Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Kwanzaa Time!

A guide to new celebrants!

Yes, it is once again Kwanzaa time!  Time to eat benne cakes, roll out the Mkeka, set up the Kinara, light the Mishuma Saba, pass around the Kikombe Cha Umoja,and reflect on the Nguzo Saba!

Before we begin...

Kwanzaa is not a Christmas substitute for African Americans...Kwanzaa doesn't have anything to do with Christmas at all.

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday.  Kwanzaa is not about religion!

If that is what Kwanzaa is not, then what is it?  Well, it is easy enough to explain.  Kwanzaa is the African American Festival that occurs at the end of the year.  It was originally created by Dr. Mulana Karenga in the late 1960's.
A picture book about the spirit of Kwanzaa!

Why have an African American inspired celebration?

African Americans have been an integral part of the history of America since the beginning.  Despite that, there are no national celebrations that recognize the contributions of African Americans to our country.  There have been and still are African American inventors, soldiers, entrepreneurs, cowboys, farmers, firemen, and America even has a black president.   In the '60's and all through my childhood, as a matter of fact, there was no acknowledgement that African Americans had much impact on the country at all before Martin Luther King was born!  Kwanzaa has two main components that encourage celebrants to consider their place in the world as well as reflect on the contributions of African Americans.  The first is the Nguzo Saba, and the second are reflective readings.

Kwanzaa is a truly American celebration.  it is based on First Fruits celebrations in different parts of Africa, but it is not like any of them.

So, That's as much history as I'm giving!  Now, on to the steps!

First you need a mat of some sort of natural fibers.

MKeka (M-ke'-kah) - this mat is the foundation of your Kwanzaa display and it is the foundation that we use to build our lives.  It represents the African American culture and traditions.

Mishuma Saba (Mish-oo'-ma So'-bah) - The candles.  Three green, three red, and one black.  These are the colors of the African American Flag.  The red is for the blood we all share no matter where our ancestors were born, the green is for the hope of new life and a better world, and the black is for the color of the African American ancestral heritage.

Kinara (kin-are'-ah) - The candle holder.  The proper way to set up the Kinara is to put three red candles on the left, three green candles on the right and the black candle in the middle.  You light the black one first.  On the second day you light the red one.  On the third day you light a green one.  You continue to alternate between red and green for the remainder of the festival.

Muhindi (moo-hin'-dee) - These are ears of corn, there should be one for each child in the home.  The corn should be dried.

Mazao (mu-zow') - These are fruits and vegetables added to the Mkeka that represent crops, the bounty of the earth, good things and plenty.

Kikombe Cha Umoja (ki'-cOm'-bA chah' oo'-mO-jah) - The unity cup.  We drink communally from this cup as well as pour a libation for the ancestors.  Honoring the ancestors, those who came before us is an important aspect of Kwanzaa.

Now that the Mkeka is set up it is time to get on with the celebration!

You can give Zawadi, (zu-wo'-dee), which are small presents, typically handmade, but they can also be things like books, but gifts are not the main thrust of Kwanza.

We begin our Kwanzaa day with the words, Habri Gani! (Hu-bar'-ee go'-nee).  It means what's the news?  The answer is the principle or Nguzo Saba of the day.  So what are the seven principles of Kwanzaa?  Here they are.

Umoja (oo-mO-jah) - Unity.  We must stand together if we are to overcome our difficulties

Kujichagulia (coo'-gee-chah-goo-lee-ah) - Self-Determination.  We must not let anyone else decide who we are.  We must speak for ourselves and not let others speak for us.  Just because someone says you are lazy or useless or worthless does not mean it is true!

Ujima (oo-gee'-mah) - Cooperative Work and Responsibility.  We must work together to build the world of which we wish to be a part.  We must look after each other and understand that we are responsible to ourselves, our families and our communities.

Ujamaa (oo-jah'-mah) - Cooperative Economics.  We shop at stores owned and run by African Americans to make sure that we are supporting small business.  (My family has opened this out to all small businesses in our area.  Mom and pop are under attack from Big Box.  Support small businesses when you can.)

Nia (nee'-uh) - Purpose.  We must move through our lives with purpose and we must understand that our lives have purpose.  Approach your life with goals and actions that help you achieve good things.

Kuumba (k-oom-bah) - Creativity.  Leave the world a more beautiful place than when you found it.

Karamu (kAr'-um-moo) - The feast of Kwanzaa where you eat traditional African American foods, sing, dance, tell stories and celebrate!

Imani (i-mah'-nee) - Faith.  You must have faith in yourself and in the hope that we can build a better world.  (You can apply this to religious faith if you like, but my family does not)

The last part of the celebration deals with reflection.  You can do readings of African American artists, poets, teachers, and philosophers.  You can discuss how you plan to make the Nguzo Saba a reality in your life.  You can talk about what you have done in the past year to live up to the principles of Kwanzaa.  That bit is up to you.  Here are some readings to get you started.

So, get out there and see if you can find a Kwanzaa event!  Reflect on what you can do to make the world a better place.

Happy Kwanzaa!

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Storyteller's Toolkit: Hands

The Storyteller's Toolkit is a simple way to talk about the elements that storyteller's use to present a story.  These do not include puppets, props, costumes or anything extraneous.  You can certainly use all of those things as a storyteller, but they are not standard tools in the toolkit.  

The basics in the toolkit are as follows.

Voice:  If you missed this post, just click here.

Eyes:  If you missed this post, just click here.

Face:  If you missed this post, just click here


Body:  If you missed the post, just click here

Easy enough.  In keeping with my new policy about blog entries.  We will deal with each of these one at a time.  Today's selection deals with the hands.

There are so many things to say about the hands.  I found more information about gesturing than I did about eye contact, or using the voice, which I found odd, but there you have it.  Apparently, the hands, really freak people out and they have no idea what to do with them.  What was most amusing to me was how many people had done videos about hands and gesture.  The best one belonged to Sean Buvala over at Storyteller.net.  Some of the things I found were wild and some were fascinating.  Some I found completely counter intuitive and others were only just sort of helpful.  Here is my top list of things I read this evening about employing gesture in storytelling that either amused me, surprised me, or was actually useful.

