Friday, February 28, 2014

Language, Literacy and Policy…What?

This image is from

It is quite something when a literacy enhancement drum you've been beating for the last fifteen years turns up in the political arena in a place you never thought to see or hear it.

Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech about a new initiative he is starting called, 'My Brother's Keeper'.  The focus of this program is boosting positive outcomes for boys of color in America.  Organizations will be investing 200 million dollars over the next five years to impact developmental outcomes for this high risk group of Americans.

The idea for this program began after Zimmerman was acquitted for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

In the President's remarks, he points out that we know a great deal about how people develop, and we also know that there are times in a person's life where we can have a huge impact.  Then, he referenced the 30 million word gap.  I don't believe I have ever been as shocked and pleased with a politician as I was in that moment.

Drs Betty Hart and Todd Risley are the co authors of an amazing text entitled:  Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.

Anyone who has spent any time talking to me about language and literacy has most likely been subjected to my tirade about the the 30 Million Word Gap.  I mention it as often as I can.  I rant about the fact that we know this concept to be valid.  We understand how it impacts children, and still we do nothing.

Here is the abridged version of the 30 Million Word Gap concept.

"The amount of language a child hears and interacts with by the age of three has a huge impact on how successful they will be for the rest of their lives.  If we, as a society, would focus on communities where we know there is a paucity of language, we could improve outcomes for an entire generation of Americans."

After the president pointed to the 30 Million Word Gap, he went on to outline a litany of woes that affect young men of color in our society that stem from beginning school with a serious deficit that only gets worse as they progress, and leads them to fall into societal pits that often end in incarceration and disenfranchisement.

I am glad that a coalition of private and government programs are going to be focused on making better outcomes for young men of color.  I hope that they expand this type of programming to all underserved or at risk communities across the country.

As for me, I will continue my crusade in school districts, workshops, classrooms and residencies.  The first step is understanding the Gap.  The second is understanding what steps we can take as teachers, storytellers and parents.  The third is putting our concerted efforts into making sure that we are doing what we can do no matter how small our efforts may seem.

For me, storytelling is a perfect tool to begin addressing the 30 Million Word Gap.

I leave for Canada in a few days and I am notoriously bad at blogging when I am on the road, but I will attempt to put some posts together about the 30 Million Word Gap and discuss ways to intervene in that gap if you work with or are exposed to children.

I am buoyed beyond belief to hear the 30 Million Word Gap pass the lips of someone who might be able to begin addressing it!

Today is a good day.  Today is a day we all moved forward a small step.

Happy Talking!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Working With Sign Language Interpreters


I always enjoy working with sign language interpreters.  There are times when they use signs that I find fit so well in the story I’m telling, that I adopt them as part of my presentation.  Over the years, I’ve encountered interpreters who are old hats at working with storytellers, and others who have never done anything like it, and are nervous.

My earliest experiences with ASL interpreters happened at the Illinois Storytelling Festival.  JimMay was the first person to put me on a main stage anywhere in this country while I was at the tender and difficult age of twenty. (Thank you, Jim).  Donna Reiter Brandwein was the first interpreter I had the pleasure of working beside, and that woman knows how to do it! 

I have had some fun with interpreters over the years.  I do a series of tongue twisters in some of my sets.  The first time through, and during the audience participation part, I go slow enough to follow.  The last time through, my tongue is in peril of being sliced in half by my teeth.  Interpreters seem to enjoy working to get Peter Piper or Betty Boughta out of their hands.  When I start going really fast, they usually just laugh and point to my lips.  I have had times when I'm doing a rapid fire segment and the interpreter has gone with me down to the last word.  At which point, I stop the show and we all applaud for the artistry of it.  

Many of the interpreters I've worked with also enjoy doing ghost stories.  I always wish I could just stop the story and watch them during those tales.  I really, really want to just see what they are doing.  I always look forward to working with interpreters.  In a few years, I'm considering putting a DVD together, and I think I will see if I can have an interpreter on screen with me during the taping.  

When you are working with an ASL interpreter, you are doing a form of tandem telling.  With that in mind, there are things you can do to make sure that both of you have a successful set.

These are the rules of thumb I follow.

Before the set:

1)  If I am working with a school, and I am told ahead of time that there will be an interpreter, I send along a brief summary of all of the stories I might tell, emphasizing words that might be tricky, or repetitive phrases.

