Thursday, February 22, 2018

Strength: A Reflection On Stories, Wisdom, and Power

What does it mean to be strong?

Delilah beguiled Samson, lay with him, and when he was asleep, she cut his hair. When the deed was done she called to him, "Wake up Samson, the Philistines have come!"

Without his hair, Samson had no strength and the Philistines took him blinded him and chained him in their great halls to make sport of him.

What does it mean to be weak?

A mouse was scurrying home when she accidentally ran across a lion's paw.

"Well," said the lion, "you'll make a nice snack."
"Don't eat me," cried the mouse.
"Why not?" asked the lion.
"Someday, I might be able to save you!"
"You?" the lion laughed, but he let the mouse go because of its cheek.

What does it mean to be wise?

Anansi is often quite foolish!
Anansi tried and tried to find a way to get down to the bottom of the pond, but he could not do it. When all of the food was gone, the turtle swam to the top of the water and handed Anansi a glass of water.

"Sorry, friend Anansi! I waited as long as I could. I guess you just weren't hungry!"

Don't do something to someone unless you want them to do it right back to you!

What does it mean to be smart?

Brer Rabbit

"Why ain't you dead?" Brer Fox demanded.
"'Cause I was born and bred in this here briar patch, and it is 'xactly where I wanted to be!"

Over this last week, I have been watching the United States of America discuss our national tragedy...our ongoing national tragedy.

I have wondered what stories to tell.

I have wondered what to say.

I have fought and listened and discussed.

I have wept, and yelled, and clenched my fists.

I have also been proud, shocked, incredulous and hopeful.

So, I leave you with this tale (apologies to Margaret Read MacDonald for my not verbatim retelling!)

Strength - A Retelling

Once, all of the animals gathered to determine who was the strongest.

Gazelle went first. She ran like the wind through the trees faster and faster on her powerful and delicate legs. When she stopped, she raised her head proudly.

Everyone nodded solemnly. "Strength!" they intoned.

Gorilla climbed the trees higher and higher with his powerful arms and legs. He swung through the branches and then landed on the ground and pounded his chest.

Everyone nodded solemnly. "Strength!" they intoned.


Elephant ripped trees from the ground with her powerful trunk, picked them up with her tusks and hurled them into the air.

Everyone nodded solemnly. "Strength!" they intoned.

Man arrived late. Man was always late. He had a package with him. He hid it behind a rock and walked into the middle of the gathering.

"Okay!" he announced. "Here I am."

"Welcome," said the other animals. "What can you do?"

"Watch!" said Man.

He jumped up into the trees and went from branch to branch and then swung around from place to place, and then he climbed down and said, "Ta-da!"

"Well," said the animals, "we've already seen climbing. That was nice climbing, but it wasn't as strong as Gorilla's."

"Well," said Man, "watch this!" He ran around with sticks beating on the trees and singing and making lots of noise. He tossed the sticks away, ran over to the animals and said, "Ta-da!"

"Well," said the animals, "We've already seen running. That was nice but not as strong as Gazelle."

"Watch this!" said Man. He began to flip and dance. He went on like this until he was tired. He ran over to the animals and said, "Ta-da!"

"Well," said the animals, "that was entertaining, but lots of us can flip. Is there nothing you do that truly shows your strength?"

Man was upset. "You want to see strength?" he cried. "I'll show you strength!"
He ran to the place where he'd hidden his package, ripped it open, took out a strange object, pointed it at Elephant, and then there was a loud noise. Elephant fell down dead. The animals fled into the trees.

Later, after Man had gone, the animals came out of hiding.

"What was that?" asked one.

"Was it strength?" asked another.

"No," said the owl. "That was death."

To this day, Man walks alone, for he is the only animal who doesn't know the difference between "strength" and "death".

I have heard so many stories of strength and love in the last few days, that I think we might actually make progress.

I have seen determination and strength mobilize a new generation of Americans to oppose the routine slaughter and senseless death of our children that has become such a common thing in this country.

Let us hope these stories and actions can move our country forward.

Holding our children in my heart

The Telling Can Be Powerful
Use It Well

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Telling To The Sixth Grade: Stories to Reach The All Knowing

February is always an exhausting month for me. My running joke is that even people who didn't know they needed a performer of any kind suddenly need a black one in February!

I work with all kinds of audiences. Sixth grade is one of my favorites.

Sixth grade is a funky year for most kids.  It is a transitional year from childhood into the first blush of the teenage years. 