Toastmasters International did an entire pamphlet on how to add appropriate gestures to your work.

Then, there was this fascinating, incredibly long article about research on creating effective storytelling robots by giving them gesture and controlling how long they gaze at audience members while trying to convince them of something.  I kid you not.

Then, there was a long article about the kinds of gesture people use, how they can be categorized and how they are employed by storytellers.

Take this link over to a youtube video of Sean Buvala explaining the best ways to infuse gesture into your stories.

Debbie Dunn puts her seven cents into the mix as well.

Karen Langford Chace has a great post about gesture in story.

Here's another video about using your hands effectively in presentation.

I even have a list of ten gestures to avoid!

I spent a long time reading things about gesture, why it is important, what you are supposed to do with it, and how to not look awkward in front of a group of people.  I spent lots of time watching videos about where your hands go and who knows what else.  Not surprisingly, lots of it is repetitive.

Hands can be your best friend as a storyteller, or your worst enemy.  They are never neutral.  They will either help you tell a story...or they will attack you.  It is important to know where your hands are and what they are doing.  Some folks are stingy with gesture, using it only as a kind of modifier to their work.  Some don't employ gesture at all, preferring to keep their hands under tight control.  Some folks have 'soft' gestures that don't quite form.  Here is a clip of me telling a story that is all about the gesture. It is called Red, Red Lips.  For a laugh, turn the sound completely off and just watch my hands.

If perchance you've read the posts about voice and eyes, you will note that I am not one to stint while employing either one of those, but this story is very much about gesture.

So, what are some ways to think about your hands?  I have only one piece of advice when it comes to gesture...GO FOR IT!

1.  Be deliberate.  Decide what you want your hands to do, and then go for it.  Your hands can either take your audience where you want them to go, or they can be floppy, mushy, useless appendages that are flapping about like useless bits of paper towel at the end of your arms.  The choice is yours.

2.  Be decisive.  Don't hold back.  Go for it.  Commit to what you are going to do, and then make the entire gesture.  Don't do it half way.  Do not hold your hands against your sides from shoulder to elbow and simply flap the bottom part of your arms.  You will look the robot from 'Lost In Space'.

4.  Don't Let Them Attack You!  If you don't know where your hands are, they are probably attacking you.  They will play with your hair, your clothes, your ears, your belt, earrings, necklaces, and anything else you might happen to have with you.  They are not your friends if they are not occupied.  Remember, "Idle hands are the Devil's playground."

5.  Think Illustratively.  Your hands have the power to create pictures.  Your hands can be everything from the top of the windowsill to the finger that shuts off the light switch.  As long as your hands show us what your words are saying, they will become part of the story.  In other words, you are the picture book!  See the pictures!  Be the pictures!  Live the pictures!

6.  Small Is Useless.  Making tiny gestures is really useless.  Nobody can see them and they don't translate very far beyond you.  One of the things you must do as a storyteller is to fill the space around you.  You should be looking to increase your size, not squish it down smaller than you are.  Just as a cornered cat will turn to the side and make itself look larger, you must use your hands and arms to 'increase' your size.  Thing Big! 

7.  Don't hold them!  Your hands are not going to go anywhere.  Don't clasp them unless you are doing it for emphasis.  Hold them at your sides, or keep them in some neutral position.  Choose your own neutral position.  Make sure your neutral position really is neutral, and not actually giving off a vibe that is counterproductive to your storytelling.

8.  Create themes for your audience!  If you create physical shapes with your hands that repeat in your story, your audience can use them as a point of reference.  You can also use them to create strong audience participation.  Your audience can do the gestures with you and enter the world of story.  This tends to tickle an audience no matter what the age.  Watch the first six seconds of the video below and you'll see what I mean.

 When you employ your hands, employ them!  Don't be afraid of them, they can do all sorts of fabulous things.  They can make stories materialize right before your audience, and they can also give your audience a way to join you in story.

So, free your hands!  Free your gestures!  Let your arms go!  Be free!

Empower Yourself.  Empower Your Stories.

Happy Telling!

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Storyteller's Toolkit: THE EYES

The Storyteller's Toolkit is a simple way to talk about the elements that storyteller's use to present a story.  These do not include puppets, props, costumes or anything extraneous.  You can certainly use all of those things as a storyteller, but they are not standard tools in the toolkit.  

The basics in the toolkit are as follows.

Voice:  If you missed this post, just click here.


Face:  If you missed this pos, just click here.

Hands:  If you missed the post, just click here.

Body:  If you missed the post, just click here

Easy enough.  In keeping with my new policy about blog entries.  We will deal with each of these one at a time.  Today's selection deals with the eyes.

Using the elements in the toolkit is what separates folks who just get up and tell a story, from a crafted tale performed for an audience.

I spent the last two hours jumping around the web reading articles about eye contact.  So, for starters, I will link over to some of the ones I found most useful.

This article was written by Debbie Dunn and it gives reasons why eye contact is important.

This post is from Wheresmyquarter.blogspot.com.  It has tips about effective use of eye contact.  The blog is written by Sean Buvala. 

Here are some useful tips from a site called Opencolleges.edu.au

Lastly, because everyone's got a point of view, here is an article that says that eye contact is not always a good thing.  Though, because of the way storytellers make eye contact, this doesn't really relate to us.  I still thought it was interesting.

The upshot is that there are lots and lots of articles about eye contact.  Everyone knows it is important.  You can use it to convince your audience of your point of view, psyche your audience into not realizing how nervous you are, show sincerity, connect with them, and on and on in an endless series of very good, solid advice.

The thing to understand about your eyes as a storyteller is that eye contact is just the very beginning of what you can do with them.  Unless you are working with an audience that has impaired vision, you can use your eyes to control your audience.  Some storytellers stumble on this mechanism without being conscious of what they are doing, but others figure it out and use it to its full potential.   

Here is a clip of the brilliant Diane Ferlatte making an audience jump through hoops.  Watch her eyes.

Your eyes have lots of power.  They are a perfect tool for keeping and guiding an audience.


1.  Create character.  Your eyes give the audience cues as to who is speaking.  Notice how Diane's eyes change when she drops into Eve, The Lord, and Adam.

2.  Cue audience participation.  Your eyes can let an audience know that something is expected of them.  Diane does this right at the onset of the story.

