Thursday, December 4, 2014

Tales From The Trenches: Telling It In Schools

photo credit

Telling stories in schools is not for the faint of heart.  After twenty-seven years of touring and telling, I still have days where I see things I have never seen before. 

Sometimes I don’t think you could pay me enough to do what I do, and other times I really ought to be paying the school because I learned so much from their students.

All of these things happened this week….

I worked with kids who have never had an assembly at their school, and not only did they not know how to behave, they didn’t even really get the concept of what we were all doing there for the first ten minutes.  After that, they settled in and were mostly quiet.  They stared at me in confusion for a big chunk of time, but they did listen.  By the end, I think most of them decided they enjoyed the storytelling.  Either way, the sixth graders waved at me like three year olds when they saw me in the hall as I walked out of the building.

I encountered kids who clearly go to the theatre all of the time as well as symphonies and opera, and asked cogent questions about what sort of art they would be watching.

After a particularly difficult show with third through sixth graders, a fifth grade group came into the gym as I was packing, and asked if I’d tell them one more story before class started.  Taught them Johnny and Suzy thumb.  They were over the moon.  The gym teacher didn’t rush them.  In fact, he stood there grinning the entire time, not even caring they were eating into his class time.  Score.

One school informed me that their lunchtime started about ten minutes into my set, and they were going to have to take a couple of classrooms out of the assembly at that time.  Oh, and after that, every five minutes another group was going to have to leave.  That wasn’t going to be a problem, right?

At another school, all of the work I do tying the stories into character ed was for naught since not a single teacher attended the set, and only one person stayed behind to monitor the kids.  The kids were good, of course, but half of the assembly is lost when there is no chance that the teachers can do any follow up at all.

I got an unanticipated, spontaneous standing ovation from a first grade class.  First time in my life six year olds have given me that sort of response.

Had an arts representative pre-book me for the following year before I left the building.

Had a principal tell me that she didn’t care how close we were to the dismissal bell, she wanted me to tell one more story…and I did.

Worked in schools where the audience was attentive and it was easy.

Worked in schools where the audience had to be convinced that watching was worth their while, and I earned every penny.

Did I succeed in all I wanted to do?  Nope.

Did I share an arts experience with lots of kids?  Yes.

Did I have some fabulous sets that were absolutely perfect, and I felt like a magic person when I left the building?  Yes.  As I always say, sometimes things go well, but every now and then I totally rock!

Did I touch at least one kid’s imagination or spark of creativity in some very important or special way?  Who knows?

Did I convince one kid that if they have a dream that is big enough they should follow it?  I hope so.

Either way, here are some simple rules of thumb I follow that have served me well.

1)   Record the stories you tell in each venue.   You can either use your computer, or some kind of diary. (I save the information in an EXCEL spreadsheet.)  I know that some tellers use journals, but I’m too prone to lose something like that.  I type in the name of the school, the year, the month, grade-levels I saw, and what I told them.

2)   Because I see many schools multiple years, I have also put together some story sets that last exactly 45 minutes.  They are prepackaged stories, and I’ve divided them into ‘set years’.   So, the first time I visit, your school gets this set, the second time, a different set, and so on and so forth.  It means that I can control the time as well as having stories that I know work well for different grade levels.  I start the rotation again after about four years.

3)   Know that sometimes your set years aren’t going to work because of unanticipated events.  i.e. ‘We’ve decided to add the sixth grade to your K – 2 assembly, that’s all right, isn’t it?’  So make sure you have other alternatives, and be flexible!

4)   Be very polite to the office staff and the custodians.

5)   Ask about the school before you begin.  Find out if there is anything the students are dealing with, or if there are any concerns the staff might have.  You should also find out what the staff members consider their strengths.  As you tell, consider the things they’ve told you, and you can work their concerns and strengths into your stories.  I also ask about reading levels and what sorts of things the kids like.

6)   Teachers work hard.  Give them a break, but invite them to participate with the kids.  Sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t.  Invite them anyway.

7)   Carry hand sanitizer with you because kids want to touch you and there is no telling where their little hands have been right before that.

8)   Adjust to your audience; don’t expect them to adjust to you!

9)   Don’t be afraid to call out a kid who is misbehaving.  If the teachers are really focused on you, they won’t necessarily be paying attention to the kids.

10)                    Remember, you are going to have bad days.  Learn from them, and keep on going.

So, eight elementary schools in four days, and tomorrow I begin a tour through middle schools that will last through next Friday.

The work is challenging, interesting and soul satisfying.  Oh, and you can get paid to do it!

It doesn’t get better than that.

Happy Telling!


  1. Thank you for your honesty Donna. It is comforting to me to know that someone of your talent and amazing abilities sometimes faces a difficult audience. I think we can beat ourselves up after a set that doesn't go well, we forget that so many elements, both good and bad, factor into our ability to succeed with the audience.

    Have fun with the middle school students! I know you will rock their world!

  2. Yeah, I love this honesty too.... And it's not about whining. There are so many surprises and delights. I just finished an "underpaid" 3 months residency that wanted a SHOW..... Show with 6 classes? HMMMM. But I went for the challenge and we told 6 Bible tales - all call tales, where characters are CALLED into action. As horrific as the prep felt (we were fine improvising but a show mean scripts! Sooooo I dove in and wrote VERY (sadly) complex scripts. BUT. Tonight we pulled it off. 90 min. total. NOT too bad. Everyone got home in time for Peter Pan.... NOT a bad follow up to the Bible! And I went out for a cast party of two with my sister, happy. It was a feat. BUT HARD (and underpaid....._ but FUN FUN FUN I must admit.

  3. What a treat for me to know you a bit and to have access to your takes on many things. This is such a great blog and I love your picture.

  4. Inspiring account, Donna. I've be working hard to open my storytelling coffee shop - Kaleidoscope Coffee - and it's a roller coaster and a challenge. I admire your strength and tenacity. I am, of course, dedicated to what I'm trying to do, and I wouldn't give it up for anything, but connecting with other's perseverance is an inspiration.

  5. Love the sharing, Donna! The same is true here in Singapore as well. I say that if you are prepared to pay for a good storyteller, you will always get more than your money's worth. But, as you said too, telling in schools is the cheapest way for a storyteller to get an education too:)

  6. Thanks, Donna. Been there, still there and can't wait to be more there. :)

    Sometimes a kid (or adult) will ask me after a program, "Are you famous?" My answer with a smile, "To some 3rd and 4th graders I am!" And I stand tall, get that high five or that hug, and whisper, "Thank you, God, for giving me this great git and the ability to use it all the time." Amen!

    1. That is lovely! When kids ask me if I am famous I tend to answer, "Only to people who know who I am." Everyone laughs, especially the kids as they work out the answer.