They are going through a hormonal obstacle course on the inside.  Some are changing drastically on the outside, others aren’t changing at all and everyone is noticing.  

All sorts of things that never bothered them before become of paramount importance.

For some, their arms and legs outgrow the rest of their bodies, leaving them awkward and clumsy.  Girls tend to sprout up, often leaving many of the boys behind.  Everybody starts developing towards full maturity and the blessings and curses of that tend to make pretty much everyone wish they were in someone else’s body.

This is the year some parents notice that their child is getting a bit more ‘sassy’.  These tweens need more space and less space and they vacillate between young people and children. 

"Cool Becomes Important" 
Their friends change as well.  Many become concerned about being ‘cool’, not fitting in properly and what their peers think about everything.  Their friendships often change and they start finding a niche where they can fit.  Some kids don’t go through any of this at all and remain untouched by such concerns until they are older.  All and all, it can be a maddening year.

I’ve often said that sixth graders do not belong with elementary kids and they have no place as of yet with the seventh and eighth graders.  In fact, most of them should be buried beneath the school. 

What on earth do you tell this transitional, morphing group of people?  Most think they are too old for stories and the stuff they think they want to hear is way too old for them.

The answer, for me, is pushing the boundaries just a bit. 

The set I offer for sixth grade is called ‘Hormonal Boys and Hyena Girls’.  It goes into the crazy stuff from the boys who think it is funny to hurt each other and don’t seem to understand how their rough play turns into an actual fight, to the girls who end up crying in the bathroom because somebody didn’t like their haircut.  

The kids are always amazed I know what they are dealing with.  It never occurs to any of them that we old folks really were in sixth grade once upon a time.

De Hag
This is the first group where I tell really scary ghost stories.  The caveat being that I gauge the students who seem to be the most freaked out and I ease back a bit so that things don’t get too scary.  Why do I tell these kids really scary stories?  This is the first age where none of them will be willing to admit to their parents they are scared.  

This means no aggrieved parents are going to call the school and complain.  Besides, they like these stories.

The second category of stories I tell to this group falls under the heading of gory and cerebral.

Morgan and the Pot of Brains is a good example of this.  A kid who is picked on until he shuts down completely goes on a lifelong quest to achieve his brains by cutting out the hearts of the things he loves best in the world.  It turns out all right in the end, but the very graphic, funny, sad and interesting twist to the ending is right up the alley for these emerging people.

The Debate in Sign Language is also a favorite of this group.

Here is a version of it that Mark Goldman shared in a classroom.

Once I lead them through a really dark story, I can tell them fun folktales and they love it.  They don’t even remember they are too old for stories.  The truth is this group will love anything as long as you package it right, but going at them through the truths of who they are is also a good way to get them to reflect, even if only cursorily, on their own situation.

Happy Telling!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Where Did January Go?

It is the last week of January, and I am already behind.

Only two blog posts this year? Really?

Spent about seven days this week ill. Nothing debilitating, you understand, just sore throat and more mucus than any one person ought to have in their body. Oh, and it started over the only five days I had off in the entire month of January.

Has nothing happened worth reflecting upon?

Yes. Lots of things.

Virginia Cross Elementary - Great School!
I was in a school a few days ago with a high immigrant population and this came to mind.

I was in a school a couple of weeks ago and this came to mind.

Today I was in a school where I had this conundrum. Oh well, at least they gave me two days heads up, so I knew what I was getting into before I arrived...but honestly...K, 3,5. Who does that to a person?

I was in the mountains last week and had an organizer tell me that many of the teachers were skeptical about storytelling being interesting enough to keep a kid's attention, but they discovered that it was wonderful and that all the kids were engaged.

The Swain Arts Center - Great space for Storytelling
I've had the "I've never seen them sit so still" comment a couple of times, and the "who knew storytelling was this much fun" discovery.

I've had people decide they loved storytelling. I've seen some awesome tellers. I've seen some less than awesome tellers.

I've spoken to some awesome tellers.

I've been inspired by some awesome tellers.

I'm in the final throes of writing a novel.

I'm in the beginning stages of polishing another novel.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon
I read The Girl Who Drank The Moon so much fun. Wonderful book.

The Akata Witch is next on my reading list.

My sister and I are going to spend a long weekend at Harry Potter World sometime this spring.

Been doing a social justice set with my older elementary performances. Think that's what I will be focusing on with that group of kids this year.

I have already done a number of things.

I have already accomplished much.

I have not done nearly enough.

January is ending...and I am already behind.

Happy Februarying!