3. Comment on the the story.  When you are commenting on the tale, your eyes can let the audience know you are speaking directly to them out of story.  Diane lets the audience know her feelings about the whole 'unlucky' Friday.  Asides are also accomplished this way.

4.  Create atmosphere.  When you want to make the story scary, intense, light, silly, or you wish to change the current feel, your eyes can do that.  Open them, close them, narrow them, look form side to side, all of these things are typical things all people do with their eyes.  Whenever you make a choice to change the wideness of your eyes, it will set off a kinesthetic response in your audience.  They will know what is happening with that character because they know how their eyes feel when they are doing certain things.

5.  Warn your audience.  This is especially true for little kids.  Your eyes can give them a head's up if there is going to be something scary.

6.  Humor.  Your eyes can lighten an otherwise intense situation.  When Adam looks around to point out they haven't got any neighbors, we get to laugh at at a situation that is clearly about to escalate.

7.  Filling in the pauses.  Just because you are silent doesn't mean nothing is happening.  Your eyes can let the audience see what is about to happen.  They can also give off false clues so that you can spring something that is either funny or scary.  You can also let a character in the tale comment on the situation at hand with your eyes.

8.  Be wary!  With young audiences, if you cement the world of the story in their minds, and then you look off at a distant point and announce you see something, most of them will turn around and look in the direction you are looking.  It is funny, but a bit annoying if it disrupts the flow of the story!

I am certain you can think of many more ways to use your eyes for specific purposes during a tale, but these are what I consider the basics.

I would like to point out that I did not say that this was easy, but it can enhance your stories if you are willing to give it a try!

Happy Telling!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Storyteller's Tool Kit: THE VOICE

The Storyteller's Toolkit is a simple way to talk about the elements that storyteller's use to present a story.  These do not include puppets, props, costumes or anything extraneous.  You can certainly use all of those things as a storyteller, but they are not standard tools in the toolkit.

The basics in the toolkit are as follows.


Eyes:  If you missed the post, click here.

Face:  If you missed this pos, just click here.

Hands:  If you missed the post, click here.

Body:  If you missed the post, just click here

Easy enough.  In keeping with my new policy about blog entries.  We will deal with each of these one at a time.  Today's selection deals with voice.

Whether you are signing, speaking, singing, or using sound effects, your voice is an important part of the tale.  Not just the speaking element, but how you use your voice, and how you maintain vocal health.

Earlier this year I did a blog about the care and feeding of the voice.
Here are some other links about taking care of your voice.
Diane Bradon
Doug Lipman
Beth Lawrence

As a storyteller, I use lots of sound effects, character voices, and non-pedestrian sounds to convey my stories.  This is not necessary.  You can use lots of sound effects or none at all.  The choice must be yours.  Do not let someone pressure you to do something that makes you uncomfortable.  If you are uncomfortable, the audience will be uncomfortable.  Here is a clip of me telling 'The Monkey's Heart', a very vocal heavy story.

That clip is obviously an extreme example of putting sounds and voices into your stories, but there is no need to go that far to create a fun piece of storytelling.

Whether you use sound effects or not, there are some things you can definitely do to help your voice work with your stories.

1.  Pace

The flow at which your stories land on your audience can sweep them along, or hold them spell bound on the edge of their seats.    Play with the rate of speech to control the story and take the audience on a wild ride.

2.  Rhythm.

Find places to give your stories a rhythm.  The rhythm will set off a signal for your audience, and give them something to listen for.  It also allows you to build in some laughs or relief for the listeners.

3.  Volume.

Look for places to control how loud or soft your stories fall.  Draw your audience in with softer tones, hit them with power when you want them holding onto their seats.  Use your volume to  take your audience into the heart of your tale.

4.  Sounds.

Sounds help fill in background and build images that fill out your tales and give them textures.  Sounds don't have to be exotic.  It can be as simple as whistling into the mic, making the sound of the wind, sighing.  Do what you can.

5.  Pitch.

You can easily create character choices by simply changing the pitch of your voice.  Play with your voice and see what sorts of pitches you can easily make.

6.  The Pause.

Pinter knew what he was doing when he wrote those fantastic pauses.  Pausing allows an audience to catch on, consider what just happened, predict what is going to happen next, or laugh, scream, wiggle, or whatever they need to do.  They can also be used for comic relief, or to enhance suspense.


There are lots of articles about the best way to find out who you are and what to do with your voice.  Here are a few if you really want to get into it.

Rachel Hedman
Anne Glover
Effective storytelling:  A Manual for Beginners

There are plenty of resources if you want to get ideas about using your storytelling voice.  Have fun, play with your voice, make sure you maintain its health, and figure out ways to challenge yourself.  Playing with stories can be lots of fun.  Discovering new ways to make your point of view and voice shine is exciting.

Empower yourself....Empower your listeners.

Happy Telling!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Effective Audience Husbandry in Storytelling.

One of the best literary examples I have ever seen about how a speaker effects an audience was written by Isaac Asimov in Robots and Empire.  The scene involves a gorgeous, reclusive one hundred and fifty year old woman from space, a mind reading robot, and settlers on one of the earliest human colonized planets in the universe.  It's a good read.  Now, on to the subject at hand!

  The Audience is yours to command as a storyteller.  Storytelling gives us the power to mold it, shape it, play with it, use it, or consider it part of the furniture, however, if you think of the audience as part of the furniture...you are neglecting one of the most important parts of your work.  Storytelling, as I like to tell adults in intergenerational audiences, is not a spectator sport.

Many of us deal with young audiences and their antics.  They talk to you, yell at the characters, tell you that you are doing things wrong, demand answers to their questions, and inevitably, if you are at this long enough, some kid will want to know if your stories are 'real' or 'true'.

We also deal with intergenerational audiences.  Grandparents, parents, progeny and random folks from every age and any walk of life can all be in the same audience getting the same stories.  We have to figure out how to talk to all of them.  Mary Morgan Smith has a wonderful rundown on building an intergenerational audience.

