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Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

I’ve come across several articles in the last month about technology and education that have got me thinking about where educators, schools, and society spend their energy and money. In one, a teacher shows how using youtube and online information has changed how he teaches. In another, the US government announces it is going to focus more on the use of digital technology in education.

In both of these articles, there is an inherent assumption that technology is a key to solving our educational problems.

I ain’t so sure.

I am, I guess, a semi-Luddite, in that I have a “prove it to me” approach to whatever the latest hot thing is. Technology (like computers, ipads, and, um, books) has its place. And something in the whole slew of new generation of software and hardware and connectivity has value. But figuring out which thing it is and how to use it isn’t that easy.

And there are other things that are important, too.

What would you expect from a storyteller? – a guy who spends most of his time in front of warm bodies, emitting intentionally formed bits of air out of his mouth.

But I’m no enemy of technology – as long as it’s considered. And I want to be careful and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

But all this talk about technology in education has me thinking several things about its limits and problems.

First, in almost all the literature extolling the use of new media and technology, there is the underlying, still unproven assumption that all this stuff is going to do a better job at teaching students. We still don’t know if that’s true, but we are always attracted to what ‘s new, hoping it’s our savior. A recent article in the NYTimes about a district outside of Phoenix notes that their heavy investment hasn’t reaped the rewards they were hoping for. Defenders are quick to say that the testing used to measure student achievement doesn’t really measure what the technology is helping to develop – a new way of thinking. We artists use that argument against standardized testing too, but it’s a little surprising that technology rides in on a promise of raising test scores, and then shifts its argument. (And actually, the arts has proven their value that time and time again, to no apparent acknowledgement or effect on the part of the powers that be.) I’m no fan of standardized testing, but if we’re going to spend billions on something, it would be nice to know it works.

Second – there is no way technology would be everyone’s darling if it didn’t involve huge amounts of money. There is a lot at stake here, and it’s notable that the people who are crowing the loudest about its possibilities are those who have spent their lives designing and selling technology. Apple and Google run the workshops for teachers on how to use technology and in the Internet in the classroom. Should we be surprised that they see technology as the answer to our problems? Is it shocking that the Gates Foundation has found a way to influence the discussion about what American education needs? Education is a gold mine for corporations, and they spend a great part of their time lobbying everyone about its possibilities.

I’m not saying these people don’t have good intentions. Of course they believe in what they’re doing.

But that doesn’t mean they’re right.

National, state and local governments have bought in. Lobbyists help.

Schools spend millions of dollars every year on new technologies to help teachers. And the truth is, the companies that sell the stuff already have plans for something else that will make it obsolete in five years. When you buy a hundred computers, you know you’re going to buy a hundred more in a couple of years. Corporations selling it have that figured out.

You don’t make that much money off pencils.

Or teachers. Corporations don’t really benefit from developing skills in a teacher (unless it’s to use their product). I am left wondering what it would be like if we spent anywhere near the money we do on technology on working intimately with teachers on classroom management skills and group dynamics. Or (here it is…) on being good storytellers. Or on how to really foster good relationships between home and school and giving parents support. These things are teachable, but they’re not bright and shiny – they are actually kind of hard to do, and they have no glossy flyers and videos with pulsing beats that promise the moon and stars.

One result of the ever-increasing dependency and worship of technology as a teaching panacea will be an increasing gap between the rich and the poor. If you’re like me, you’re more and more upset about the widening rift between the haves and have-nots. I walked into a teacher’s room at a fairly well-heeled school a couple of weeks ago and saw all the teacher’s assistants (which means two adults in each classroom) sitting around a table – fifteen of them all with identical Apple laptops.

Not happening in Bedford-Stuyvesant, I think. Or most places, really. Most school districts will never be able to afford the luxury of the newest technology. Especially since we don’t really want to spend money on education for those less fortunate. And Apple donating computers doesn’t really solve the problem.

The more we praise technology and the latest development, the more we ignore those who will never see it. The more all this stuff costs, the more students we leave behind.

