Friday, March 17, 2017

S.T.E.M Storytelling? Yes! Call It S.T.E.A.M

S. T. E. M (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are all the rage. They have been for a while.

As a humble storyteller who deals in literacy, I did not consider myself on the S.T.E.M team.

No, my work is with helping students begin to conquer the written word. What could storytelling have to do with that other stuff?

That was some time ago. I have embraced S.T.E.M, and if you are telling, so should you.

I know, I can hear some of the thoughts...

1. Isn't literacy enough? Why do you need to pretend you are also doing S.T.E.M?

2. Aren't you the one who is always going off on people who put "storyteller" in their names without being a storyteller? Aren't you being hypocritical?

3. What could storytelling have to do with science?

4. Why do you do this?

Here are the answers:

1. Literacy is the backbone of all learning. Just try reading an advanced math textbook with poor literacy skills! By about fourth grade, children switch from learning to read to reading to learn. That, however, is not why I consider myself doing S.T.E.M work.

Part of S.T.E.M is developing critical thinking skills and looking at how systems are related. I can certainly do that as part of my telling.

2. Yes, I think that if you are not practicing the art of storytelling, you shouldn't be pretending that you are. I couldn't teach a science class without lots of preparation, but I am not teaching a science class. I am learning the science around a particular natural phenomenon, animal, or environment that is part of a story I am telling.

3. Stories were the very first science. People came up with explanations to deal with what they didn't understand. Folktales are a perfect vehicle for S.T.E.M!

4. Well, let me tell you why!

Ormand Live Oak

My first understanding of how much the natural world played into stories was a trip I took to Iberia Parish in Louisiana in the early 2000's.

I was on my way to Zydeco breakfast when I passed a bird sanctuary. I decided that after I ate, I would go back and spend some time there. I'd already been impressed by their Live Oak Society.

I'd met some of these beautiful creatures as I traveled around the area.

One thing I had not done was visit one of the swamps...okay, wetlands.

I finished a wonderful breakfast...and polished off more beignets than I probably should have.


I waddled out of breakfast, got back in my rental car and headed for the bird sanctuary. I parked and spent a wonderful two hours wandering around looking at birds, being really freaked out by the scenery, and wishing the folks in the area would use the carefully marked refuse bins instead of just dropping garbage in what should have been a pristine area.

Do you know the story of Wiley and the Hairy Man? Here is a clip of one of the many productions...

An aside: I played mammy twice...once in high school and once in the early '90s on an international tour through Brussels.

Anyway, I love this story and tell it. Up until the moment I walked into that bird sanctuary, I had no idea how the wetlands had shaped Wiley, Barney McCabe, or Tailypo.

I stood in the midst of trees that looked for all the world like they would like nothing more than to reach down and grab you, and all of the tales that take place out in the swamps made perfect sense. I got why Wicked John is supposedly wandering around out there with a lantern.

Dark and creepy after the sun goes down doesn't even begin to describe what it is like to be under these trees.

I had always known that the environment shapes stories. All the tales of the gods of old are directly related to the weather, volcanic and seismic activity, and geography ancient peoples faced. Want to really understand the nature of the Greek Gods? Visit Greece.

As a teller of folktales, many of the tales I tell deal with stories about the natural world. I started adding the science to these tales almost as an afterthought.

I'd finish telling Why Mosquitoes Buzz In People's Ears, and then I'd ask kids if they knew why Mosquitoes actually buzz around our ears.

The first answer is, "They want to suck our blood."

That is true, but there is a reason why they go for our faces: What is that?

Over the course of years, this simple question has evolved into a discussion about mammalian respiratory, the mosquitoes reproduction system, and how insect repellant works.

There are a few kids who know some of the answers to these questions. By second grade some teachers have explained that plants use CO2 and put out Oxygen, and we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.

The kids are amazed that something they've learned that didn't seem to be all that important to them suddenly has an application outside of something in a book. The ones who make the connections are really excited. (Critical thinking skills...pass it on)

I told this tale and conducted this discussion while I was out in Mariposa county a few days ago. My guide, who was a math teacher for many years, told me she learned more about mosquitoes than she knew by listening to the discussion I had with the kids.

Science is cool.

Some people actually tell stories about scientists, I don't do that. I just stick with folktales and weave science into and around them.

When you do this, the acronym is better stated as S.T.E.A.M

Science. Technology. Engineering. Arts. and Math!

Figure out where the science hangs out in your stories. Throw a little science, math, technology, or engineering into the work.

Find a way to make it memorable and fun.

Turn up the S.T.E.A.M!

Happy Telling!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Words Matter By Joan Leotta

"My tongue is the pen of a ready writer."