There are many ways to approach an audience, and if you jump around on the web, you discover that there are lots and lots of people using storytelling to 'win' an audience.  I tend to believe that you can lose an audience, and you can gain it back, but I'm not certain that as a storyteller you win an audience.  I feel like most of them were won when they showed up, because, let's be honest, folks who come to storytelling typically want to hear stories.  They are already yours.  The few folks who have been dragged there have no idea what they are about to see, and tend to be pleasantly surprised as their expectations were extremely low or nonexistent!  So, I don't think about 'winning' an audience so much as keeping one.  I seem to be in the minority about this, but who knows, maybe us 'keepers' are just not as vocal as the 'winners'.  That doesn't mean you never have to win an audience, its just that for the most part I don't think about it that way.

Winning the war of the audience is something that lots and lots of folks talk about when discussing an audience.  There are methods chronicled all over the web on the best way to win them.  There are also lots of articles about the power of an audience which is, presumably, why it is important to win them.  I've also seen great pieces on how we, as the center of an audience's power can be changed.

Then, we come to the places in our society where people use the word 'storyteller' to mean all sorts of things except person or persons in front of a live audience.  In these scenarios, folks who don't do live performance, but use other mediums besides themselves to tell stories, share the secrets of using social media, print, and video to expand the way people consume their products.  This sort of 'winning the audience' is completely monetary...and there isn't a thing wrong with that!  People who do this kind of 'storytelling' are much more likely to connect with Orson Welles in the below clip.


In the world of marketing and media, storytelling is used as a strategy for holding an audience long enough so that you can sell them something.  Lots and lots of corporate entities employ storytelling as a practice, and they want their sales force, managers, and employees to learn how to tell a good tale.

What makes the live performing storyteller different?

What is it we do with an audience that is different from a comedian, theatre troupe, author, television personality, marketing analyst, or public speaker?  The answer is simple.  The stories we tell are not about distracting an audience.  We are not trying to get them to do anything except sit and listen to the tale.  We are trying to engage and live in whatever truth the audience is living in at that moment.  We meet the audience where they are, and between us, we decide where we are going.

One of my favorite tales to tell to K - 2 and intergenerational audiences is Why Mosquitos Buzz in People's Ears.  My lion has two problems.  He has a bad memory, and he is rude.  I warn the audience about the lion's rudeness because they need to help the lion, but he is going to be less than gracious about the whole thing.  As the lion attempts to sort out the mess that has caused Mother Owl to refuse to call the sun, he gets the order of the problem and the animals who were responsible completely confused.  At some point in the tale, he asks the audience to clarify the order.  He demands to know if the 'crocodile frightened the antelope'.  The audience yells no.  He continues, asking if several other types of animals frightened the antelope.  The audience continues to yell no.  He demands to know who frightened the antelope.  The audience informs him that the antelope isn't even in the story, nobody frightened it, and he is completely wrong.  At which point, the lion demands to know why the audience keeps bringing up the antelope if there isn't one in the story.

The reactions I get as the lion are handled by the lion, and I, the storyteller, don't show up again except to segue between the lion's bouts of ill temper and the narration that sets up the other bits of audience participation.  Like a comedian, I have to be prepared to deal with whatever the audience throws at me. Like an improv group, I need to be able to go with the audience's ideas and incorporate them into the tale.  Like a theatre group, I have to be able to keep track of the tale and produce the prearranged verbiage to move the story forward.  Like a sales person, I have to gauge what is going on with the audience and see if they are 'buying' into the tale, and if they are not, I have to employ the storyteller's toolkit to get them to come along with me.  What is the storyteller's toolkit?  Well, I just jumped around on the web and couldn't find what I am talking about, so apparently that's what I'll be blogging about next week.  (sigh).

As a live performer, the audience juices you.  They make you feel powerful, important, strong, and in control.  Because they give you so much, you, as the storyteller, have responsibilities to the audience.  You have to take them on a journey, and you have to deposit them in a place that allows them to leave you having been on that journey.  You owe them the satisfaction of that trip.

I have written a number of entries about The sorts of material that tends to be successful for me for various audiences.  I've dealt with the K - 2 pre reading skills of visualization, prediction, and scope and sequence.  I've discussed telling to 3 - 5 graders and sixth gradeand the three levels of language employed during storytelling.  All of this information is the place I begin when preparing for a show. Once I stand in front of an audience it is my job to find them wherever they are, and take them wherever they will let me.

Storytellers lead an audience and are led by them.  Whether they buy something from me or not when they leave the show, I hope they are satisfied, and their brains are full to bursting!

Happy Telling!

Friday, November 15, 2013

A New Day Dawns

I just went to school.  Karen Langford Chace just put me through my paces.  I think it is time to say out loud, unequivocally that I am now officially sort of schooled on this blogging business!

From learning about hyperlinking, to relating back to other posts on my blog, to using the 'Labels' section on my gadget box (which I knew existed but had no idea what it was for), to how to embed videos from Youtube on my page.

Here I am performing at Charleston Tells!

I also learned that my posts are way, way too long and I need to add more pictures.  Well, that just means I'll write long blog posts, break them up into series, and go at it like that....I think.  Who knows?

Not only that, apparently, it is time I actually made a point of sharing these blog posts with people other than the folks who drop in from Facebook.  Okay.

So, terrified that I am not up to it, but determined to join the 21st Century, I am jumping in with both feet!

I think, it is just possible I am ready to become a grown up storytelling blogger!

Happy Telling Blogging!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Story We Tell About Our Past - Slavery In America

I am not allowed to read politics at various points in the year because I get so steamed under the collar that I become slightly depressed.  Sure, there are some wonderful things happening, but lots of times I stand in absolute shock and fury at what is passing for governance.

Sometimes, however, even when I stay away from politics, I run across things that just blow my mind.

Take this morning.  I was looking at reviews of movies and reading some opinion pieces when I came across this piece in the Washington Post.  It was written by a fellow who is an older gentleman.  He was talking about the movie, 12 Days a Slave.  He said he had no idea that slavery in America was such a bad thing.  He'd always been taught that, yes, it was evil, and yes, it was bad, but most slaves rather enjoyed being taken care of and white folks were rather benign and gentle with their charges.

I read the article in shock.  How is it possible to go through this world, live in this country, and go through elementary or high school and not know the plight of African Americans?  I really thought everyone knew, but people just didn't want to talk about it.

