Thursday, March 22, 2018

What Is The Best Grade To Introduce Storytelling?

Some years ago, after a storytelling set, a curriculum teacher told me she really wanted to start using storytelling in the classroom. She asked me what would be the best grade to implement such a thing.

I know I had one of those run over by a train looks on my face.

What’s the best grade?


We seem to have forgotten that educating a student is like using a slow cooker to make dinner. You put the raw ingredients in, turn down the heat, and over the course of many hours the various ingredients in the pot simmer and blend to become a savory stew. 

So, what is the best place to start using storytelling?

How about hours old? That's always good. 

The best place to begin using storytelling as an integral part of curricular studies is...


Yes! This is amazing. You can start kids thinking about elements of a story, how language is put together, and images create meaning! Yes!


Sure! That is a great place to start giving kids the tools for language and comprehension. I'm on board.

First Grade?

Yes, you will see some immediate results if you start with first. Go for it!

Second? Second is fabulous! Second graders will get foundational skills that could help them become lifelong readers!

Oh, bring it on! Third is a great year to start storytelling! It will help those students struggling with comprehension! This could curb that pesky fourth grade slump when you get all of these kids who can sound out words but haven't learned how to connect them with images.

Fourth?  (This is a long read, but if you are interested, it is interesting. You can also skim the bits that look interesting.)

Yes, fourth is clearly the best grade to start...right?

Wait. What about Fifth?

They are getting ready for middle school, right? Fifth would ensure they are getting that oral presentation piece. Right?
We love this game!

"What is the best grade to start storytelling?" is a question that needs a long answer about building skills, reading and vocabulary, but in schools today where some amorphous "they" need a provable quick answer that can be tested immediately by a rubric...I'm thinking fourth grade might be a place to start.

The kids are developmentally ready to incorporate the lessons, and it will make a huge difference to them at once.

I am brought to mind of that famous Donald Davis story about storytelling and writing.  He was teaching in a school and he had a number of kids who were struggling with writing.  He had the teachers send those kids to him in the library every Friday for a month for stories.  At the end of that time, all of the kids could write stories

So, for anyone who might be curious, this seems to me to be the progression in question.

1. Before you can write a story, you have to know what is in a story.

2. In order to know what is in a story, you need to be exposed to stories. If you can't read, hearing them is perfect. Even if you can read, hearing them is perfect.

3. Once you are exposed, you will figure out that stories are built out of images. So, you need to figure out how to build images with language

4. Once you understand that you can build images with words, you have to start figuring out what words you know that can be used to build images.

5. Once you start looking through your own vocabulary for descriptions, characters, and settings your ability to visualize language will improve, and that will also increase your joy of reading.

6. f you can’t associate words and images, you can’t read, and writing will be impossible.  

So, the best answer to the question, "What's the BEST grade to start storytelling?" is pretty straightforward.


If that isn't feasible...sigh...start in fourth grade.

Happy Storytelling In Education!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Strength: A Reflection On Stories, Wisdom, and Power

What does it mean to be strong?

Delilah beguiled Samson, lay with him, and when he was asleep, she cut his hair. When the deed was done she called to him, "Wake up Samson, the Philistines have come!"

Without his hair, Samson had no strength and the Philistines took him blinded him and chained him in their great halls to make sport of him.

What does it mean to be weak?

A mouse was scurrying home when she accidentally ran across a lion's paw.

"Well," said the lion, "you'll make a nice snack."
"Don't eat me," cried the mouse.
"Why not?" asked the lion.
"Someday, I might be able to save you!"
"You?" the lion laughed, but he let the mouse go because of its cheek.

What does it mean to be wise?

Anansi is often quite foolish!
Anansi tried and tried to find a way to get down to the bottom of the pond, but he could not do it. When all of the food was gone, the turtle swam to the top of the water and handed Anansi a glass of water.

"Sorry, friend Anansi! I waited as long as I could. I guess you just weren't hungry!"