2)  If I find out the day I arrive that I will have an interpreter, I try to pull them aside before the set, and give them a verbal summary, emphasizing difficult worlds and repetitive phrases.  I also show them some of the gestures I will be using as well as some of the facial expressions.

During the Set:

1)   I acknowledge the interpreters by name to the audience before we begin.
2)   I keep an eye out for the interpreter to make sure she/he is with me.

I moderate the pace of the story so that if the interpreter wants to get into the telling and make it dramatic, they can.  Interpreters tell not only with their hands, but also their entire bodies and faces.  Storytelling, with its vibrant images and intricate language, lends itself to ASL.  I find that even interpreters who were sort of nervous going into the show had a good time with it once it got started. 

At the end of the set I once again acknowledge the interpreters and thank them for their work.

Working with an interpreter is interesting, and can help you grow as a performer.  Dive in, and have some fun!

Happy Telling!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Travel Blah

Arrived in Michigan for some storytelling in Ann Arbor.  Its awfully cold here.  Schools and workshops for the next few days and then telling at the Ark with Tim Tingle.

Probably won't post for a few days while I get all of this travel and such done.  I am in the mood to rant about the stories our society tells itself about crimes against women, but that will have to wait until I'm awake and coherent.

I probably shouldn't read any more news until next Monday.  Sigh.

Happy Telling

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Steeping in Havoc and Mayhem - The Haves and the Homeless: Telling in the schools of America

Sometimes I have so much to say it is impossible to know how to grapple with it.  

Let me begin with two statements. 

1) This is not a political post. 
2) This post is not a condemnation of anyone.

On Tuesday I was performing at Loudon Country DaySchool.  It is a beautiful private facility for kids who are either lucky enough to get scholarships or who have parents who can afford to send their kids there.  The school is gorgeous.  The educational opportunities are excellent.  Their library is unbelievable.

I worked with first and second graders there.  I told Rumplestilskin and Too Much Noise.  When I gave out the information for my website, Facebook page, and blog, the kids were as attentive as their teachers.  They enjoyed the tales, played along with the story, and were willing to engage with me.  We had a great time, and I had high hopes the kids would do some follow up on their own despite being between the ages of six and eight.  As they filed out of their ample school library, they chatted about taking their parents to the website as soon as they got home.

On Thursday I was at the High Point Public Library with kids from a public school.  I told the same stories with these second graders.  We had a very good time.  There was only one obvious difference.  On Thursday, the kids were multihued, and multiethnic. 

Tonight, at 6:30pm, I will be doing a family show for the kids who came to the show this morning.  The library is encouraging the families to come at 6pm to tour the library, possibly get a library card, and encourage them to use the public library.  All families who arrive by 6:20pm will be put into a drawing for a new Kindle.

A few of the kids looked around in confusion.  One of them said, “What’s a Kindle?   The teacher explained.  They didn’t really understand, but they were excited by the prospect of winning it.

Some kids muttered that maybe they could get their grandparents to come, but they knew their mom or dad or parents had to work.  Others thought their older siblings might be able to bring them.  They sat there, all of seven or eight years old, going through the adults in their lives, trying to decide who might be willing or able to bring them.  Most of them, with the optimism of eight year olds, were convinced they could get someone to escort them.

As they filed out, excited about the prospect of winning a Kindle or hearing some more stories, one little girl hung back, looking concerned.

She was a little blond thing with freckles, blue eyes and purple glasses.  She came up to me and said as quietly as she could so that nobody would hear.

“I don’t think we can come.  We have to be at the shelter by 5 and we can’t leave, or we won’t get a bed.”

I realized she was trying to make me feel better.  She wanted me to know that she wanted to come, that she enjoyed the stories, but she couldn’t make it.  Other kids were doing the same, explaining that they knew nobody could bring them.  I, of course, was at a loss for words.  I smiled, and came up with an alternative.

“Does one of your parents have a phone?”  I asked.  “You can watch me online.”

Some of the other kids nodded and looked a bit relieved.  My little blonde just shrugged.  She looked a bit sad.  “We have a phone.”  She said quietly, “But there is no internet at the shelter.”   She waved and left the room.