So I’m brought back to the notion that a lot of energy is being devoted to one aspect of learning at the expense of other things. Technology will not close the gap between rich and poor. Technology is not the answer to someone who does not know how to teach. And I don’t believe a video has the same impact as a flesh and bones teacher, well trained and familiar with the student, giving the same information. It may provide support, but not replacement.

I think we praise technology because we’re hoping it’s the quick fix. Tech purveyors want us to think that, too.

And the deeper, more long range truth, is that the growth of all this technology and continued production of more and more stuff is unsustainable. We can’t afford, in the long run, to depend on more and more. There is a reckoning up ahead, and it will probably force us to fall back upon some simpler approaches to communicating.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve talked with a number of teachers and principals about this. Several principals (and good ones, I think) noted that it’s not all or nothing – they are really figuring out how to incorporate technology into teaching so it’s a useful tool. That’s good. A good teacher has a wide array of resources and methods they draw on when teaching. And advanced technology, within limits, is a great idea.

Like I said, I’m a semi-Luddite. Until we use up the fossil fuel, we’re not going back. But I don’t believe the hype and promise. Because I’ve also seen what good administrators and teachers can do with more limited resources.

They need some attention, too.

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Len at work....


I must have been on vacation. I think I’m back. Here goes…

I always feel like I have to have a new story or song. It’s almost an obsession, or some character flaw. It can drive me crazy. And new stuff, when it works, is great. But the truth is, the stories and songs we’ve told and sung a million times have a value and purpose that newer material doesn’t have.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I did a show with my good buddy Len Cabral. When we got to the venue we looked at the room and set up the sound system as best we could. By the time of the show, we saw that it was going to be a small audience. We decided to work without the system and had the audience scoot their chairs (and butts) in as close as they could.

Len and I sat on chairs, which seemed to bring things even closer.

Len and I did a couple of things together, and then I did a new piece I’ve been working on. It went fine, but, as new pieces usually do, it had some rough edges. I got through it. The audience went with me, but the performance was mostly about my relationship with the story – trying to get it right and hoping the audience would come along.

Len told the Gunniwolf. If you tell stories to kids, there’s a good chance you know the story. It is a perfect story in many ways – repetition and rhyme, imminent danger and escape. I love telling it. But I really loved watching Len tell it – something happened in the middle of it that seemed transcendent to me. The story was a good one, but it was the relationship he had with the audience that made the performance wonderful.

There are three things in a performance – the performer, the audience, and the material. Depending on the kind of venue, the kind of performer, the kind of audience, and the kind of material, different things happen. In Len’s performance of the story, he was completely present with the audience, and the story was the medium he was using to develop the relationship. The kids and parents were waiting to find out what happened next, but mostly, they were being present in the room with Len. I have heard Len tell the story a number of times, and know where it’s going, but how it got there was truly delightful.

Because Len knew the story so well, he was completely relaxed in it and completely attentive to the audience. He asked questions of the audience, and demanded responses from them. When a kid gave an answer he praised them with words and a smile. I watched kids smile back, feeling honored. Len barely had to ask for participation – because he was fully committed, they were committed, too. It was as if Len was giving them permission to participate, rather than begging them to do so.

Len told me afterwards that when he can, he loves sitting in a chair, with people sitting as close as possible. His sitting in a chair is no sedentary experience – it’s an active intimacy.

One of the goals of my performance is to build a community, in that space, at that moment. The material – the song or story – is the vehicle used to accomplish that goal. The content of a piece can be important, of course, but the very act of being present with each other has its own purpose and value.

Too often, we demand something new and different. I want new material because it keeps me alive and active. But if the performer can keep an old story or song fresh and vibrant, things happen that won’t happen with new material.

There is a constant tug in performance, as in life, between being and becoming. New material honors becoming. An old tale, well told, is about being.

And it’s a good place to be.

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Sorry about the caesura, or hiatus, or whatever, in posts. You know… So here’s this.

