Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Stories for 3rd - 5th -Fables and Such

Stories for the third through fifth grade group are doing two very particular things.  The first and foremost thing that this group of stories does is reinforce the comprehension and pre reading skills that are central to reading success.  They often use repetition and vivid images as well as word play to create tensions that force the audience to pay attention to details.

The tales move much faster than stories for younger listeners and the plots can get complicated; the language is complex and words that are not unfamiliar are not always defined, forcing the listener to use experiential language to figure out what is happening.  These tales are driven more by disastrous choices the characters make than they are about learning language patterns and establishing the visualization of words.

Social and emotional issues take center stage in these tales.  The characters are tricksters, foolish powerful people, thieves, sneaks, and any other sort of person who is likely to get into trouble.  Their problems revolve around either trying to avoid trouble or get away with something that is not okay.  They make horrible decisions that alter their lives and sometimes there is no redemption, just a warning that making bad decisions can lead to a bad end.

The tales are a mix of fun and serious.  They make the students laugh and think.  It doesn't get any better than that!

What's the best grade to start integrating stories into curriculum?

March 7, 2012

Today I was in an elementary school in Concord, NC.  The media center specialist told me that they never have live performers come in from outside.  Both she and the principal had seen me somewhere in the past, and when they heard I was in the area, decided to have me come and address their kids.  Before I left, she told me that she really wants to work on using storytelling in the classroom.  She asked me what would be the best grade to implement such a thing.

I know I had one of those run over by a train looks on my face.  What’s the best grade?  ALL OF THEM!  That, of course, is not a helpful answer.  In a time when you have to show immediate effectiveness, and prove that something you are doing is yielding fruit immediately, that is the sort of question you are going to get about storytelling.

We have forgotten that educating a student is like using a slow cooker to make stew.  You put the raw ingredients in and turn down the heat, and over the course of many hours the various ingredients in the pot simmer and blend to become a savory stew. 

The best place to begin using storytelling as an integral part of curricular studies is preschool.  The problem with that is there is a good chance you, as a preschool teacher, will not see any of the results of this work.  You are still adding basic ingredients.  Kindergartedn and first grade teachers should also be using storytelling techniques.  You might actually see a little of this with the few kids who are really going to start grasping the concept of writing story based language, but chances are, you’re only going to see hints of what might be.  Third grade is the last grade where people are really ‘learning to read’ as opposed to reading to learn, and this is the first grade where you should see some across the board advantage for those kids who started in preschool.  

Even so, it is not until fourth grade that the true fruit of integrating storytelling into the classroom can truly be harvested.

Teachers know that a curious thing tends to happen to some fourth graders.  Kids who seemed to know how to read start having problems.  Educators discover that these kids can sound out every word and say everything on the page, but they have no idea what they are reading.  This is because they have managed to learn the mechanics of reading, but they have failed to develop the skill of comprehension.

Comprehension is the act of reading words, and relating them back to images that make sense.  Students who cannot visualize language cannot read with comprehension.  In short, if you start working on incorporating storytelling into curriculum when students are in preschool, you are less likely to have issues with their comprehension skills when they get to fourth grade.  All of this is well and good, but it doesn’t address the very serious question I was asked. 

'What is the best grade to start?' is a question that needs a long answer about building skills, but in schools today where some amorphous ‘they’ needs a provable quick answer that can be tested immediately by a rubric, the only answer that makes sense is fourth grade.

In fourth grade, exposing kids to storytelling on a regular basis can help them begin to learn the skills of comprehension they will need to become better readers.  Their brains are wired to begin integrating the concepts of words and images, so it should be possible to see a measurable difference in comprehension scores amongst students who were struggling before doing storytelling work with teachers and how they fare after.

I am brought to mind of that famous Donald Davis story about storytelling and writing.  He was teaching in a school and he had a number of kids who were struggling with writing.  He had the teachers send those kids to him in the library every Friday for a month for stories.  At the end of that time, all of the kids could write stories. 