Do you find yourself ever humming the words to a favorite song? Do you seek words of endearment and comfort from those who love you? Have you ever saved an old love letter or thrilled to see the caller ID of someone you love? Do you cringe when someone puts you down? If any one of those is true, you are someone who has experienced the power of words in your life for good and for ill. 

Advertisers know the power of words. Bullies know and use the power of words, and we as performers and writers, must be aware of the power of words, otherwise we are wielding an out of control chainsaw in the hearts of our audiences when we could be creating stronger, more loving individuals.

Several years ago, I wrote an article for Storytelling Magazine that fully explained my thoughts on the joint work of spoken and written words and how they complement each other. Events have come to pass that have strengthened my hope in the power of words and at the same time make me shake with fear as I watch the power of the abuse of the written and spoken (and tweeted) word.

Those of us who speak and write for a living, (and I am privileged to do both, as a performance artist and as a journalist, published author, poet, and playwright), know that words have incredible power. I tell a story called the power of words based on the Chinese tale of the Magic Paintbrush. In my tale, the artist's images do not come to life until he whispers please to the image. Words have the power to bring life, not his paintbrush, as it is in the traditional tale. To be fair, Chinese calligraphy is done with a brush and many Chinese words are tiny pictures!

When we work on a story, one of the first things I do is to identify key words to link the segments of the story. 

What are words I want to repeat? 
What are the words that I want the children to repeat with me? 
Are these words that will stress the positive elements of the story?
Will they be words that tear down a character in the tale? 

I strive to make the audience interactions, positive. Even when I am telling silly stories and I work out numerous physical jokes to provoke laughter. I work hard to make sure that the last thing said, the lasting impression left is one that builds up the inner souls of my audience. 

When I have to show something negative, I maneuver to have it happen "offstage: and my horrified reaction is what they see---modeling for them a reaction of horror in the face of evil while at the same time then going on to tell how the hero defeats the evil. 

In my writing, I stress the solution to the crime in my mysteries, recall hidden positives in history, (even if fictional) and look for positives in daily interactions in my other stories. I do not see the need to keep your mouth and face in the mud or to press the faces and ears (eyes in the case of readers) in the mud of life. Our purpose as artists can be to make them come face to face with what is wrong, but then use our words to show them how to find their way out, to mark a path of love and a love of joy. That's how I hope my performances are remembered, as giving strength through the power of my words to continue on a path of light and life into the future. 

Words matter.

Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them." 
-Nathaniel Hawthorne

Including essays, poetry, short stories and young adult fiction, Joan Leotta is a versatile and award-winning author, poet, and story performer. Leotta has been playing with words on paper and on stage from the first time she could hold a pen and climb. She gathers inspiration for writing and performing from everyday incidents and objects. She has been a story performer, mostly for children--including historic characters and folklore shows. She lived, told, and wrote in the Washington DC suburbs for thirty-five years. To her credit are four young adult novels, numerous plays and poems, and a picture book called "WHOOSH!" Joan attended Ohio University and Johns Hopkins, where she concentrated on international relations and economics. Joan grew up in Pittsburgh and now lives and spends a lot of time walking the North Carolina beaches with her husband Joe. Her motto is "encouraging others through pen and performance.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Joan Leotta - Poetess, Author, Storyteller - is on deck!

I am in California next week for the very last planned Mariposa Storytelling Festival in California.

I will not be in the blogging seat as I will be spending the weekend with some fabulous performers. If you are in the area, come on out and celebrate this experience! The Mariposa Festival is turning off the mic and lowering the lights after 30 glorious years.....

While I am out, Joan Leotta, an author, poetess, and teller of tales will be sitting in the blogging seat! 

When I asked for a bio and quick pick info about this very published lady, this is what she wanted everyone to know.....

You will have a hard time finding many videos of her performances because she is a Luddite about recording. However, you can find many examples of her writing on her blog, on FB or on Amazon. 

If you message her through her blog she will send you a pdf of the referenced article on the differing uses of written and spoken word. 

If you sign up for her newsletter (coming soon) by sending a note in the comment section of the blog with your email, you will be given opportunities to win prizes including school and book club appearances. 

Check out her body of work at Joan Leotta, Author and Story Performer on FB at or at

Rosa And The Red Apron - Check it out!

A collection of short stories from history to fiction

Simply a Smile is a collection of short stories that includes historical fiction, romances, mysteries and stories about families. What each tale has in common is that each was inspired by a piece of art or a simple object such a shell, a recipe, and even an historical marker. These stories are meant to be simple reading pleasures that will leave you, the reader, with a smile.

If you are interested in writing, finding out how a prolific writer thinks about writing, or just want to spend a little time wandering through the thoughts of someone who spends her days submerged in words...then this is the place to be next week!

Happy Telling!