I have an uneasy mind. It is restless, and wandering, and often ill-content. Those close to me know this. I would like to apologize to them. I am not easy to be around. As lucky as I am to have found something that gives me a lot of freedom, there’s a price paid for being in charge of myself. From afar, it seems pretty cool (and it is). Up close, well, it presents problems.

Every day, I wonder if I’m spending my time the way I’m supposed to be spending my time. What’s important? What matters? What can I get done? If someone graphed my psyche, or my emotional health, it would look like an oscillation between the Himalayas and the Marianas Trench off the coast of the Phillipines.

Every four hours.

Pretty ironic, considering how many people tell me they appreciate my work. Everyone should have the affirmation I receive. What a basket case I am!

But, then, that’s the way I am. It’s the brain chemistry, or the hand I’ve been dealt by nature, or nurture.

The release from all this comes in performance.

Before a show, regardless of the venue, I am VERY uneasy. Those around me know just to leave me alone. It could be a library show for fifty people, or some “performance venue” with a thousand paid audience members. It doesn’t make any difference. I want to do a good job. I wonder why I’m doing this. I always joke with the presenter – “I’ve changed my mind. I can’t do this.” But part of me is serious – I hate this. All the focus on me. Who do I think I am, anyway? I bite my tongue so I don’t whine. I hate everything on the set list. I decide that I should really just try some song or story that I barely know, then decide to go with what’s safe, then say, no, better to fail miserably.

I rarely walk out on stage with a set list cast in stone. I see too many different kinds of audiences to do that. A month ago, I walked out onto a formal stage, a big venue, for a family show, assuming there were a good number of kids, only to discover there were only four children (in the front row, hoping for something wacky) and everyone else had gray hair or none at all. I had prepared a set list. It didn’t match the audience.

I threw away the set list. Wing, wing, wing….

And I am left, then, to depend on instinct and the moment. After doing this long enough, things come to me (or don’t) about what the next piece is. Unfortunately, this discussion goes on while I’m performing a piece, which can keep me from being present in the piece I am performing. ONE SHOULD ALWAYS BE PRESENT IN THE PIECE BEING PERFORMED. THAT’S HOW GREAT THINGS HAPPEN. There is nothing more blessed in human existence than knowing what you are supposed to do.

But sometimes you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. What then?

I try to get it right. There is very little I can count on. Anywhere. Anytime. But the truth is, the one place I have some semblance of control is when I’m on stage. All these people have come to see me. (What were they thinking?) They have placed their lives in my hands, if only for sixty or seventy minutes. It is up to me to take care of them.

It is an awesome task (in the true sense of the word “awesome”). And it is also not that big a deal. Because I’m better when I just play with them, if I can get to that point.

For me, performance is cathartic, which defined loosely, means “emotionally cleansing”. (Love those Greeks.) Often, in the middle of the show, or towards the end, or maybe even after it’s finished, I can feel everything in me relax. My ever present, relentless mind shuts up. After a show, there is a sense of attainment – of forgiveness, of release. Whether it’s in the car driving home, or in the hotel room a thousand miles from home, or (if I’m lucky) with some friends, the internal dialogue stops for a little while. I have done my job. I’ve done what I could by the sweat of my brow and by my instinct. For that short time – a couple of hours – my being is at peace and I can accept who I am, gratefully and joyfully.

We should all be so lucky.

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This past year, I’ve spent a fair amount of time working with students in classroom settings trying to figure out how quickly I can get them up and telling a story. I’ve talked about some experiments in earlier posts. What strikes me over and over again is the difference between the word on the page and the word as it is spoken. When emerging readers read a story, it is very difficult for them to get those words off the page, into their heads, and then speak the story in their own language. This difficulty is something I’ve observed time and time again, and it seems to me this translation – into an image, and then through some alchemical process, into the speaker’s own language – is at the heart of a complete literacy and fluency with both kinds of language – oral and written. Children live in an oral world, and are making the transition to the world of literacy and it’s not an easy one to make.