Before you can write a story, you have to know what is in a story.  Before you can understand what is in a story, you need to realized that stories are built out of word pictures.  Before you can build pictures with words, you have to hang pictures on the words.  Before you can hang pictures on words, you have to associate those words with pictures.  If you can’t associate words and pictures, you can’t read.  You can call out words all day long, but they won’t mean anything.

So, if you need a quick fix, start in fourth grade, but, if you want to change the whole picture and have the leisure to wait, start in preschool.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Telling Spooky Tales

There are lots and lots of wonderful spooky tales that you probably ought not tell young children.  There are lots and lots of wonderful spooky tales that you probably ought not tell in the dark.
There are lots and lots of wonderful spooky tales that you probably ought not tell in certain religious settings.
There are lots and lots of wonderful spooky tales that you should tell every chance you get.

How do you pick which is which and when you should do what?  Easy, that depends on your audience.

When choosing a scary story, you have to know what scares people.  If you can work out what will frighten an audience, you can figure out how far you can go, what will work, what will not work and what will be over the top.  As a performer who has taken it over the top more than once, I have had to learn this lesson the hard way.

For starters, you can guarantee that most children between second and tenth grade think that what makes a story scary is telling it in the dark.  This is not actually true.  What makes a story scary is how well you get inside your audience's head.  If you can freak them out behind their own eyeballs, then you could all be standing inside the sun itself and they would still be scared out of their wits...provided you weren't all burned alive.  Here are some quick rules of thumb I use when choosing ghost stories for audiences.

1)  When dealing with really little kids, the stories should be way more funny than scary.  Usually, it is enough to tell the group that you are going to tell them a scary story.  Their imaginations will do the rest.  They will see 'scary' written in each element of the story right up until the time you make it funny. They will announce afterwards that they weren't scared, but if you look into those giant, nervous eyes while you are setting up the tale and they are certain something really scary is about to happen, you will see that they aren't all that anxious to be frightened despite the bravado.  The Gunny Wolf is a perfect example for kids this age.

2)  From about third grade to fifth grade the stories are much more suspenseful.  There is less certainty that things are going to work out and sometimes they do not.  These stories are much more visual than the stories for the little ones and they revolve around a kid who is often facing the same kinds of fears these kids face.  I always ask a series of questions before I begin them.  The sequence goes as follows

1 - Is there anyone here who is afraid of the dark?
2 - Is there anyone here who is not afraid of the dark but they like a night light?
3 - Is there anyone here who is not afraid of the dark but they like the closet light on?
4 - Is there anyone here who is not afraid of the dark but they like the hall light on?
5 - Is there anyone here who is not afraid of the dark but they like the bathroom light on?
6 - Is there anyone here who is not afraid of the dark but the stuff in the dark makes them a little nervous?

These kids are on the precipice that leads from the fears of young childhood i.e. monsters in the closet, things under the bed, creepy creatures waiting to spring out and grab them, and the beginnings of peer pressure fears about being teased, left out, and other more real world fears.  Ghost stories for this group are usually about the hobgoblins that accompany us from our earliest years.  Red Red Lips is a good example of a fun tale for this group.  Taily Po, The Big Spooky House, The Habbiyas and many others will appeal to this group.

3)  Sixth grade is the first year I tell stories that would be good to tell in the dark.  Using lots of vocal technique and wild facial and body positions make these stories really creepy and they benefit from some lighting.  This is the first group of kids who will probably not wake their parents and demand to sleep in their bed so it is safe to scare them.  The Boo Hag is a great example for that.

4) Once you get into later middle school and high school, anything goes and you can tell those stories that are not fit for man nor beast.  Scare 'em.  Tell those stories that will peel the skin off of their hides and make them look both ways when it gets dark.  Pull out your worst stuff and let it rip...unless you are in a school that makes a point of telling you how sheltered and innocent their students are.  If you get that song and dance from the person booking it then pull everything back a notch.  No matter how into the stories the kids might be, the grown ups will be in a faint and clutching their pearls if they think you've exposed their precious charges to something inappropriate and they may never invite you back.  Appeal to your audience but remember who is paying your way.

