Thursday, October 29, 2015

They'll Never Sit That Long: Stories Can Capture Anyone

Last week I performed in one of the High Schools in the area. The school originally booked me in for the ninth grade, but discovered some extra cash. They asked if they could use it for a special show with a small group of students. They gave my husband the acronym they use to describe this group, but nothing else.

When I arrived, I asked about this small group. I was told that they are a group of kids with behavioral issues. They have trouble sitting in class, they are easily upset, they tend to get into hassles with the teachers, they are all having academic challenges.

One of the administrators who was showing me around informed me that she had one of these students last year and he was getting a 98 in her class, but 32s in all of the other classes. She knows these kids are smart, but nobody knows how to reach them. Most teachers don't want to deal with them and they end up in ISS (Inner School Suspension), the main office, or out in the hall. They never stay in class long enough to learn anything. They also tend to get in trouble with other students who goad them into losing their temper, something many of them are prone to do.

So, they begin to file in. Almost all of them are either African American or Hispanic. These kids slumped into the room, took a seat and immediately busied themselves with something other than looking at me despite the fact that their chairs were all turned towards me.

This was a mixed group of kids from ninth to eleventh grade. Once most of them were assembled, I began asking them questions about what they liked to do. They mostly enjoyed sports and art. Nobody offered up an academic subject. I pointed this out, and one of the kids told me that he didn't do school well.

The teacher came in late, and brought a kid who slumped in, tried to sit in the seat next to mine instead of in front of me. I made him sit in the front, he slumped in his seat, and tried very hard to hide. He slouched all the way down, tried covering his face with his hands or pretending to sleep. All of the behavior which usually earns him a trip to ISS or at least makes someone send him out of the room. I ignored him.

This is the posture in question.

I told The Sugar Incident . The kids had a great time, laughing, engaging with me and each other during the tale, and responding appropriately and with enthusiasm. The student in the front was upset, not because he didn't like the story, but because every now and then he would catch himself in a very vulnerable moment with his hands in his lap, staring at me with eyes as wide as plates. He'd realize I'd caught him, slump down, fold his arms, and try to pretend he wasn't listening. The most amusing point was where he put his hood up and covered his face with his hands only to peek through his fingers at me. If I caught him, he'd close his fingers. It was kind of funny.

When the story was over, he raised his hand and said he had to go and get his books. I let him go. He had a moment of surprise, as if he expected a fight. I have no dog in this game, so I didn't care. He slumped out of the room. The administrators didn't stop him, so I figured it was all right.

"Where is he going?" One of the kids asked.

"Not sure." I told them. "Not my problem." They all started laughing.

Another kid said, "Would you tell us another story?"

I said, "Sure." I told The West Indies. They loved it. I ended that story with, "My father, who has been trained to kill you in fifty different ways, could have made any choice that day, but he chose to make us all laugh, and because of it, we are all still alive, and everyone in that situation was okay.  He did this in many instances in our lives. He showed us that violence and fighting rarely solve anything."

The kids looked thoughtful, they nodded, and applauded at the end. Maybe I reached someone, maybe they will remember that story in the future. Don't know, but it was obvious that tale had an impact on them.

After my small audience filed out of the room, their teacher leaned in and whispered "You kept their attention. They were engaged, and they asked for another story. That was phenomenal."

I said, "Thank you."

"Hey," he said, "that's not an easy thing to do with this group, I just wanted you to know that it was spectacular." Then he left.

After they were gone, the administrator who had just heard him say this to me started laughing. She said, "When he found out that I'd booked a forty five minute storytelling session with his class, he was really upset. He told me they'd never sit that long. They were incapable. He told me that thirty minutes would be pushing it because they didn't have the attention span to focus on anything that long."

Andrew Biemiller, an educator says that we know the things that work with reaching students, but we don't have the kinds of schools we need to implement the processes that help students learn.

All of the kids in that small group could probably be taught in such a way that they would be successful. They were engaged. They asked great questions. They learned about people who lived differently and have different challenges, while also watching the world unfold in a way that was familiar.

Stories are a way to address students who have a learning style that is not conducive to main stream teaching. The teacher in my small group expected to have to intervene and ride herd on his students, instead, he saw a side of them he didn't even know existed.

I've done this long enough to expect nothing less. I've seen how stories can impact students no matter where they reside on the learning or behavior spectrum. We all have.

How many times have we heard the phrase, "They'll never sit that long?"

And how many times have we seen this instead.