I might add that as a storyteller who has passed my literacy tests (well, okay, I haven’t, but think I could if it was mandated, which it’s not) , I still have a very difficult time lifting a story off the page and making it my own. Many times I’ve read a story that I like and want to tell, but my performance of it always falls flat – it’s not alive yet. Then, sometimes, I hear someone tell the story, and I know how to do it. It’s my hearing the story that brings it to life.

I had a recent conversation with storyteller Donald Davis about this, and Donald observed that young readers are reading words, and that’s what they see when they’re trying to tell the story – the words they read, not the pictures in their heads. When they hear a story, they don’t see the words, they see the pictures. That makes sense to me. A lot of times, when I’m first learning a story from a page, I actually can picture where on the page that particular part of the story is – I’m stuck with the words, not the images.

But I continue to be fixated on the notion that if I could just get the kid to tell the story using images, not words, something is accomplished. Developing orality is important at any age, and contributes to literacy. And I’ve noticed that, like me, when kids hear me tell a story, it is exponentially easier for them to tell it themselves. Again, Donald observes this is because they have the images in their heads. More than that, though, I think that there is an affective component – the emotional impact of the story is greater when someone is telling it, and that’s where stories have a particular power – they’re both affective and cognitive. Emotional events have meaning, and meaning lodges in someone’s mind and heart.

So, back to my original question – how do I get a kid up and telling a story as quickly as possible?

In February, I was in Utah being filmed working with kids on storytelling. I came up with a process to try and get them telling as quickly as possible, so we could then work on their delivery and performance They were fifth graders, and responded stunningly well. Since then, I’ve used it effectively all the way down to second grade, with some slight modifications. Here’s the steps I used.

1) The teacher (storyteller) tells a story with a straightforward plot and clear episodes. Note that I say “tells”. This requires that the teacher learn the story and can tell it simply without the aid of a book. It might work as a reading exercise, but it’s the actual oral narrative – with no intermediary of the written word – that will facilitate the learning of the story. Tell the story simply – for the purposes of the exercise, a story five minutes long (or even slightly less) is good.

2) In the group, afterwards, have the group reconstruct the steps of the story. As each incident is recounted, write the events up on a whiteboard or flip chart in short simple sentences. Each event/scene should be captured in one sentence – don’t worry about small details – only the ones that are absolutely crucial to the story. The question, “What happens next?” is the prompt that leads to this simple outline.

3) Briefly go over the outline after it’s finished to help fix it in the student’s minds.

4) Have students pair off and let each person tell the story to their partner. If the teller gets stuck, they may get help from either the chart or a short prompt by their partner. When the first teller finishes, their partner then tells the story. Their telling will likely take longer than the teacher’s recounting.

5) Get back together in the group and debrief. Ask about what was easy and what was hard. Ask whose partner told the story well, and what they did that made it interesting. You will find some children are already experimenting with the story.

6) Give up your seat by the story chart, and ask for a volunteer to start the story, letting them take the “storytelling seat”. I find that sitting, initially, is a little easier and produces a more natural performance. Let that person start the story, and at a natural break (using the outline as a guide) ask for a volunteer to take over. Initially, look for a confident student (they’ll volunteer). If you know the students, you may encourage shyer students to try as the story progresses. You may gently guide the tellers if they need help or forget something.

7) When the joint performance is done, ask for a volunteer who thinks they can tell the story all the way through. Help them through the story. Discuss with the group what they liked about the telling.

This exercise will take 40 to 45 minutes. By the end they will have gone over the story (at least in outline) seven times, and will have it firmly in mind. Different approaches to performance will also begin to emerge.

Through all the years of telling stories, I’ve been only more and more convinced that if a kid can stand up in front of someone and tell a story, they’re going to be okay. I still believe it. This is one way to make it happen.

Any other ideas?

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NARAS, the Grammy organization announced a couple of weeks ago that they were getting rid of a number of categories for the Grammy awards. One of them was Spoken Word for Children, which I have won twice and which I was nominated for this year. Spoken word recordings will now be included in the Best Children’s recording category. A lot of people have asked me how I feel about it, and I’ve been giving it some thought.