That's when I thought about all of the things I know to be true about the stories we tell ourselves.  We live in a country where our stories have a cascading effect on how we view things.

Example:  We live in a country blessed by God.  We live in a free country.  We live in a prosperous country.

If you take these statements and don't dissect them, but make them the basis of your story of this country, there are some things that will not make sense in your story.

For example, right now, there is a huge push to disenfranchise the poor.  Well, we live in a free country that is prosperous.  If you are poor, clearly it is your fault.  Get out there and stop being so poor and you will be good Americans.  End of story.

We live in a country blessed by God.  The reason why we are having problems in this country is not because our economic policies are out of whack, it is because God is mad our social policies are out of whack, so ban all things that have to do with women's health, and stop couples of the same gender.  Then, God will bless us and we will be fine.  End of story.

We live in a free country.  Big business should be able to do whatever it likes, free enterprise should not be regulated, gun ownership should not be regulated, energy companies should not be regulated.  If we got rid of all of these onerous regulations, everything would work better because things would be free to work.  End of story.

America is land of the brave home of the free.  We are blessed by god and we are prosperous.  Clearly slavery must have been a kind of relationship that was not nearly as bad as some of those black people claim.  I've heard accounts that black folks rather liked slavery and that it made their lives easier.  Most slave owners couldn't have been that bad, I mean, they were Americans, after all, and Americans are the best people in the world.  End of story.

One of the things that becomes true when we simplify our stories for the sake of our simple plot lines, is that we lose track of why we actually think the things we think.  For instance, where on earth did the stories of happy slaves originate?  I know this is going to be hard to believe, but lots white people wrote those stories after the Civil War.

Why would such information become part of our country?  Well, after the Civil War, there was some need to put the country back together.  How could we build anew if part of our country felt as if it had been defeated?  How could we go back to being one nation if we had just gone through bloody years with neighbors killing neighbors and brother killing brother?  Well, the answer was simple at the time.

The southern states got to define the Civil War.

The first attempts at this were to claim that slavery wasn't such a terrible thing and that now that blacks were free, they weren't up to the task mentally.  They were still a lesser race, despite having freedom they didn't know what to do with.

This attempt to make slavery look benign didn't go well at the time.  Some white folks were content that this was so, but there were too many black people who'd just gotten out of slavery, and they knew better.  Not only that, they were starting to get their own voice.  The stories they told completely undermined the idea that their lives had been sweet and jolly.  Nobody much bought the idea of happy slaves right after the Civil War, but here, in 2013, there are people who choose to believe this because it is easier than facing the horror of what actually happened.

The next, and ultimately successful push was to define the Civil War as a war of State's Rights.  Slavery, according to this new view, was not even a part of this.  Slavery just happened to be going on at the time, but the secession had nothing to do with it.  It was just about states asserting their right not to bow to a tyrannical government.  This campaign was successful, and to this day, in the south, you still get  people teaching this much more bland, less horrific version of the main reason for the civil war.

If you read the Constitution of the Confederate States, what you will notice is that it is almost word for word an exact copy of the Constitution of the United States of America.  They do not quibble with anything in the North except for when it comes to slaves.  The only things they changed of any note, were articles about the right to forever keep all folks of African ancestry enslaved.  They make a point of not only saying slaves can't ever be free under any circumstances, but that there is no place a slave could go and be free.  Once human property, always human property.  So, it seems the only tyrannical thing the North was doing was allowing for slaves to be free.

When I come across articles like the one from the Post where someone is expressing shock that African Americans suffered generational systemic abuse at the hands of slaveholders, I am always a bit outraged that this should be so.

"Have we learned nothing from history?"  I demand of the universe.

The answer, of course, is not really.  We only learn from the stories we hear and the stories we believe. That's why we have holocaust deniers.  That's why people refuse to believe poverty and hunger are as big a problem in our country as they are.  That's why people don't want to fund public education.  That's why people think we are a Christian Nation.  That's why people don't understand our current state of race relations in this country.

The history we often teach and hold dear has nothing to do with what happened.  Because we don't know what happened, we don't understand the world we see around us.  Because we don't understand the world we see around us, we make up reasons for what we see that have nothing to do with the basis of the problem.  We attempt to solve the problems based on our impressions of what we think is happening instead of what actually happened.  We fail  Then, we blame the failure on something that has nothing to do with the problem at hand.

If only we actually knew our own stories.  If only we were willing to face our own truths, dark as they may be.  If only the past didn't inform the future.

The cultures at breaking point know the truth of all of this.  If we lose our stories, we lose our way.  It is past time for us to begin to tell the truth about what happened here; even if it makes a whole section of our country look bad.  Until we face our truths, nothing can get better.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Biking Through Memories

I just got back from my morning ride.  I use this time for thought, rethinking prose, working off frustration, communing with nature, and planning my writing for the afternoon.

My brain was busily composing one of the chapters for the book, Gifted and Cursed: what we learned from parenting extreme learners, when I turned by the tennis courts in our local park.

There was an Asian lady getting a drink from the water fountain out front.  She stopped me and in very broken English asked me where I'd gotten my bike.  Much of what she wanted to convey she did through simple sign language.

I, in turn, told her I got it from the Bicycle Chain and gave her bare minimum instructions, using lots of mime.

She explained the bike was for her since her kids were old and gone, and once again, she used mostly sign language.  She asked how much the bike cost.

I told her and she wrote out the digits in her hand.  That was the last straw.

I asked, "Are you from South Korea?"

Her eyes went wide and she nodded vigorously.  "Yes!  Yes!  No Chinese!  Korean."

I told her I had grown up in South Korea.  I lived in Yongsan in Seoul near E-Tae-Won.

We commenced a spirited conversation that was eighty percent mime, and we understood each other very well.  She kept touching my arm and smiling.  I could have been eight years old in that moment.  Every time she spoke to her husband in Korean to explain what we were saying he'd grin ear to ear.  She told me their names, and was tickled pink that not only did I understand them the first time, but was able to say them back to her.

We stood there, talking with our whole bodies for five minutes.  She asked if I knew any Korean and I said hello and addressed them the way a Korean child would address an older lady and gentleman because that's all I know.  They didn't care, they seemed to love it.  They were grinning fit to beat the band and I felt like a proud child showing off a finger painting.

