Friday, March 22, 2019

Storytelling, Breastfeeding, and Strong Women: Part One

One of the coolest things about storytelling is that you never know what you might end up doing. All sorts of institutions, professions, activity planners, and conferences call you and ask if you would like to come and be part of their organization's events.

On very rare occasions, the organization actually knows what they want me to do and why they are interested. Most of the time they are just excited I'm coming, and it requires lots of discussions for them to figure out how I might fit into their event.

Yesterday I worked as the artist for the 14th Annual International Conference on Breastfeeding and Feminism.

How Did That Happen?

One night about six months ago, I was out to dinner with "The Empty Nesters", a group of women whose children have left home.

One of my friends said, "So, I thought it would be cool if you would come and tell stories at our international breastfeeding conference."

I was a bit surprised at this. "What kind of stories do you want?"

Paige told me about the nature of the conference, that the women and men who attended came from around the world and from very different types of backgrounds and there had been some tensions and cross-cultural confusions.

If I should choose to come, what she wanted was a way to help these women bridge some of these differences and learn to listen and speak with more care. Storytelling might very well be the key to that.

Since using storytelling as a tool for communication is one of the things I advocate for on a regular basis, it felt like a perfect fit.

What Was The Plan?

Through talking to Paige, I designed a storytelling activity for one of the breakout sessions. It was only an hour, and that limits what you can reasonably accomplish, but I was hopeful we could at least make a good start on using stories to build community.

I always come up with several activities and several variations on those activities before I meet the participants for a workshop because I don't have any idea what they might want, need, or be capable of doing.

I settled on a variation that was an easy one to launch, learn and replicate. My hope was that the women who attended would easily be able to take it and use it in their own work if they wanted.

This is something I try to do when I go to conferences with non-storytelling groups. I want them to be able to take whatever we were doing and easily institute it.

This workshop was a version of the story swap activity. Each woman had to find a partner in the room, preferably one they did not know.

Statuette of Nursing Egyptian Mother
They sat across from their partner and told them about the first time they could remember encountering breastfeeding, their first experience with it, or the first time they really became aware of it.

I wasn't sure how long the first round would take, but I was very pleased.

These women (and all the participants in my workshop were women) had spent a portion of their lives advocating for breastfeeding. They were scholars, medical professionals, writers, educators, and some of them had babies either toddling or in arms. Their stories were amazing and the first round of telling and sharing ate up twenty minutes.

If I hadn't stopped them, they would be sharing that story still!

Then, I asked them to find another partner in the room. After they were all settled I gave them their next assignment.

"Tell this partner the story you just heard."

They looked at me in surprise. "What?" was the most common response.

I said, "You just listened to a story by another woman talking about her experience. You are all trained to work with women whether you are gathering data, encouraging a woman who is having difficulty, introducing the process to a woman who isn't familiar with it, or supporting a woman as she begins this journey. One of the things you are supposed to be doing is listening to them, right?

So, what you will now do is consider the story you just heard and pretend it is your story. Figure out how you would need to alter the various characters in the story to make this tale fit into your life, but don't change the substance of the tale."

I waited to see if any of the participants would ask for further clarification. They didn't, they just launched into the stories.

After this round, a woman was very dissatisfied. She said, "We've just spoken to each other for ten minutes, and we don't actually know anything about each other! We didn't get to tell our stories!"

At this point, quite a few women were feeling like this. I pointed out that if they'd done what I asked their partner would have learned quite a great deal about them. That's when I pointed out that they were supposed to co-opt the story and figure out how to tell it as if it happened to them.

Statue of a Zambian woman nursing
That's when it hit them that they were supposed to look at their own lives and figure out where their experiences intersected with their partner's. How was the story they heard related to them? What parts of their lives could touch the lives of the women they were listening to?

They were required to swap out with the story they'd just heard, but this time they needed to figure out how to retell that story and see if they could own it.

That was the round when things got interesting.

Our Stories Touch Each Other

After this round, there was lots of discussion about the activity. One woman cried out in surprise as her partner started telling,

"Hey! That's MY story!"

She was so excited that she practically giggled all the way through the telling. She was so delighted and so amazed to hear it coming back to her in a different form.

At the end of the tale, another woman in a different grouping admitted she felt like she was lying. She said, "I got a story about a woman's grandmother who escaped the communists with a baby. They had to remain hidden, so whenever the baby started crying, the woman would put the child to the breast. My grandmother escaped the Nazis in Germany, but she was a little girl. I changed the story so that my grandmother was older, and it felt strange to lie about that.

I pointed out that she could have started with her grandmother escaping Nazi Germany and saying that other women used that technique, or that she could imagine that if her grandmother had been older, she would have used it. The woman's eyes widened, and she grinned.