If you find out where they are, meet them there, and create common ground, not only will they sit, you can take them anywhere!

Happy Telling!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Don't Fear The Ugly Baby: Facing Criticism For Your Work

In 2000, my book, The Big Spooky House, was released. I was excited. I always am when a book hits the market. I was especially pleased because in 1996 I'd gone into baby making mode and wasn't working all that much. In 2000 I had a soon to be four year old and a toddler. I was in need of something to remind me that there really had been a time in my life when my most important function had nothing to do with preventing diaper rash.

Unfortunately, there were some reviewers who did not like the book. I remember reading one review that depressed me for almost two weeks. It was the first time I'd had a book come out that wasn't well received by the critics.

It felt like some stranger had walked up to me on the street and said, "Oh my, you have a very ugly baby."

These days, when I encounter an uncomfortable public situation with my work whether it be my writing or performing, I call it an 'Ugly Baby Event'.

It hurts your feelings. It might make you upset. It might make you go into defense mode. It might make you angry. It might frustrate you. It might make you sad.

For a period of time after my first bad review, I was afraid of future ugly babies. I wanted to go cautiously so that I didn't expose myself to that sort of rejection again. Stick to what you are good at, I told myself, don't tread where you are likely to be unwanted.

In 2002, my husband quit his job, and I went back to storytelling full time. I was worried. What if I fail at this? What if I can't afford to feed my family? What if we lose the house? What if I can't do this?

I was no longer considering the ugly baby that I was walking around with, but all of the potential ugly babies in my future. Well, there was only one thing for it. I started calling my mentors and friends. I called Jim May, Syd Lieberman, Milbre Burch, and Beth Horner.  I asked what sort of advice they might give me if I were going to get back into the storytelling game full time. I also asked if they thought I could do it.

The advice and support I got from them made a huge impression on me. I learned what it meant to be a guiding light in this business. I learned what it meant to plow forward. I learned what it meant to be completely honest with someone who is struggling with choices in our very public job. I am forever grateful to them for their support, and the time they spent listening to me.

This is my twenty eighth year as a professional storyteller and author. Sometimes I'm in the middle of a show and I can't believe somebody is letting me do this for a living. I love this work.

Sometimes I am writing furiously on a piece and wonder if it will ever see the light of the published world, or if it will become another project that I write at forever, but never share with anyone else.

Li'l Rabbit's Kwanzaa and other books by Donna Washington

There will be ugly babies in my future, it is inevitable. There will also be gorgeous babies, curious ones, misunderstood creatures, awesome creations, marginal attempts, and huge ungainly pratfalls.  That's what it means to be a public performer. That's what it means to put yourself out there.

So, if you are on the cusp of trying something new, breaking into the next level, worried about sending out that manuscript, facing your first festival, writing your first grant, or whatever adventure you are about to face, push on through.

The world is full of opportunities, but only if you take the first steps.

The word 'no' isn't going to kill you.
The words 'I didn't like this' don't mean nobody likes it.
The first attempt at something might not go well, so you learn and do better the next time.

Fear is the thing that holds most of us back when we would go forward. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of the unknown.

About six months after the first couple of reviews came out about The Big Spooky House, a slew of them were posted by teachers, librarians and parents. Turns out, the book was a hit with kids and the grown ups who read to them. People still contact me and ask how they can get copies of it since it has been out of print for the last five years.

Here is a page where a kid who reviews books gave A Big Spooky House five out of five bookworms'.

'A Big Spooky House
By Donna Washington
Illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers
32 Pages – Ages 6+
Published by HarperCollins
He was a BIG man. He was a STRONG man. He wasn’t afraid of NOTHING….or was he?
This is one of my favorite Halloween books and I blogged about it in my Halloween post last year, but since it’s my favorite I am including it in my post this year! This book has been out for a few years but it was the first “scary” book that I really liked so I am recommending it! The story is great and the reading level is a little harder. It is also a little more spooky of a tale. I really like this book! I give this book five out of five bookworms!

My ugly baby isn't so ugly. In retrospect I realized that I never thought I had an ugly baby, someone else thought that.

We create art and we send it out there. Stand by what you create. Learn from the feedback. Keep going.

As for the ugly baby is the price of doing business in our business!

Happy Telling!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Scary Stories Anyone?: Hauntingly Good Stuff

Well, it is that time again.  Time to break out the spooky tales!

 Therefore it must be time for me to break out the annual spooky story post.