Don't do something to someone unless you want them to do it right back to you!

What does it mean to be smart?

Brer Rabbit

"Why ain't you dead?" Brer Fox demanded.
"'Cause I was born and bred in this here briar patch, and it is 'xactly where I wanted to be!"

Over this last week, I have been watching the United States of America discuss our national tragedy...our ongoing national tragedy.

I have wondered what stories to tell.

I have wondered what to say.

I have fought and listened and discussed.

I have wept, and yelled, and clenched my fists.

I have also been proud, shocked, incredulous and hopeful.

So, I leave you with this tale (apologies to Margaret Read MacDonald for my not verbatim retelling!)

Strength - A Retelling

Once, all of the animals gathered to determine who was the strongest.

Gazelle went first. She ran like the wind through the trees faster and faster on her powerful and delicate legs. When she stopped, she raised her head proudly.

Everyone nodded solemnly. "Strength!" they intoned.

Gorilla climbed the trees higher and higher with his powerful arms and legs. He swung through the branches and then landed on the ground and pounded his chest.

Everyone nodded solemnly. "Strength!" they intoned.


Elephant ripped trees from the ground with her powerful trunk, picked them up with her tusks and hurled them into the air.

Everyone nodded solemnly. "Strength!" they intoned.

Man arrived late. Man was always late. He had a package with him. He hid it behind a rock and walked into the middle of the gathering.

"Okay!" he announced. "Here I am."

"Welcome," said the other animals. "What can you do?"

"Watch!" said Man.

He jumped up into the trees and went from branch to branch and then swung around from place to place, and then he climbed down and said, "Ta-da!"

"Well," said the animals, "we've already seen climbing. That was nice climbing, but it wasn't as strong as Gorilla's."

"Well," said Man, "watch this!" He ran around with sticks beating on the trees and singing and making lots of noise. He tossed the sticks away, ran over to the animals and said, "Ta-da!"

"Well," said the animals, "We've already seen running. That was nice but not as strong as Gazelle."

"Watch this!" said Man. He began to flip and dance. He went on like this until he was tired. He ran over to the animals and said, "Ta-da!"

"Well," said the animals, "that was entertaining, but lots of us can flip. Is there nothing you do that truly shows your strength?"

Man was upset. "You want to see strength?" he cried. "I'll show you strength!"
He ran to the place where he'd hidden his package, ripped it open, took out a strange object, pointed it at Elephant, and then there was a loud noise. Elephant fell down dead. The animals fled into the trees.

Later, after Man had gone, the animals came out of hiding.

"What was that?" asked one.

"Was it strength?" asked another.

"No," said the owl. "That was death."

To this day, Man walks alone, for he is the only animal who doesn't know the difference between "strength" and "death".

I have heard so many stories of strength and love in the last few days, that I think we might actually make progress.

I have seen determination and strength mobilize a new generation of Americans to oppose the routine slaughter and senseless death of our children that has become such a common thing in this country.

Let us hope these stories and actions can move our country forward.

Holding our children in my heart

The Telling Can Be Powerful
Use It Well

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Telling To The Sixth Grade: Stories to Reach The All Knowing

February is always an exhausting month for me. My running joke is that even people who didn't know they needed a performer of any kind suddenly need a black one in February!

I work with all kinds of audiences. Sixth grade is one of my favorites.

Sixth grade is a funky year for most kids.  It is a transitional year from childhood into the first blush of the teenage years. 

They are going through a hormonal obstacle course on the inside.  Some are changing drastically on the outside, others aren’t changing at all and everyone is noticing.  

All sorts of things that never bothered them before become of paramount importance.

For some, their arms and legs outgrow the rest of their bodies, leaving them awkward and clumsy.  Girls tend to sprout up, often leaving many of the boys behind.  Everybody starts developing towards full maturity and the blessings and curses of that tend to make pretty much everyone wish they were in someone else’s body.