The short answer is I wasn’t surprised. There are a lot of categories, and there aren’t a lot of submissions for Children’s Spoken Word category. It is one of the reasons I ever had a chance to be nominated, let alone win. So, on one hand, it’s understandable, I kind of saw it coming, and I have been lucky to be there at all.

But it’s a very complicated issue and trying to separate all the elements of it is pretty difficult. It’s almost impossible for me to be objective about it. Let me try to identify a couple of strands of issues

The first thing is that children’s spoken word has been kind of a catch-all, and the people who make the decisions are probably aware of this. Historically, it’s dominantly been people reading books. In the past fifteen years, people like me who have called themselves storytellers, working with oral narrative, not necessarily with a written script, have gotten nominated. This is an apples and oranges thing, and I view my oral narrative as an art form, different from a reading of the written word. But that is a pretty subtle point to make for people who don’t pay attention. Also, there’s no doubt that it is also a category that people have entered because it seemed like a good place to get a Grammy – fewer nominees, and many of them (me, for instance) not household names. It’s an awkward thing, but I usually found myself up against a franchised character, or someone everyone knows who thought it would be great to make a children’s recording. The same thing happens in the Children’s Music category.

Along with this problem of what exactly a spoken word recording is (anything with people talking 51% of the time), there is the nature of the Grammy process. Anyone who’s a member can vote in the categories they want. A big list comes out in November, people vote where they want, and there are finalists. In each category, interested members can vote for one of five finalists. There is no proof that anyone listens to anything. NARAS asks that recordings be listened to and judged solely on their merit. But the truth is, it is often a beauty contest – you vote for who you know, and while lobbying and outright promotion is supposedly forbidden, everyone has their lists of people who vote. Big recording companies have more clout and access to voters than Round River Records in Seekonk, Massachussetts. So if Bruce Springsteen decided to do a storytelling album for children, you can kind of figure that he’s going to have another trophy on his wall. (Actually, I’d like to hear a Springsteen storytelling album for kids….)

And here, of course, I should point out, I have benefited in some weird way from the beauty contest aspect of it. Because I’ve been doing this for close to thirty years, and was first nominated over ten years ago, there are a certain number of people who know me in the “industry”, and indeed, who have been my champions. In a small category, someone like me had a fighting chance. And I like to believe that my recordings were the best, but you could certainly reasonably argue that others were as good, and that the people voted in the category because they knew me. It’s inescapable, and I’d be disingenuous to think anything different.

That part has always troubled me, and continually adds to the imposter syndrome I have, as do most other artists. And I don’t like the competition aspect of it at all – I’ve been up against friends and it’s awkward, and can make one small. Me included.

Other awards, like Parent’s Choice and the Just Plain Folk award depend on a panel of experts who listen to all the stuff – as did the late great National Association of Independent Record Distributors – I’m very proud I won a “best of” award from them. But NARAS doesn’t work that way.

Still, I should say that the beauty contest aspect isn’t the only thing . Often, a recording is recognized by peers as just being superlative, or artists will win because there is a recognition that their body of work and who they are as an artist deserves recognition. A lot of times awards are saying “It’s about time.” This was true for Bonnie Raitt and her “Nick of Time” album and Carolos Santana’s multiple wins, and Herbie Hancock’s surprising award a couple of years ago. Sometimes the good guys win, and for the right reason.

But there were too many categories, it was said. Now, here the question is whether that was an artistic decision or a commercial decision, and I think you can say pretty clearly it was a commercial decision, based on numbers of entrants and economic clout. The recording industry is in deep trouble, and trying to shore itself up. Note I say industry, not recordings themselves. At the awards ceremony I watched the presenter Kathy Griffin (comedian, ha ha ha) openly denigrate the smaller categories as worthless. No one did anything to contradict her. It was a sad display, and a comment on the Academy’s priorities, even if they were her words.