Across the room, a woman from Vietnam said, "That was my story! My grandmother escaped the Communists there!" The two women grinned at each other in acknowledgment of a shared story from two different parts of the world who had didn't even belong to the same generation but knew exactly how their lives fit together at that moment.

Breastfeeding Heritage for World Breastfeeding week
We discussed the power of understanding how our stories bind us together and how you can find the commonality in your stories to help someone who feels as if they are completely different from you. Now, that doesn't mean you tell someone else's story, and that is not what we were getting at, but to understand how our stories are part of the larger story of women who need to support and care for each other as we face challenges.

Then, our hour was over.

I explained that we could keep on going with this exercise, and more women would undoubtedly hear their own stories reflected back at them through someone else's eyes, and that in the end, we would learn not only about someone else's life but our own.

I was only there for another hour and a half before I left. In that time, women found me and told me their stories.

-One woman told me she was very shy and couldn't speak in front of people, and that being able to share her story with only one woman was very powerful, and telling the stories she heard made it easier because she didn't feel as vulnerable even though she was telling a story about herself. She told me she is a journalist, and once she was a television anchor. Most people are surprised she could be on television in front of so many people, and I grinned.

"You weren't on television with lots of people, it was just you and the camera."

She nodded. "You get it."

-One woman told me that her uncle was the one who told her about breastfeeding. She said that when she says this, lots of women recoil as if that is strange. It makes her nervous about sharing her story to have a man so front and center. Especially since it puts some women off who have had bad experiences with controlling men.

"Tell me about your uncle," I suggested.

Then she told me about this hilarious, funny, warm, loving man who was such a safe and wonderful part of her life.

"That's where that story starts," I suggested. "Don't start by telling us you were barely twenty, pregnant, and scared when your uncle told you that you were definitely going to have to breastfeed. Tell us who he is. We'll embrace both of you."

She teared up, gave me a big hug and started laughing. "Yes. Thank you! I guess that's why you are the professional."

That made me laugh.

The Storytelling

I wish I had space to tell you all of the stories I heard in the workshop! Here are a few.

Woodruff Nash mother holding child bust
-A woman from India talked about learning to breastfeed while sitting in a room with half her female relatives as they touched her lovingly, supported her, helped her reposition the baby, and gave her advice. "The grandmother is the bossiest one," she said.

-The woman whose mother squirted milk at her father from across the room in a playful moment that made her laugh when she was about four.

-The tale of the nursing woman who was at her family reunion where everyone shares food and drink when a three-year-old approached, pointed at her breasts and said, "My mommy lets me have those," and expected a drink.

So Much More!

This post is running long!

There were so many other storytelling/community moments, but it will have to wait. 

I will blog tomorrow about the technical part of how I planned the workshop, what stories I told and why, and the strategic choices that went into shaping the workshop and the changes I made on the spur of the moment. 

The crafting bit that goes on in my head that nobody sees.

I know, it is backward from the way I usually do these things, but I really just wanted to share the experience first!

Happy Telling!

Storytelling, Breastfeeding, and Strong Women: Part One
Storytelling, Breastfeeding, and Strong Women: Part Two

Friday, March 15, 2019

A Mixed Bag of Failure, Confusion, Success and Storytelling: Day 3

I am a professional communicator. That means I work hard to try to be understood.

I fail at this often, but I work at it.

Someday I am going to be so good at communicating that even people who have been in meetings with me will understand what I said as well as what I meant.

Looking back on this residency, I realize the first and most evident fact: The kids were fine, I'm the one who needed to adjust!

 I went in blinder than I knew, encountered something I didn't understand, and went so far into my own head I could see things coming at me through the back side of my skull.

This is a common failing of mine.

My third day of this three-day residency started off a little tentatively.

The librarian asked me if I could tell a story to the third block of kids.

I told her that since it was my last day I would definitely be telling to all of the classes. She looked relieved.

I had no idea why, but it felt a bit shady. I had enough on my plate and decided I didn't want to know.

The first two classes of the morning played the Freeze Game. We had a good time, and then I told them stories. Did I spark some imagination? Did I give the kids ideas for writing? Did I accomplish anything other than getting them to pay attention to their little wiggly bodies and start focusing on the images they were creating in their heads?

I have no idea.

The first class demanded to hear The Ghost with One Black Eye. They'd heard it in the fall, but they were determined, so I told it again.

The second class also played the Freeze game. They didn't go as far into the exercise, and they were not as attentive to the whole "These are the parts of a story" discussion we had before the exercise. This class got Red, Red Lips as a tale.

The third class of the day is when things went off the rails.