This is the year some parents notice that their child is getting a bit more ‘sassy’.  These tweens need more space and less space and they vacillate between young people and children. 

"Cool Becomes Important" 
Their friends change as well.  Many become concerned about being ‘cool’, not fitting in properly and what their peers think about everything.  Their friendships often change and they start finding a niche where they can fit.  Some kids don’t go through any of this at all and remain untouched by such concerns until they are older.  All and all, it can be a maddening year.

I’ve often said that sixth graders do not belong with elementary kids and they have no place as of yet with the seventh and eighth graders.  In fact, most of them should be buried beneath the school. 

What on earth do you tell this transitional, morphing group of people?  Most think they are too old for stories and the stuff they think they want to hear is way too old for them.

The answer, for me, is pushing the boundaries just a bit. 

The set I offer for sixth grade is called ‘Hormonal Boys and Hyena Girls’.  It goes into the crazy stuff from the boys who think it is funny to hurt each other and don’t seem to understand how their rough play turns into an actual fight, to the girls who end up crying in the bathroom because somebody didn’t like their haircut.  

The kids are always amazed I know what they are dealing with.  It never occurs to any of them that we old folks really were in sixth grade once upon a time.

De Hag
This is the first group where I tell really scary ghost stories.  The caveat being that I gauge the students who seem to be the most freaked out and I ease back a bit so that things don’t get too scary.  Why do I tell these kids really scary stories?  This is the first age where none of them will be willing to admit to their parents they are scared.  

This means no aggrieved parents are going to call the school and complain.  Besides, they like these stories.

The second category of stories I tell to this group falls under the heading of gory and cerebral.

Morgan and the Pot of Brains is a good example of this.  A kid who is picked on until he shuts down completely goes on a lifelong quest to achieve his brains by cutting out the hearts of the things he loves best in the world.  It turns out all right in the end, but the very graphic, funny, sad and interesting twist to the ending is right up the alley for these emerging people.

The Debate in Sign Language is also a favorite of this group.

Here is a version of it that Mark Goldman shared in a classroom.

Once I lead them through a really dark story, I can tell them fun folktales and they love it.  They don’t even remember they are too old for stories.  The truth is this group will love anything as long as you package it right, but going at them through the truths of who they are is also a good way to get them to reflect, even if only cursorily, on their own situation.

Happy Telling!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Where Did January Go?

It is the last week of January, and I am already behind.

Only two blog posts this year? Really?

Spent about seven days this week ill. Nothing debilitating, you understand, just sore throat and more mucus than any one person ought to have in their body. Oh, and it started over the only five days I had off in the entire month of January.

Has nothing happened worth reflecting upon?

Yes. Lots of things.

Virginia Cross Elementary - Great School!
I was in a school a few days ago with a high immigrant population and this came to mind.

I was in a school a couple of weeks ago and this came to mind.

Today I was in a school where I had this conundrum. Oh well, at least they gave me two days heads up, so I knew what I was getting into before I arrived...but honestly...K, 3,5. Who does that to a person?

I was in the mountains last week and had an organizer tell me that many of the teachers were skeptical about storytelling being interesting enough to keep a kid's attention, but they discovered that it was wonderful and that all the kids were engaged.

The Swain Arts Center - Great space for Storytelling
I've had the "I've never seen them sit so still" comment a couple of times, and the "who knew storytelling was this much fun" discovery.

I've had people decide they loved storytelling. I've seen some awesome tellers. I've seen some less than awesome tellers.

I've spoken to some awesome tellers.

I've been inspired by some awesome tellers.

I'm in the final throes of writing a novel.

I'm in the beginning stages of polishing another novel.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon
I read The Girl Who Drank The Moon so much fun. Wonderful book.

The Akata Witch is next on my reading list.

My sister and I are going to spend a long weekend at Harry Potter World sometime this spring.

