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!

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