Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

Archive for the tag “Storytelling in Schools”

You Never Know

Yesterday we performed in an elementary school for several classes of kindergartners. They were a lively bunch. In fact, they were livelier than usual for several reasons.

First, they were visiting the cafeteria at the wrong time of day. Second, they were attending a storytelling assembly. But the third and most prominent reason for their excitement was that it was Pajama Day. Almost all of the children were dressed in pajamas.

If our assembly occurred later in the day, their excitement would have dwindled and the children would have forgotten about their ‘evening wear.’ But there was not enough time that morning to properly determine who was wearing what superhero pajama top before they were led away, single file, to the cafeteria.

They streamed in like a hive of busy, buzzing bees. After settling down on the floor, they were very attentive. They sang when invited to do so, they moved when asked. It was an interactive performance with a responsive audience.

As we were telling our first story, though, we noticed one child. It was hard not to notice him. He stood out because he suddenly stood up. But even after his teacher gathered him in and sat him down next to her, it was hard not to notice him. He called out during our stories. Sometimes he guessed what was coming next in response to our prompts. But mostly, his words came at random moments. He seemed to have a hard time controlling his desire to talk along with us.

Over all the years that we have been doing our work, we have seen students like him. He is not like Jakey, a child whom we wrote about last month. Jakey’s exuberant ‘outbursts’ were completely connected to the narrative and in sync with our invitations for audience commentary. This child was different. He was not always in tune with the social niceties of audience behavior, his comments weren’t always invited or on point. Lovingly, his teacher quietly redirected him when she could.

To the observer, it might seem like the child’s frequent interruptions displayed a lack of interest in what we were doing or betrayed his desire to sabotage the show.

Does this sound irritating?

When we started our work years ago, it might well have irritated us. But over the years we have seen how difficult it is to read individuals in an audience.

For instance, when we performed for the first time in England, one carefully coiffed lady sitting front and center drew our gaze. She appeared to be annoyed with us. She scowled continuously, as if her most recent cup of tea was served with curdled milk. Throughout the show her pinched face suggested displeasure. Like two toddlers trying to get the loving attention of a surly aunt, Barry and I both felt like we had to get her to smile. But that scowl was etched on her face for the duration.

When the show was over, we expected her to hightail it to the nearest exit. Instead, she hurried over to us. We cringed in preparation for an attack. Instead, she shook our hands until our forearms were vibrating, and said, “Brilliant. That was just brilliant!”

Who’d have thunk?

That was the first of our many lessons about how challenging it can be to read the minds of an audience member through body language alone. Sometimes what appears to be a downright rude expression is merely a concentrated effort to take in all that is offered in a live performance. It is hard to know.

That was why, in the school cafeteria, we didn’t take the child’s interruptions personally. We didn’t know his story and were in no position to make an accurate judgment. Instead, we acknowledged his comments when they made narrative sense, and focused in on the rest of the audience when they did not.

After the show was over, the teacher approached us. She said the boy was very connected to our storytelling and it had touched him in ways that she didn’t usually see.

We said, “Does he have any challenges?” Her nod and widened eyes spoke about just how many issues there were.

“He hardly connects with anything. Even if he doesn’t say what he should, the fact that he says anything shows that he is connecting. I am so delighted and I want his parents to know.”

Although she was complimenting us, we understood that it wasn’t due to our skills alone, but rather the live connection that we were making with him. By shifting our performance on the fly to accommodate some of his comments, by looking into his eyes and responding to his gaze, we gave him the raw materials of connection.

So you never know. The rude one out there may be the one who is most heartily listening. The one who interrupts may be connecting in the only way she knows how. Even if it is not ‘appropriate’ in one set of standards, it may hugely appropriate for the person in question.

You never know.

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They Should Have Fun

Last week, Barry and I had a little surprise while visiting an elementary school. It wasn’t a pop quiz, but it did make our eyes pop quizzically.

As professional storytellers, we work with every age range – adults, children, teens, families – in almost any place where people gather (including palm tree lined beaches). But in springtime, we often find ourselves in schools, where we usually know what to expect. But on that day, in that school, something was different.

While getting the sound system organized on the stage in the gym, the principal came in to greet us. We were delighted. Rarely do we meet principals in the flesh; they are often in meetings or stashed away like good wine for special occasions.

This principal looked like a male principal archetype:. Dark pants, button down shirt, belt that had more to do with decorum than function. He walked with the relaxed yet sure gait of a leader who feels at home in his skin and in being a leader. He greeted us with a warm smile and hand shake.

After niceties were swapped, we asked him if there were specific school topics that he wanted us to address in our show. Character education “words of the month,” particular literary connections, or social studies themes are often requested. With a spunky, yet earnest glint in his eye, he said, “Forget about that stuff! I want those kids to have fun.”

Have fun. That is a phrase I wouldn’t expect in a Principal’s Conversation Starter Handbook. I was dying to see what Barry was thinking about it, but I didn’t want to be obvious. Keeping my head still enough to win a gold medal in an Olympic game of freeze tag, my eyes migrated to the left. They stretched so far that I feared that one eyeball would sever its relationship with my optic nerve and rudely tumble from my face like a marble rolling off a table. It turned out that Barry was looking at me in exactly the same way. So much for subtlety and the sideways glance.

When our eyes connected, Barry was gazing at me with two dark and shining question marks. I turned to the principal and asked, “Did you say you want them to have fun?”

He nodded and said, “These kids have so many things that they have to do, so many should’s and musts. Children need to play. I want these guys to have a blast with you. That’s all.”

Wow. We haven’t encountered a principal like him lately, one willing to admit that there are too many pressures placed on youngsters. Here was an educational administrator suggesting that children have opportunities in school to revel in the lightness of being.

It’s not that I believe educators forget this. Regulations and extensive testing have tied the hands of teachers, forced learning to fit into a box, and made the fun of learning less of a pedagogical imperative. This is the complaint we have been hearing again and again from teachers. And this is what made the news just days after our school visit.

According to The Albany Times Union, the school board in Saratoga Springs is sending a message back to New York State saying that enough is enough with testing. My take away from the article is that educators in many different areas want to teach to hearts and mind, not to the tests.

And now, back to our principal. He wanted his students to have fun. We gladly honored his request, but… we did nothing different than what we usually do. We selected stories that were right for the mood of the audience and the age of the students. The tales had laughter, surprises, and interesting images. Educational themes of all kinds were threaded throughout, along with the developmental good things that oral storytelling offers to listeners for: brains, language, emotional intelligence, memory, and listening skills. All of that and more happened, and everyone had fun.

Storytelling makes learning fun, even when there are tests and standards. The students had fun that day in the multi-purpose gym-a-torium, just as the principal wanted, and just as they always do when they hear stories told.

We are so glad that educators are standing up for the teaching they want to be doing, like the principal we met one day last week.


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