Been doing a social justice set with my older elementary performances. Think that's what I will be focusing on with that group of kids this year.

I have already done a number of things.

I have already accomplished much.

I have not done nearly enough.

January is ending...and I am already behind.

Happy Februarying!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Thoughts About Story for 2018

We made it to 2018.

More shows, more writing, more teaching.

I found myself in two conversations this week about the nature of storytelling. I thought I'd share some of the observations.

Q: What is the difference between being a storyteller and being a comedian?

My Answer:

Comedy is about laughing at the absurdity of life in common things. You can also take the common, and make it really absurd. It is also about holding up something or someone for mockery or ridicule. A comic is likely to attack an audience member if they make a comment, or do some self-deprecation to get by an awkward moment. The audience is in on the joke, but they are standing outside of the ridiculous, and laughing at it with the comic.

Storytelling is about creating community. It can be funny, absurd, deadly serious, exaggerated, or understated, but it is always about bringing us out of whatever reality we call home int a shared place where go through an experience together. Storytelling is a comment on the life we humans live, and it asks us to find ourselves and those around us in the words. Only when we understand how similar we are will we be able to break down the barriers that separate us and cause so much dissent. To know my story is to see yourself.

Q: What is the secret to being a good storyteller?

It is the same secret to being any kind of artist....practice. If someone is a virtuoso violinist, it s because you can actually feel them in the music. A brilliant painter takes you into the picture itself. A brilliant sculptor can make a static object look animate. A brilliant singer can make your soul leap right through your chest. What about a storyteller? Well, if you are good at what you do in our industry, you, as the storyteller, disappear. You fade into the tale, and the audience isn't looking at you so much as they are watching a story. The more present you are, the more you get in the way of the tale.

Q: What is it about storytelling that resonates with people?

Human beings evolved to be social creatures. We are meant to look at and respond to the verbal and physical cues of others. We have replaced much of our human interaction with screens. Kids today, and adults, spend far more time staring at screens than they do working out how to communicate with their fellow human beings. We crave this kind of interaction even when we aren't aware of it. (As an introvert, I assure you we don't always want to be alone!)
I was performing at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, NC a few days ago, and the education director said she'd never seen a group of kids so engaged in a show. I explained that as a minimalist, the kids have nothing to look at except me. They are not distracted by costumes, sets, lights or sound. Their focus isn't drawn all over the stage but in one place. Storytelling is as old as language. We are drawn to it. It is how we express our daily lives and share what we know with others.

I have no doubt you answer those questions in different ways.

As you go into 2018 ask yourself...

Where do I find joy in my work?

Am I doing something I find fulfilling at some point during the day?

What do I do that feeds my inner self?

What could I add or subtract that would make my time more fulfilling?

Have a happy, healthy 2018!

Happy Telling - 

Monday, January 1, 2018

Day 7 of Kwanza - Imani - Faith!

Darith lighting the Kinara - Photo by Kat Heller

Habari Gani!

Imani (i-mah'-nee) - Faith.

Last night we had a Karamu - Our celebration. Here are some more pics from that. Thanks to our neighbor Kat Heller for taking some photos!

The last day of Kwanzaa is Imani. It means we have faith in ourselves, faith in each other, and faith in our communities. 

If you are religious, this would include your religious faith.

In 2017, we had challenges as a nation and community. Most people had personal challenges as well.

What did you face down in 2017?
What did you get through?
Who helped you?

What did you do to support your community in 2017?

Since it is New Year's Day, I chose two songs. One is for the hope that 2018 will bring us closer to a more equitable world where everyone has enough, and we do not exploit others. We might not get there, but we can work to make steps in that direction.

Stevie Wonder's Pastime Paradise.

The second song is upbeat and joyful. It is about having hopeful energy as we move into 2018. It is from the movie SING! It also features Stevie Wonder.


A man harbored great jealousy for his neighbor. He particularly wanted the man's horse. It was beautiful, and graceful, and the second he saw it, he had to have it.