Before I rode away, I bowed respectfully to her husband, who returned the gesture, and I did the same for his wife.  They were still grinning as I rode home.

I loved growing up in Korea and that small brush with my childhood had me humming, smiling and just downright loving life even more than I had when I was crunching through the leaves earlier on my way to the shed.

On a nippy, bright fall morning a middle aged African American woman got a chance to travel backwards to her childhood, and bring a little bit of Seoul, Korea to two people on a long life journey.

The only thing that truly separates us is our false insistence that we are not connected.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Info about 2 Summer Reading Showcases

I've noticed that showcasing blogs don't seem to get much traffic.  Nevertheless, they are an important part of the business of being a storyteller.  Here are the two most recent I attended.

The first was for the the state of Delaware.  Delaware has 35 libraries in the entire state.  They have a nifty system.  The invite all the librarians to a showcase, and they have any performer who might want to present in a library in Delaware come to that one location and perform for all the librarians.  They have a chance to see everyone.  The librarians rate the performers and the state picks two people to send to each and every one of the libraries for the summer.  Individual libraries can hire performers the liked, but if you get to be one of the two picked, you have a guaranteed 35 gigs for summer reading.  not bad.

This was my first year.  It was a great showcase.  It was well run.  The librarians were great.  I was chosen as one of the two performers for the entire summer.  Well worth the trip.

I will post the info for 2014 when it is released.

The second showcase I attended was in Washington DC.  It was another library showcase.  They also have a rating system, but I have no idea if they book en masse with the city or if individual libraries have to book separately.  When I find out, I will post it here.

Look for showcases in your area, find out what the particulars of each showcase might be, and get into them.  It increases your exposure.

The Delaware showcase allotted 25 minutes.  That's a big hunk of time.

the Washington DC showcase allotted 15 minutes.  That's also a big hunk of time.

There was no need for tables with displays at either of these showcases.  They just wanted to see the performers.

Well worth it!

Happy Telling!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Facebook, Boxes, Possibilities and Incivility

Warning:  This post is long and I have no idea where it is going.

When I woke up this morning I told my husband I was probably going to get in trouble.  That happens to me from time to time.  I know I'm wading into something and I brace myself for the fall out.  My husband's response to that was, "If that's what you want.  Are you planning on blogging about something controversial today?"  I told him I had been thinking about education for a few weeks and the events in my public and private life finally collided in a way that made me need to just belch it out onto the page.  So, I began with a metaphor on my Facebook page, and then I blogged about my annoyance with the current atmosphere of attacking teachers.

I expected to hear from people who read my blog, either complaining about my ideas or my experiences or even telling me that they disagree with me about teaching in general.  What I was not expecting was to get pushback from the pretty innocuous Facebook post.

This is what I posted on Facebook:

Some kids are inside the box. Some kids are outside the box. 

I have discovered that this very simplistic view of children is absolute lunacy.

I am raising a physical scientist who loves visual arts and theatre, and a a visual artist who composes music and loves the biological sciences.

My daughter designed her own box. She changes its shape, proportions and colors to suit her needs, but as far as I can tell she's never gotten inside of it.

My son didn't know there was a box until recently. Upon discovering its existence his first reaction was to laugh at the concept. His second was to look at around in a bewildered fashion and ask, "What on earth would I do with a box?"

I am privileged to have these two characters in my life.

How would you describe your child's relationship with this mysterious box?

My motivation for this post is simple.  I have always been labeled as 'outside of the box'.  I don't tend to move in 'traditional' tracks of thought and I am a bit off the wall at times...most of the time.  I accepted this very simple idea most of my life, and then I had kids.  What I discovered was that this very simple description didn't really have anything to do with the two people living in my house.  Their potential to be, do and see things was phenomenal to me.  I began to wonder when we set the 'box' and what happens to us as we grow older.  I thought about the people who were 'brains', 'pretty', 'jocks', and I began to wonder if we sold them and ourselves short in life.

What if I took the simple metaphor of the box and made the thing more interesting or applicable to what I saw?

I used to say, "People say you are either inside the box our outside of the box.  Well, one of my children built her own box and does what she wants with it and my son doesn't know there is a box."

Lots of other parents would look at me for a moment, and often they would go right back to saying their child was either inside or outside, but over time, people have begun expanding on that metaphor and they have begun to answer me with things that are interesting and probably more descriptive of what makes their kids tick.  I believe in a dynamic view of our relationship to what is 'normal' or within the bounds of 'traditional' when it comes to how we live in our society.

We are more that we ever thought we could be and the labels we use and accept often limit who we could be.  When I think of the 'box' I think of being trapped and forced to conform to something that is already here.  Then, I think of Einstein, Florence Nightengale. and Wright Brothers, George Washington Carver, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Isaace Newton, Bessie Coleman and I ask a simple question, "What would their lives have been like if they'd been put in a box they couldn't escape?"

So, I am ever expanding the idea of the boxes.

It is never my intention to offend anyone...that doesn't mean I don't offend people, it just means I'm not trying to do that.  I have a very open idea of dialogue.  I want to know what you think especially if you disagree with me.  I want to know if we can find common ground.  I want to know if there is some way for us to understand the world together, because like it or not, we are here together.

One thing I find unhelpful on all levels is incivility.  I really dislike being uncivil to someone.  it ends discourse and changes the conversation into bomb throwing.  The moment you are throwing bombs, you are not talking.  You are not listening.  You are no longer communicating in any helpful way.

This brings me to Facebook.  I have gotten in trouble on this medium any number of times.  Sometimes it is because I have waded into a conversation all unknowing and trod on someone's toes.  Sometimes it is because I don't tend to take Facebook very seriously and lots of other people do.  Sometimes it is because I am extremely opinionated and people don't like my opinions.  Sometimes people misinterpret my intent because I have typed a hastily worded reply that does sound incredibly insensitive or out of step.

I have learned to be much more careful rather than cavalier.  Even so, sometimes I end up embroiled in something that is either odd or distasteful.

That happened this morning.  I posted my, what i feel to be a rather innocuous post about boxes, on my page and I got a quick and annoyed reply from a fellow who I had accepted a friend request from because he used to go to my church.  His reply seemed rather disgusted.