It was industry, not art that was behind the decision. Let me be clear on this – spoken word is an art form, and the recording of spoken word is an art that has been practiced ever since Edison. Caedmon and Weston Woods pioneered spoken word recordings for children, and they cared passionately about what they did. I am, still, deeply influenced by Bill Cosby’s recordings I listened to growing up, and those of Stan Freberg, and Gene Shepherd, and Dylan Thomas, and Carl Sandburg.

I think something is an art if practice and study makes one better at it, and the possibility of improving is open-ended. I am a better storyteller today than I was twenty years ago, and I take great care with my spoken word recordings. I have an approach to recording stories that has evolved over the years. The last recording I made, just under an hour in length, probably took 70 to 80 hours of work on my time – recording and re-recording, editing, listening, adjusting, rethinking, and mixing and mastering. And that was after the years spent developing the stories in the first place. If I were smarter, I could have done it faster, but sometimes it just takes time. Anyone who has ever listened to Jim Dale read the Harry Potter books knows that a master is at work. And it is a significantly different art than music.

Because the recording industry is almost exclusively about music, I sometimes hear musicians dismiss the spoken word as something anyone could do.

And anyone can play a piano.

Also, it’s part and parcel of working with children to have your work discounted. A very typical experience for me is to have someone fawn all over me when they hear I’ve won a Grammy, and then suddenly lose interest when they find it was a storytelling recording for children. Suddenly, I’m just not very interesting. That’s more of a comment on them, but there it is. Is recording for children an art form or afterthought? Hmmm.

So, I’m saying if this was based on artistry, there was no reason for it to happen. But having been to the Grammys numerous times, I also know that it is mostly about the industry. That’s okay. There is still something exciting about it, and art continues to assert itself, even where Mammon rules. Us little guys get to hang on the fringe, and in some cases have some say. Here I should note Cathy Fink’s dogged determination to have the Grammys mean something to us, and for that I am deeply grateful. She is, really, amazing.

So, I’m sad but understanding of it all. I was very lucky to be there. Spoken word recordings will receive even less attention, and NARAS will have less to do with that one aspect of recording. It is an art, and a fine one, but there is not much money in it. And not a lot of people do it. And my guess is that we’ll never see another spoken word album for children win a Grammy.

Unless, of course, the Boss decides to make one.

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As some of you who read this blog know, I was nominated this year for a Grammy in the Best Spoken Word Recording for Children category.

And if you know that, you may know that Julie Andrews won in that category for her reading of a book of poems she wrote with her daughter. Spoken word is an odd category – it’s mostly people reading books – as before, I was the only storyteller in the category, who works by and large without written text – so it’s a little apples and oranges. We need to work to get more spoken word artists into the category. I’ll think about that.

And then, well, the winner of a category often wins not because of a particular recording, but often because of their body of work. This is a little unfair for someone who has a truly great recording, but it’s the way it is. This year, for instance, I think Justin Roberts richly deserved the Grammy award in children’s music – Jungle Gym is a wonderful recording. But Pete Seeger (one of my biggest influences) was in his category. If you didn’t know the recordings and looked at the lineup, who would you vote for?

But, like they say, getting nominated is already being a winner, and there are a lot of other things that go into determining who wins other than artistic merit of the recording. That said, winning is more fun – I love Julie Andrews, but I would have liked the award.

I digress. I went this year, knowing my chances were pretty slim. I was disappointed when they didn’t call my name. But getting to go, I met some pretty interesting people. The night before, I got to sit and watch Julie Andrews get a lifetime achievement award. She was gracious and eloquent, and I felt a nail in the coffin as far as winning goes. The Ramones that were left and their various family members were still rebellious, and that was heartening. I had a nice talk with Roger Linn, another honoree, who revolutionized the music industry with his drum machines of the late seventies and early eighties, and is still creating stuff. He explained some of the projects to me, and I really wasn’t sure what he was saying, but it sounded cool.