One day, as he watched his neighbor riding the horse, he got an idea. He dressed himself as a man who looked to have been waylaid and beaten.

When his neighbor saw the abused traveler by the road, he stopped, got off of his horse at once, and went to aid him 

No sooner had he got off of his horse, than the man leapt up, pushed his neighbor aside, mounted the horse and rode away laughing. 

The neighbor was stunned to see the man laughing and taunting him. He beckoned for him to come back.

The man stood well out of reach with a satisfied grin on his face.

His neighbor gave him a tight smile. "Keep the horse, but tell no one how you tricked me to get it."

"Why not?" the man taunted. "Afraid of people calling you a fool?"

"No," said the neighbor. "if you tell people what you did, it will make others wary of helping those in need. No horse is worth breaking the faith of others." He turned and walked towards his home.

The man watched his neighbor go down the road, and he burned inside. He was now angry with himself. He rode to his neighbor, threw himself off of the horse, and handed him the reins.

Many years later, the two of them were sitting at a cafe. 

The man had never forgiven his neighbor for making him feel so guilty. "Do you remember all those years ago when I tricked you out of your horse?"

"I recall something of it," said his neighbor with a small smile.

"Did you mean it? Were you really afraid of destroying people's faith?"

The neighbor's eyebrows rose and he started laughing. "That day had nothing to do with anyone but you."

"I knew it!" the man shouted! "It had nothing to do with faith! You tricked me back!"

"Oh no," said his neighbor, "it was all about faith. Despite how you hide it sometimes, I have always known you were a good man."

Keep the Nguzo Saba with you all year, and we'll break it down once more at the end of 2018!

Happy Kwanzaa!
Happy New Year!

What is Kwanzaa?
Day 1 Umoja - Unity
Day 2 Kujichagulia - Self Determination
Day 3 Ujima - Cooperative Work and Responsibility
Day 4 Ujamaa - Cooperative Economics
Day 5 Nia - Purpose
Day 6 Kuumba - Creativity

Day 7: Imani - Faith

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Kwanzaa Day 6 - Kuumba - Creativity

My daughter drew this by hand for my parents for Christmas

Habari Gani?

Kuumba! It means creativity!

We must strive to leave the world a more beautiful place than we found it by using our creative gifts.

This is my favorite day of Kwanzaa!

It is also the night of Karamu - The feast of Kwanzaa.

This year we had Hoppin John, ham, candied sweet potatoes, pot roast, mashed potatoes, cornbread, spinach, and I made a chocolate cake just because.

We talked about how we used our various skills over the last year, and talked about what we did make beauty in the world.


There was a man with three sons. He said, "I shall leave this house to whichever of you can fill it."

The first son, the brightest, knew what he would do. He bought feathers. He bought carts and carts of feathers. He filled that house with feathers until there was not a corner that did not have feathers, but after a while, the feathers settled, and the house was not full.

The second son scoffed, but the eldest said, "It is not so easy. You will see."

The second son thought he had a better idea. He got straw. He filled that house with straw. He filled it until there was not a corner that did not have straw, but after a while, the straw settled, and the house was not full.

The youngest son couldn't help but laugh. He was a merry soul who was never taken all that seriously. The older brothers shook their head. "You will see that it is not so easy."

The youngest son went to town and got some of his friends. That evening, they took out their fiddles, banjos, and drums, and played and sang. No matter where you went in that house you could hear the merry sound.

At the end of the evening, their father announced that the youngest had surely won, for he'd filled the house from cellar to attic with music and laughter.

Happy Kwanzaa!

What is Kwanzaa?
Day 1 Umoja - Unity
Day 2 Kujichagulia - Self Determination
Day 3 Ujima - Cooperative Work and Responsibility
Day 4 Ujamaa - Cooperative Economics
Day 5 Nia - Purpose
Day 6 Kuumba - Creativity
Day 7: Imani - Faith