He informed me that I was naive to believe that people weren't in boxes.  We were all in boxes.  Our lives were proscribed by boxes.  We even died in Boxes and that was just how it was.

I responded that my intent was to say that we are more than what we are labeled and that our lives have more to do with how we perceive the world around us than how others perceive us.  If we go forward with that point of view, our options are bigger.

He wrote back at once, demanding to know why I was a storyteller and not a painter or a mortician.  He wanted to know who I was to go about defining everyone's boxes.  He wanted to know how I could be so foolish to believe that people have so many choices.  He wanted to know how I could think I was so free to make choices in my life.  He told me I clearly thought I was as free as the birds, but even birds aren't free.  Then he threw in something about a boy who just wants to grow up and be a truck driver who comes home and watches the playboy channel.  He demanded to know why I thought I had the right to say anything about boxes.  We all live in boxes.  That's just how it is.

I have discovered that when dealing with people who have such strong viewpoints it is often best to just say straight up that it is perfectly lovely that we don't agree.  This person isn't going to make me wish for a box to hide in and I am clearly not going to convince him he doesn't have to be in his box.  If he wants to be in a box, that is fine with me, but I don't believe he has the right to try to limit my world to what is in his.

This is where things took a turn for the worst.

I pointed out that I love to tell stories and I do it because I can make a living at it.  Doing what you love means you don't have to fight yourself to go to work.  I pointed out that I do paint.  I also pointed out that I have no interest and possibly no skills in the field of being a mortician, but what does that have to do with not having choices?  I tried to explain that as adults we often feel trapped in life, but the true places we get put in those boxes occurs when we are younger.  The younger we are when we accept that we are trapped in a box, the smaller our future becomes.  I explained that I wasn't suggesting people could sprout wings and fly around a room if they thought about it hard enough, but that they always had more choices than they realized.

I wish I'd been more articulate about it.  Perhaps I should have included phrases like, 'You could be a tap dancing doctor, a sculpting sales associate who surfs, a truck driver who writes poetry, a writer who enjoys working with neuroscience.'  I didn't though.  Who thinks of such things while they are typing a quick, though lengthy, response on Facebook?

I concluded my response with,  'Who is to say what you are and aren't?  You and I have very different world views.  I am not trying to define the box.  What I am trying to do is talk about our relationship to this mysterious box and how our view of it can limit us.  You are welcome to live in a box if that is what you wish, but we do live in America and it is a free country after all.   Inside or outside doesn't suit me.

His response sounded a bit unhinged.

First, he began with calling me 'Sister', in a familiar and uncomfortable way.  I wasn't certain if he was doing this to mock me being black, mock me being a woman, or if he was being condescending, or if he thought it was endearing.  He told me I needed to go back to school because I was ignorant.  I needed to go back and take logic 101 because I wasn't making any sense.  He went on to tell me that black belonged with black, white belonged with white, and yes, green belongs with green.  He informed me that maybe, since I was such an expert on all of this, and I was as free as the birds that I should take the next few days off so I could teach a logic class.  He said he'd sign up for it and sit in the front of the class and maybe the birds could come in and pee on the floor.

It was strange.  It had nothing to do with what we were discussing an I realized we were no longer talking about boxes.  He had degenerated into insulting me as a person and insulting...I don't know, my life?

I went over to his Facebook page.  There was an image of Adolf Hitler as his identifying photo.  I went through the posts on his page.  They were unhinged, insulting and uncomfortable.  I found out a number of things from his posts that stated that his life was not going well and it was obvious he was angry.

I wondered if he'd wandered over to my page and discovered that I, a black woman, was married to a  Jewish man, and if he was basing his new responses/attacks on what was on my page.  Not a clue.  All I was certain of was that there was nothing to be gained by this discussion.

I rattled off a quick response to his post.  "I am living the life I chose.  I have a great family and I love what I do.  How is it going in your boxes?"

I posted it and then looked at it.  I realized I had strayed far from my desire to engage and I had become a bomb thrower.  I deleted the post.

I went back and deleted all of the posts from this fellow and then I deleted my responses.  Next, I unfriended him and blocked him from ever friending me, commenting on my posts, and even seeing me online.

I felt a bit better after that...at least, right at first.  Then, the crazy liberal who lives inside my head said, "Why did you do that?  Perhaps you should not have been so hasty.  This is a human.  You could have found some way to speak to this person.  Maybe, if you kept on keeping on this could have been salvaged.  Maybe you could have come to some sort of understanding.  Maybe..."

The above is also the teacher, communicator, hoper, wisher, dreamer, and lover of discussion even if it is heated or uncomfortable, that lives in my eager heart.

The person who unfriended this guy?  That person is the one who believes in civil discourse.  I don't care if you don't agree with me, but can't we talk about things like rational, normal people?  Why must it descend into dismissing someone who doesn't agree with you as stupid?  Why don't we seem to understand that brilliant people can have different world views and that doesn't mean one is more intelligent than the other?  Are we so locked in the zero sum, black and white world that we do not know that everything is GRAY?  What is wrong with us?

Then, of course, I thought, perhaps the idea of a box that doesn't stop you is too much for some people. If they cannot blame their circumstances on the boxes, who can they blame?

In fairness, there are some boxes that are hard to overcome, but somehow, we have managed with the help of the few who throw the box away.  Where would we be without Aristotle, Rosa Parks, Imhotep, the Arabic numerical system?  These are people and things that destroyed the boxes that existed at the time of their birth or invention.  They changed our whole world.

In the end, I decided that it is hard to have a conversation with someone who is only interested in telling you that if you do not view the world they same way they do you are an idiot.  I find it sad, but luckily, in my world, I don't have to stay in a cage match with this man who thinks I am a fool for believing in possibilities.

I will continue to tell stories.  I will continue to believe that we have more potential that we think.  I will strive to share that with anyone who wants to believe it as well.  I will continue to respect the folks who do not believe that, and work hard to find a nice safe box and get into it and stay there.  They are welcome to their box.  I will, however, resist their every effort to put me into one.

Incivility can only lead to bomb throwing.  Once we begin to lob verbal assaults on the people we are trying to engage, everyone loses.