Last year I wrote about what you might want to consider telling to kids.

Just In Time For Halloween: Telling Spooky Tales 2.0

I love a good scary story.  In fact, it is my favorite kind of tale.  Edgar Allen Poe was one of my favorite authors when I was a kid.  I find scary stories delicious when told well.  I like a good jump, and I like to have a good shiver.

Now, let's be clear about this...I don't like scary movies all that much.  Most of the movies that are supposed to be scary are disgusting, and about sensationalism and less about story.

Road Train movie

I also love tales that I don't see coming.  I love sitting in an audience and watching something uncomfortable and creepy unfold through language.  

Carry Sue Ayvar told the chilling tale of Fellipa to a car full of rapt tellers on our way back to our lodgings from the Haunting in the Hills Festival.  The way she had the Bruja Madre  (bruja is witch, and you pronounce it brew-ha) say 'Fellipa' made my spine tingle.  It was very cool.

It was even cooler to realize that the base of this story she knew from Mexico had a core from a Baba Yaga tale from Russia.

Tried to put a source in for this one, but the
site where this picture is cached has a huge
alert on it!  Just had my computer diagnosed!
Enjoy the picture, but don't head to the site.


Baba Yaga lives in a house which walks around on chicken legs, her gate is decorated with skulls, and she is sometimes depicted with iron teeth.  I absolutely love witch stories.  If you have a chance to hear Carrie Sue tell Fellipa....take it!

One of my new favorite stories to tell is the Boo Hag.


I've known this story for some time, but only began telling it last year.  I tell it to sixth grade and older.  At the very end of the tale, the Boo Hag is caught without her skin, and she flies out over the swamp in a vain effort to find some place to hide.  Unfortunately, the early morning light strikes her true form and she explodes in mid-air.  The sixth graders often break into spontaneous applause when the Boo Hag is destroyed.

I love witches.  They are my favorite type of scary thing.  When I was a kid I always wanted to be one because they are so powerful.  I wanted magic at my fingertips, and the will to use that power.  I was always a little annoyed that they used their power for evil since I could see so much potential to do amazing things.  Still, every performer knows that it is always way more fun to play the evil character than the good one

Every Halloween

It goes without saying that I have gotten into trouble on numerous occasions with ghosty type stories.  Yes, I've had unhappy phone calls, and parents who demanded to know why I told this or that story.  Luckily, all of this is in my young, impetuous far.  It is October, so there is still time for me to get some of these grumpy calls.

I told Mr. Fox to a group of students almost a decade ago, and the staff and kids loved it, but one of the parents who got the kid version of the tale lost her mind.  Sigh, what are you going to do?

That has not deterred me.  Kids love these tales.  These stories are part of our fascination with the darkness, the unknown, and the things that go bump in the night.  We tell them in a place where kids can go into the darkness, and then come out safe on the other side.  Scary stories are a rite of passage at sleep overs and campfires.  What I find is that there are ways to present them so that they are the fun, spine tingling events they are supposed to be.   In the face of being one phone call away from a ticked off adult, I persevere!

So, I tell spooky tales, witch stories, and a zombie story or two.  Here are the rules of thumb I follow for telling spooky stories to school aged audiences.

1.  Always ask if it is all right.   I'm talking about the administration, not the students.   Just because the students are in eighth grade, does not mean that the community into which you've come is going to think that their precious children can handle something scary.

2.  I always tell the students that the story is kind of scary, medium scary, or very scary.  I have this same rule for hot sauce.  It allows the listener to decide how much they want to participate in the telling, or if they just want to sit there with their fingers in their ears and their eyes shut.

3.  I make sure there is some levity in the tale to cut the fear factor.  I do this so that the kids can release the pressure.  If you give them a place where they can laugh, it lets them decide just how much tension they want to hold in their bodies.  If they are really intense, and they murmur, then you just keep going, if they pierce the bubble and laugh uproariously, then, you know they needed a break.

4.  I try to always make sure that the story is only as scary as the most terrified person in the audience.  I haven't always done this, and it makes for a terrible experience for some kids.  If I see that there are lots of group clusters clutching ,or someone who looks like they need a break, I ease off the scary.  Luckily, lots of scary stuff is just technique, and you can decide how you turn the phrase, how much drippy, squishy, growly bits you want to add, or adjust the tone of your voice, or the rapidity at which you are speaking.