I decided to go back and see if this class could do The Good Thing/Bad Thing story work. It did not go well. I put the kids into small groups instead of two big groups to work with the teachers. The small groups had all sorts of problems, the kids could not organize this game by themselves. It was a mess. I pulled them out of it and moved onto the stories.

I should have listened to my instincts instead of allowing one particular teacher to help me sabotage myself. You'd think I would learn, but sometimes you gleefully take the poisoned apple and stuff it in your face.

Another fault, not listening to thirty years of experience.

Taily Po
I spoke to the teacher who suggested the small group idea. She was upset. She felt like I was asking the kids to do things beyond their capabilities. She didn't expect that they were going to be doing the things they were doing. This residency was not what she expected at all. She was frustrated.

I was really surprised by her reaction.

Well, by putting the kids into smaller groups, it wasn't effective. I should have just moved on to the Freeze Game.

After I pulled the kids out of the exercise, I talked about writing, told them Taily-Po, and sent them off to class.

Fourth block went fine. The teachers worked with the kids on the story game, we never got to the Freeze Game, and by the end, despite one teacher demanding things "make sense" in a "reality" way - I think she was a bit unimpressed with the shark who was also a Kung-Fu master. I was pretty sure this seven-year-old wasn't the first kid to come up with that idea and ten seconds of Googling after I got home proved that to be true - but I just laughed and rolled with it in class, and the story went on from there. I think she let it go a little more after that.

I talked a bit about the books, and then I told them Barney McCabe, which they loved.

After the last class, and the mixed bag day, the librarian admitted that the poison apple teacher from the third block was extremely disappointed. She'd sent a red hot meltdown email. She thought there was going to be more storytelling and less of this teaching about language stuff.

What did she expect?

I have no idea.

Did she think I was going to sit in the library for three days and tell stories for an hour at a time?

No idea.

What did she think was going to happen?

I have no idea.

Like I said: I am a professional communicator.


The librarian also told me that one of the teachers from the fourth block had seen the email from the third block teacher, and she did not agree.

The fourth block teacher expected exactly what she got. This is what I said I was going to do. This is what the material I sent said I was going to do. This is what they wanted. She was quite happy with the experience.

The teacher from the fourth block wanted me to know that not everyone shared the sentiment that there was going to be hours and hours of storytelling.

Like I said: I am a professional communicator.

Watch, the third block teacher will be the only one to fill out the survey for the arts council and then I'll be in trouble in Wake County.


This is why I don't like teaching residencies.

Partners in education range from fabulous to antagonistic. I've run the gamut over the last thirty years, which is why I don't often go into the classroom anymore. I have worked with teachers who love the exercises, teachers who hate them, teachers who don't understand how the work helps, teachers who implement the ideas immediately, teachers who think language work like this is a waste of time, teachers who don't think their kids are capable, teachers who wish they could teach like this all of the time, and teachers who hate every single minute of it.

The stress on all sides is just unbelievable.

If I wanted that much stress, I'd get a desk job.

There are artists who are so much better at this than I am...Looking at you, SherryArianna, and Carrie Sue.

I hope I remember this little episode the next time The David says, "Hey, I think these people want a residency!"

Just because you can do a thing doesn't mean you ought to do it. I do not have any passion for teaching at this point in my career.

It is time for me to stop doing it...For everyone's sake.

Life takes you where it takes you. Own up to it and avoid making yourself miserable!

Happy Telling!

The Search For Imagination - Day 1
Digging For Buried Treasure: Day 2
A Mixed Bag of Failure, Confusion,Success  and storytelling: Day 3

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Digging For Buried Treasure: Day 2


My first day of this residency was rough.


I went home and started considering all of the various things I was planning to do, all the things that I suspected wouldn't fly, and all of the things that might work.

Then, I stopped myself and did the thing I should have done on the first day. I guess if you go too long without doing a thing, you lose track of the plot.

I do have some skills. They are limited to a small scope of the world, but they have served me pretty darn well. The most useful skill is reading an audience. I needed to do better at reading these students.

It required some questions.

1. What do these kids actually already know how to do?

2. How do I get them to show me what they already know?

3. Is there something I can share with them that could move them a hair's breadth closer to where I hope they could be?

4. If so, what is that thing I could do?

5. What does success look like in a residency like this?

6. What challenges do I need to set this group so that they can fight their way beyond even what they think they can do so I can celebrate them loudly, proudly and obnoxiously in the library?

7. What really quick "traditions" can I establish that will make the kids vie for the behavior?

8. What performance enhancing, call and response, audience control, participatory strategies do I need to employ to find a place where I can meet these kids?

So, Day 2.