Ranting...about Teachers and Teaching

Let's get a couple of things straight before I go further.

Teaching is an art form.  Teachers, like everyone else practicing an art, range from mastering this art form to not understanding how it works and doing it anyway.

Teaching is a very important job.

I love teachers and I honor them for taking on this job.  I wouldn't do it no matter how much you paid me because I would suck at it.

I'm a teaching artist.  I can be in a classroom for about a week, and then I'm done.  I don't ever have to go back, and I typically don't want to.  Teachers go into those rooms everyday and fight all the crap that comes their way in hopes of morphing the little people into more knowledgable little people before they send them on to the next year.

I have two gifted children, and I can say unequivocally that their abilities flourish with great teachers, and they languish when teachers are not good.  Because they are gifted in multiple areas, they have enviable GPAs and they do well, but there is a distinct difference in their experiences when the teachers are masters of teaching.

In North Carolina, and perhaps other places, there is some idea that non teachers who never were taught to be teachers and therefore are not certified, make much better teachers than people who have gone through educational training.  They have lots of these folks in classrooms.

I am sure that some of them are actually good teachers because they understand the art of teaching and they have transitioned into the classroom after doing things in the private sector or army that built skills that make them good teachers.  This, however, is by no means true of all of them.  Some go into the classroom with this bizarre arrogance that they are better than 'teachers'.

My daughter has one of these...transplants this year.  He announced on the first day that he didn't want to be thought of as a 'teacher'.  He said the word with a rather condescending tone.  Somehow, he is above teaching.  My daughter, who is high school, found this alarming.  If he isn't going to teach, she wondered, what on earth is he doing in a school?  Well, within a couple of days she discovered that he was doing teachers a service by not calling himself a teacher.

This man is a horrible teacher.  His ideas about what education could be are great.  His ability to translate this information into actual instruction is abysmal.  My daughter feels like the kids in the honors class are learning the material despite his best efforts.  The rest of the kids in his other classes are not doing as well.

He over explains easy concepts, but as soon as something is theoretical or complicated, he knows how to do the equations...he knows his stuff, he's a brilliant man...but he has no idea how to tell the students why it works or even how to break it down and think about it.  He has no idea how to teach the underpinnings of the theoretical math he is teaching.  He often requires them to do things he has not explained, introduced or alluded to.  When they don't do it right he seems to gloat at their lack of knowledge.

My daughter feels like he enjoys rubbing their noses in the fact that he knows things they don't know, and they have to pry the information out of him rather than him presenting it and helping them understand how it works.

He doesn't typically answer questions when a kid is confused.  He just says, 'Think about it.'

On the rare occasion he does attempt to answer a question, he often creates more confusion than clarification.

My daughter recently asked him about an explanation for why a certain function is plotted on a particular axis in a graph about the conservation of energy.  He went to the board and began talking and writing extensive equations with symbols and language that none of the students had ever encountered before.  He went on in this fashion for five minutes.  Only after he'd gone through this exercise with his back turned towards the kids the entire time did he turn around to discover the students staring at him in confusion.  He looked back at the board and then at my daughter and said, "I don't think I answered your question."  My daughter's response was, "I don't think you did either."

One of the other kids in the class attempted to condense his long rambling, bewildering speech into something that resembled sense.  The teacher looked at him and said, "That's not right."
He then moved on to something else without ever answering the question.

My daughter has a high A in this class, but that's because she spends time outside of class teaching herself physics using the breadcrumbs this fellow stingily drops, the internet and her father's recollections of the subject.

On the other hand, I was in a school in the Chicagoland area a couple of weeks ago where the principal proudly announced that she has two Golden Apple teachers.  She had me peek into their classrooms.  The gym teacher was playing this wild game called 'Midnight Coyote.' (Don't google this unless you want to see a lot of websites of people hunting coyotes with bb guns at night, which I understand is illegal, but there you have it.)  Anyway, the entire gym is set up in some kind of maze/obstacle course, the kids move about sitting on these rolling boards and some are coyotes and some are hunters.  They move through this maze in the dark with glow sticks and dim lights.  It is a kind of tagging game.  The kids had a blast.  Apparently, the version that I saw is hailed as the best set up in the area.  People come to this school to observe him work with the kids.

The other teacher was a second grade teacher.  The principal told me that she has to spend lots of time intervening with the higher ups about this teacher.  Her room was filled to brimming with books, charts and interesting games.  The kids were sprawled all over the classroom doing one on one and individual work with their books.  The teacher told me they were reinforcing basic reading skills that deal with contextual reading.  They were using a variety of books, no cookie cutter, 'everyone has to be doing the same thing at the same time' in her classroom.  There were word games and story games going on in this room.  Kids were writing, reading and interacting.  it was cool.  Her class scores off the charts consistently on the end of grade tests, but she doesn't teach to the tests, imagine.  Of course, her principal goes to bat for her and stands up to anyone who tries to make her conform.

Teaching is extremely important.  I have no quick answers to how we make education better, but I know it starts with treating teachers with more respect, understanding how important they are and paying them what they are worth.  Let's acknowledge that we need them and that they are performing a service we need.

Can we create great teachers?  Maybe.
Can we create good teachers?  Definitely.
Can we give teachers the resources they need to teach?  That's the easy one.

If we started Kindergarten teachers on a salary of 90, 000 dollars a year, we'd get a wider variety of people trying to get those jobs.  We'd also put more value in them.

Businesses have different models.  Some succeed and some fail.  We need to learn to let teachers teach us how to educate children, not impose know nothing standards on them.

Nobody tells a basketball player that there is only one way to make a jump shot.
Nobody tells a painter there is only one way to create art.
Nobody tells storytellers there is only one right way to tell a folktale.

For heaven's sakes!  Let teachers teach!  Train teachers in the art of teaching!  Get out of the way and let them lead us!

Oh, and one more thing...teachers should out earn their administrative staff.  Not because these people aren't important, but because the support staff is support staff.  The superintendent should not out earn the teachers by three or four times.  You shouldn't be allowed to be a superintendent or a principal unless you've put in lots and lots of time in the classroom.  We break education when we break teaching.

End this madness and let us rebuild our system with teachers as our model for how to proceed!

Okay, I'm done.