5) Intergenerational audiences should probably stay in the 3 - 5th grade range unless you don't have any really young members of the group, then you can go with the sixth grade tales.  If you have an all adult audience let the blood drip, I say.

Spooky stories require us to walk a fine line between what is appropriate and what is too much.  For some listeners, anything is too much and for others, nothing is too much.  You can't please everyone, but these stories should also be fun, not just hair raising.

One of my favorite stories about a scary story set was one I did in upstate New York.  The guidance counselor took these two very big, somewhat disrespectful, tough looking boys out of the main body of the  audience and made them sit with her.  After the telling of The Lover's Promise, the guidance counselor came up to me trying not to laugh.  She said, "Did you see those two boys I had sitting with me?"  I nodded.  "When you asked if there was anybody who wasn't scared of anything they raised their hands.  After the story was over, one turned to the other and said, "I only jumped twice, how many times did you jump?"

Get behind their eyeballs and they won't even remember whether the lights were on or not.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Notes From The Road - Connecticut Showcase October 10, 2012

Notes From The Road are about traveling, not necessarily what I did while I once I got out of the car!

I spent this Wednesday at a Storyteller Showcase in Connecticut.  It was their very first and it was lovely.  There were only a few buyers there, but they were enthusiastic and interested.  I got some great nibbles and a bite, so it was definitely worth the trip.  That's the perspective I've got now that I'm home.  It wasn't nearly so rosy when I was in my car.

That said, it was quite the trip.  I started out on Monday, going up to my mother's house in Alexandria, VA.  You notice I say my mother's house as if my father does not live there, but he her sufferance.  That leg of the trip was easy enough as I left in good time and arrived without even needing to tell my Garmin to find me a detour around the traffic.  It wasn't until I got up the next morning that things fell apart.

I left my mom's house around ten in the morning.  I figured that would give everyone time to get to work before I got on the road.  Things went swimmingly until I got beyond the toll tunnel in Baltimore.  There were signs warning that I-95 was blocked by an accident and everyone should detour.  Well, at that point I was not sure how far up the accident was, so I did what the sign said and detoured onto route 40.  It took almost an hour to go twenty miles, and then I got back on 95, only to find that I had not gone far enough and the accident was still in front of me.  Sighing, I got off the interstate with what was left of the traffic and spent the next three hours in Maryland going down 40, a two lane local with stoplights every five hundred feet or so.  The locals must have loved that!  If I lived anywhere near forty, I would have turned around and gone home.  There is nothing I would have needed so badly that I would be willing to get into that traffic.  Lots of locals detoured out of the mess and opted for other ways to get where they were going.  The rest of us poor fools just kept following each other in slow motion bumper to bumper for miles.  I didn't get out of Maryland until after three o'clock.  You know what that means, right?  I got into the New Jersey/New York area at 5pm.

Later I found out that a fuel tanker overturned on the highway.  Nobody was hurt, but they were dealing with a huge toxic spill and possible water contamination.

Luckily, I had a short stint through New York.  What I could not have anticipated was the traffic in Connecticut.  I went through rush hour in four different cities before I finally got to East Hartford.  I didn't arrive until almost seven thirty.  Ate something, fell in bed, up by six to do a showcase.

Luckily the showcase went well.  Still and all, it lasted about fifteen minutes.  That's a long drive for fifteen minutes worth of performance.  On the bright side, I got a gig out of it.

This morning, I planned to leave at 8:30, but woke up at 6:30 because regardless of what my brain had in mind, my body was ready to go home.  I got on the road at 8am and luckily, the traffic was mostly with me.  There were a few patches of nonsense, but nothing so horrible and I have my XM radio so if things get too quiet I can always cycle through seven channels without looking down from the slow traffic.  Still, things were moving so well I decided to drive all the way home.  I got here at 7pm.  So, my trip from Alexandria to East Hartford was about as long as my trip from East Hartford back to North Carolina.