5.  I often let kids vote about what kind of story they want.  Some kids do not want scary tales.  If they tell you they don't want one...listen!  For a group of kids who don't want a scary tale, then even the least scary thing is uncomfortable to them.

Here is the rub for all of it....

6.  Just because the kids and administrators have a good time with the stories, doesn't mean some parent isn't going to call and freak out about the version the kid tells when they get home!

"But, Donna," you might ask, "Why would you continue with this when it could potentially get you in trouble?"

Last week I was at a school in Apex, NC.  I told the 6th grade Morgan and the Pot of Brains, and the Boo Hag.  Between my second and third set of the day, I had a break, so I went into the library.  One of the women passing through the room stopped and stared at me, and then she walked over to where I was sitting.

"Are you the storyteller?"  She had a clipboard and a broad smile.
"I just want to tell you, I am the speech therapist.  I had a kid right after your set for the sixth grade.  He stutters, and he was so excited when he came to me, he couldn't talk.  He was stuttering like crazy.  Then, I got him to calm down and use his techniques.  Do you know, he told me both of your stories with so much detail and so much passion, and he didn't stutter hardly at all.  Normally he just gives me bare bones descriptions because he doesn't like to talk.  I want to thank you for making him love language so much today that he didn't want to stop talking."

So, get out there and have fun with the spine tinglers, the jump tales, the suspenseful stories, and most especially, those lovely, powerful witches!

Happy Spooking!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Storytelling: an On-Ramp to Learning by Sherry Norfolk

Sherry Norfolk

Stories are not one way we make sense of the world—they are the only way we make sense of it.1

Have you ever heard of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)? It’s “a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.”2 In other words (and this excellent metaphor is theirs, not mine), UDL provides an on-ramp for learning. They offer this example: if you build stairs, some people can use them; if you build a ramp, everyone can use it. Awesome!

Being a Storytelling Teaching Artist who works in inclusive and self-contained classrooms, I began to ask myself some questions:

Does storytelling create an on-ramp to learning?
 Is it accessible to everyone?
Does it provide learning experiences that allow every child – regardless of cognitive, language, learning, emotional, physical or behavioral disability – to succeed?   

In order to build that on-ramp, UDL principles encourage us to offer multiple opportunities for Engagement (motivation), Representation (content), and Expression (demonstrating understanding).  

Platypus Puppet
Of course, storytellers have a huge advantage in the Engagement department -- we can address all learning styles (visual, kinesthetic, auditory) at the same time! But is that enough? Usually – but not for every student. For instance, if you’re telling a story about a platypus to a child who is blind, providing a picture of a platypus won’t help him, but a 3-dimensional model such as a stuffed animal or puppet will. When you think about the needs of your audience and adjust accordingly, storytelling provides multiple opportunities for Engagement!

What about Representation? Well, thanks, to Kieran Egan and a lot of neurological research, we know that “stories are not one way we make sense of the world—they are the only way we make sense of it.” 

By presenting content through story, we help students make sense of, process, store and retrieve the information more readily. We can offer students an on-ramp to learning, but we may need to adjust our lesson plan. If our process requires students to do research or write (challenging for students with learning disabilities) or to work in small groups (difficult for children on the autism spectrum), we will need to provide flexible alternatives.  With some forethought, storytelling provides multiple opportunities for Representation!

Providing multiple opportunities for Expression – for demonstrating understanding – is easy when you are working with story! Just think of the many ways that storytelling is defined in our culture: oral telling, print, film, illustration, digital, etc.  Be ready with suggestions – perhaps a student can cartoon his story rather than writing or telling it, or can act it out with a partner, or tell it with props…or Express himself in a dozen different ways!

Link to the article about storytelling and science where I found this cool graphic.

Story is the ONLY way we make sense of the world. Think about how you can use storytelling as an on-ramp for learning for the kids in your world!

1.     Kieran Egan (2004). “The cognitive tools of children’s imagination.Early Childhood Education, 36 (1), 4-10.
2.     National Center on Universal Design for Learning (

BIO: Sherry Norfolk is an award-winning, internationally-acclaimed storyteller, teaching artist, and author, performing and leading residencies and professional development workshops across the United States and SE Asia. She was a presenter at the 2014 Kennedy Center-VSA Intersections Conference, “Leveling the Playing Field: Storytelling in the Special Needs Classroom,” and for the 2015 Kennedy Center-VSA webinar, “Teach Them to Fly: How Storytelling Gives Primary-age Children with Special Needs Their Wings.”