I banned all references to video games. The teachers cheered loudly. The kids groaned.

I did improvisational language association games and pulled as much out of them as I could.

I established a very loud, arms up, hand gesture for kids who used radically impressive language during one phase of the game, and the words that started pouring out of the second graders were fantastic.

I modeled coaxing and suggestive behaviors for teachers to get students to use the images that naturally occur when they hear words.

It was exhausting.

It worked. Most of the kids succeeded. The teachers were intrigued.

We still had some videogame references, but they decreased, and other kids called them on it.

Two classes clearly struggled with language more than the other two, and I chose to go slower with them. So, at the end of the day, I had four classes and they'd all done radically different things at different speeds.

Still, it was better than day 1.

As for the second graders, once their brains were turned away from video games their true nature emerged.

Poop humor and saying eww when a prince kisses a princess.

Okay. Back on familiar ground.

Video Game Head Kids - 2
Storyteller - 1

(Everybody won today. Tomorrow is another story. Let us hope it goes as well.)

Happy Teaching!

The Search For Imagination - Day 1
Digging For Buried Treasure: Day 2
A Mixed Bag of Failure, Confusion,Success  and storytelling: Day 3

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The search for Imagination: Residency Day 1


In October of 2018, I did a master class with a high school. The drama teacher told me that kids today are different. She said that they spend far too much time scrolling through things on their phones. They walk with their phones, they use them instead of having conversations, and that their social skills were suffering because of it.

I squirreled that little piece of info away for a later day.

In January of 2019, I was out in Arizona. The principal of one of the schools took me aside and told me he was amazed at his student's behavior during the program.

He proceeded to tell me that they'd had problems with their last assemblies. The students couldn't sit still. They were restless and unattentive. I told him I don't usually have that problem. I attribute it to the way using stories hooks into the brain of listeners.

Apparently, in an effort to let the parents know that he was concerned about the student's behavior, he had a meeting one evening. As he spoke to the parents, he was struck by what he saw. Most of them couldn't go more than a few minutes without looking down at their phones and scrolling through whatever was in front of them. They didn't focus on much of anything more than about three or four minutes. They couldn't even stay off of their phones long enough to get through the short meeting.

The principal said, "It was obvious why their kids are the way they are. If this is how plugged in the parents are, imagine what they let their kids do?"

I filed that away for a later date.

This week, I am in residence.

I don't often teach residencies.

I don't often teach below the fourth grade.

I don't particularly like residencies, and I teach as few as possible.

So, you might ask, how did you end up teaching a second grade residency this week?

The answer?

I have absolutely no idea.

I'm pretty sure when I agreed to this we weren't talking about second grade...but here we are.

Two weeks ago, when The David told me to pick up the phone, I discovered I was talking to a curriculum coordinator who informed me that the school decided that second grade was the best grade for the residency.

Now, it is only three days long, so it isn't like I am going to be here for three weeks, but that is not the point.

It has been years...and I mean years...since I worked with the second grade. Their abilities and habits are completely foreign to me.

Not to worry, I said to myself, it isn't like I don't perform for this group all of the time. I could adapt to this, no problem.

Second Graders love Fortnite
That was my first mistake.

I obviously don't know anything about second graders. Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Bupkis. Less than bupkis.

My first day was a disaster.

I started teaching an activity and realized in the first five minutes that the kids could not do what was needed. They did not have the skills. It was odd.

Second graders can put sentences together, right?
Second graders can use imaginative language, right?
Second graders can come up with a single sentence that is related to a sentence that came before, right?
Second graders do still have use of a creative play, right?

Apparently, least not the ones I encountered on Day 1.

I went to plan E as I deduced quickly that plans B - D were probably not a good idea.

I took the teachers aside and asked what the heck was happening.

They informed me that their children have trouble because they spend so much time plugged in that they don't seem to have good social skills, don't know how to hold conversations, and really do not know how to control their emotions.

Their parents use technology as a babysitter. Instead of teaching their children to learn how to control their anger or upsetness, they just give them the Ipad.

This makes for miserable behavior, lack of cooperative learning, and poor reading skills amongst lots of the kids. During creative writing time, they struggle. They often can't come up with anything but storylines from video games, and they don't have as much interest in anything that isn't electronic.

The librarian informed me that when kids come to her house to play with her son if she doesn't let them play on the computer or play videogames, they tell her they are bored and want to go home.

What the heck am I going to do now?

Day 1 of my residency - VIDEO HEAD STUDENTS  - 1
                                        STORYTELLER - 0

Happy Teaching

The Search For Imagination - Day 1
Digging For Buried Treasure: Day 2
A Mixed Bag of Failure, Confusion,Success  and storytelling: Day 3