On the bright side, I finished my thoughts about a novel I hope to write someday, did some more work on my Sheherezaad(sp) piece and considered doing a two disc set of Grimm's fairytales.


Sometimes my life is more about traffic than it is about anything else.  Oh, well.  That's what I get for being a storyteller.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What Is A Successful Storyteller?

Storytellers tend to feel it when we hit it out of the park.  When we leave a stage  or a classroom after having been incredibly successful, we can feel it all through our body.  There is the energy, the excitement, the lavish praise, the joyful expressions and the contentment Alas, not all events are that successful.

Sometimes we leave and we feel like we did a good job, but something was missing.  Maybe things didn't land the way we hoped they would.  Maybe we feel like it was good, but didn't rise to great.

Sometimes we leave and it seems we did an adequate job, but there was nothing that made the experience stand out.

Then, there are those shows where we feel like a train hit us on the way out the door.  What happened? Why didn't the story or stories connect?  What went wrong?

When I was at Northwestern, Jay O'Callahan came to visit.  He is a remarkable man who danced and told his way through one of my all time favorite original tales called The Herring Shed.  When he was finished, I was exhausted and in love with the images dancing in my head.  It was obviously magic.

My first set watching Jackie Torrence perform Brer Rabbit tales was beyond amazing and I sat there watching Brer Snake tempt that possum laughing my fool head off and drinking in the sound of her voice.  I never could have imagined anything so breathtaking as being part of an audience with her at the helm.  I could actually feel the magic.

After those two experiences I knew what I wanted to be.  I wanted to be a magic person.

Jay O'Callahan and Jackie Torrence were magic people, no doubt, and that's what I wanted to be.  I wanted to hit the stage someday and be that magic or as close to it as I could get.  I wanted my audience to be that spell bound and joyful when they left me.  For a long time, I worked to achieve that.  Only, in my eyes, when I became a magic person, would I be a successful storyteller.

Many years have passed since those early days of youth and ignorance, and I've seen many storytellers and told many tales.  I've worked to refine and challenge myself, and learn and work with audiences.  I've had magic moments and moments I hope to never relive.  In the end, I've figured out what success really means to me.

Success for me means I look at each audience and give them what I have.  I also strive to meet them where they are.  I hope they have a good time.  I hope they get something fun out of it.  I hope I learn something about humans or literature or nature or how people think or how to time something in a story.  I hope I get just an ounce better each year.  If you are not growing, then you are either atrophying or dying.  Learning is the only thing that makes us better.

Sometimes I miss the mark entirely and the stories don't sing.  I dissect the choices I made and debate what I might have done differently.  If I learn something that helps me in the future, I succeeded.

Sometimes I partially miss the mark and the stories limp through.  I look through the stories to see what worked, what didn't and what I could or didn't do to help.  Sometimes the problem is I stand in the way of the story.  If I work or some bit of business or figure out a way to make something transition more smoothly, I succeeded.

Sometimes I do a credible job of giving what I've got and we all have a good time, but not a transformational moment in any way shape or form.  I look through those shows and see what can be learned from the interactions with the audience and the of animation or energy I threw off during the set.  If I can find anything at all to work on, I succeeded.

Of course, every now and then, I manage the thing I always strive to do.  Every now and then, I am able to apply all of those things, those hopes, those techniques I spent my life practicing, the audience is hungry for the stories, the situation is perfect and I float into that sweet spot and we make magic.

Yes, the magic happens, but I was wrong about where it occurs.  I thought it came off the storyteller, but the truth is, it comes through the storyteller.  We are brilliant when we are conduits.

Jay O'Callahan is a magic person to me.  Jackie Torrence's magic changed my life and instructs me as a storyteller even unto this day.

As for me, I feel like I've got a handful of magic beans and every now and then, I manage to plant one. There are many ways to measure success as a storyteller.  I have learned to settle for learning, striving, trying and never getting knocked down for good even when I am discouraged.  I make my living as a storyteller.  In that, I am succeeding.