “That was a good story.”
I was hooked. I still read books to all the classes, but I also told stories, letting the words spin through their minds, triggering a kind of intense listening unlike anything else I did with them.
When I left teaching to take to the road as a professional storyteller, I discovered that intense listening occurred with people of all ages. And I realized the teachers who still shine in my memory were all storytellers.
Here are ten suggestions for making storytelling a natural part of classroom culture.
1. Use stories to explore various phenomena: stages of growth, old age, customs and traditions. Stories abound on the Web. A good place to start looking for them is on Jackie Baldwin’s Story Lovers Web site.
2. Enliven the study of history by telling anecdotes about the famous and not so famous.
3. Read or tell stories to begin the study of a new country, a new concept, or a current issue.
4. Reluctant or struggling scholars like to know that Einstein had problems in school or that Galileo got in trouble for telling the truth. Share with them the people behind the scientific discoveries.
5. Tell stories about yourself: childhood memories, struggles and triumphs, humorous anecdotes.
6. Share your excitement whenever you read or hear a story that moves you to laughter or tears or a sense of wonder. Don’t worry that you may not remember all the details. Your enthusiasm will tell them more than the words alone.
7. Encourage students to share their own stories: the puppy’s mischief, the monster in the closet, the first lost tooth, the first week in a new school. Having a chance to be center stage, to have everyone listening is a powerful experience. So is learning to be sensitive to an audience, to shape a story so that it captures the listeners.
8. Examine television and newspaper for stories. Talk about them with your students. Look at story structure, the natural rhythms of the story, character motivations and types, differences in styles.
9. Watch for story references in advertising. What familiar characters do you find? Share them with your students. Have them find others.
10. Tell a story for no reason, which is often the best reason. Revel in the pleasure of watching students listen to you more closely than they do at any other time. Know that your stories, told with enthusiasm and conviction, are one of the greatest gifts you can give your students. Don’t give a thought to technique while you are telling. Enter the story wholly. Your pleasure will be contagious.
©2010 Cathryn Wellner