Annual HUD pie chart from 2013 shows that over half of all homeless children are under the age of 6

I pulled the teacher aside and asked how many kids were at the school from the shelter.  She told me they had two families.

I stood there, my wishes big, my ability to fix that situation, nonexistent.  I told the teacher to find out their ages and I would make sure to have CDs for their families tonight.  The school could get them the stories the next day.  Then, they were gone and I stood alone in the room, wishing I could do something meaningful.

I thought about the fact that I’d just promised them something else to haul around from place to place.  I don’t know if they have any way to play the CDs.  What I do know is that if you have very little, everything is special. 

Watching them board the yellow school bus I had a moment of frustration.  I have nothing to give anyone but stories, and there are so many times when I feel like it is not enough!

Stories can’t feed you, or clothe you, or provide you physical shelter.

The only thing stories can give you is a small respite.  They can transport you, if only for a while, to exotic places with interesting people.  They can take you away from the worries of your life.  They can shape your consciousness, help you develop a sense of comprehension and literacy, help your brain set down patterns that will aid you in learning, but you can't eat or drink them.

Well, I can do more than tell stories, if it comes down to that.  

I can agitate for more policies that break the cycle that funnels all of the money into the top of our society, while leaving so many children and their parents out in the cold.  

Yes, I can vote, and I do.

Still, when I’m out and about sharing stories with people, I can’t help but wish I could intervene, and change the real story.  I wish I could give all children opportunities to succeed.  I wish I could make sure all children in the richest country on earth were well fed and had some place safe to call home.  I wish, I wish, I wish.  Unfortunately, the only genies that ever were, can only be found in the stories I love so well.

Happy Telling.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Anansi, Brer Rabbit and the Power of Folktales

This is a wordless picture book I did with
Children's Press.  I told the story, when you
heard the din, you turned the page!

I love telling folktales.  I especially love telling them to adult audiences.  Yesterday, I was in Martinsville, Va and had a rollicking time with an intergenerational audience that was mostly adults.  We spent time with Anansi, and I explained how that splendid spider is linked to Bugs Bunny.  We had fun watching that trickster get his legs caught in a web of his own weaving when he went head to head with a clever turtle.

The Tar Baby
I do so love this stuff!

We remembered that Brer Rabbit is the embodiment of the enslaved Africans in America, and not just a character who makes millions as an advertising icon.  We got to say "How do to ya?" To each other and wail, "Whatever you do, Brer Fox, Please don't thow me in the briar patch!"  We got to watch a huge cloud of hornets go up in the air and come straight back down on poor old Brer Bear and the scheming Brer Fox as Brer Rabbit hollered at them, "I said this was my laughing place, and I shore am laughing hard!"

The Man

The Tiger
The Mouse

There was more than that, of course.  We spoke to each other, learned of our commonality through comments from the audience, shared our foibles, made friends of people we'd never met, and chuckled at the antics of our own and other people's children.  People who'd never experienced storytelling vowed they'd seek it out, and two thirteen year old boys found themselves so caught up in story, they played finger games with everyone else at the end of the show without giving it a second thought.  A pastor waited for me as everyone left, and we had a long discussion about the stories in the Bible and how the words are meant to come off the tongue, not lay on the page.  All in all, it was a glorious event.

The folks who came to share stories with me left with some of my oldest friends.  

Monkeys lions, tigers, bears, fox, rabbit, and spiders who leapt through my childhood, and now inform my adulthood became part of people who had never seen nor heard of them before.  Children were asking for books about Anansi and Brer Rabbit.  Teachers were writing down possible titles for sharing with their classes.  Grandparents were promising to read stories to their grandchildren, parents wanted to find out how they could find more storytelling for their kids, and any number of adults were tickled pink and planned to share those stories with family members who were not on site.

Folktales are powerful for many reasons.  They touch us in the universal places in our soul.  They speak to us about ourselves.  They make us laugh at our own foolishness.  Better still, they are sharable with anyone.  They morph and change and glide in and out of who we are as a society.  

As we enter February, which is also Black History Month, I have weeks, and weeks of telling Afrocentric Folktales with multi-generational audiences ahead of me….I can't wait!

Happy Telling

P.S.  I made the front page at the Martinsville Bulletin on the Monday after the show.  Wouldn't the world be a better place if we had more storyteller's on the front page?