At the nominees reception the night before the awards, I ended up in line with a Nashvillle writer (you can tell by the hat) there for the first time. I gave him the rundown of what would happen in the various lines, having been there before, and we had a great time. Halfway through the line, I learned he was Allen Shamblin, up for best song of the year for “The House That Built Me”, and also writer of “Don’t Laugh at Me” – a great song on bullying that I have sung, and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” – sung by Bonnie Raitt – which I think is just about a perfect song. We were pals before I realized who he was, or otherwise I would have been a little tongue-tied.

Later that night, I ended up in a conversation with someone else in a line. I had voted for Gregory Porter in best jazz vocals because I loved his music – didn’t know anything about him or what he looked like. There he was. We took pictures and traded e-mails. He’ll be more famous than he is now – he can really sing.

And finally, after I lost to Julie (no, didn’t meet her) I sat in the Staples Center to watch the show next to a very elegant couple, and shortly found out I was sitting next to Albert Bell, the head of Stax records during the sixties. Present at the creation with Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, and Booker T. and the MGs. Then, I was tongue-tied. I finally said, “You were the soundtrack for my growing up.”

He said, “Glad to hear you have a little bit of soul in you.”

I responded, “Some folks are even whiter than me.”

So – tell me who the winner is here.

A lot about the Grammys is ridiculous. Completely ridiculous. It’s inevitable that there is a grasping for attention in the entertainment business. The posturing and preening is stunning, as is the sycophant aspect. If you’re famous, people want to be around you for very weird reasons. (Not that such a thing happened to me for Spoken Word for Children – kids just shake hands with me and give me their cold viruses)

But watching Mavis Staples break down into tears when she learned she had won her first Grammy, you knew that there was something else going on other than fame, fortune and glitz.

Just lucky to be there. And glad to head home.

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My friend Willy Claflin sent me a link to this youtube video of a young girl telling a story. She’s amazingly eloquent (and wow, she speaks French…) and it presents a way to look at what happens when children are involved in story.

One of the most striking elements at first viewing is Capucine’s vocabulary – all the animals, all the naming of things in the world, and their descriptions. Her use of those words insures they’re going to be part of her world.

What’s even more striking to me is her ability to incorporate all these things into a narrative. This connecting of elements is really what the mind does in making a story. Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, a witch, bats, and crocodiles have no relationship with each other outside of the story, but she wraps them together, into a story that also incorporates motifs found in many stories – lost babies, being eaten, going to heaven, “something going amiss”, gaining and losing magic, and death. There’s also a moral element that runs through the story – a concern for the “poor animals”, the conquering of the witch, the lion losing its powers, people being safe at the end. You can almost see her brain making connections, drawing on different stories and images, and even her immediate surroundings (her mother’s ring!). I’m reminded of Vivian Gussin Paley’s book on storytelling with kindergarteners, “The Boy Who Would be a Helicopter”, and Robert Coles’s work with children and story.

In watching this video, I have to put my critical mind on hold a little – the story lacks some narrative logic and if you start thinking about the lack of causality in spots, or the quick jumps, you miss the amazing thing that is happening. It’s a reminder that story is a way people work things out and it’s not always necessary for it to have water-tight plot points like a John Grisham novel.

And then, of course, there’s the mom – an open accepting presence through the whole story – I love her surprised “Oh!” when Capucine introduces a a twist in the plot. It’s this encouragement that lets the girl go on in her process of discovery. I think of all the times I’ve been with a kid who is telling a story, obviously making it up as they go along, and the adults in the room (me included) start rolling their eyes or say “Okay, how does it end?”. That’s fine sometimes, but adults who give themselves completely to a kid’s story-making are doing a great service.

This little girl is going to be very good at something, and a lot of it will be because of the ears of the adults around her.

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This month I’ve been working with the third graders at Paul Cuffee School in Providence on storytelling. Every student has had to find a story to tell, and is now in the process of learning it, with an eye towards telling it to a wider audience. It’s a process I’ve done a number of times, though not nearly as much as some other folks, like Beauty and the Beast (Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss) or Karen Chace.

One of the hardest things for any storyteller, regardless of age, is to take a story they’ve found on the printed page and make it their own. The translation from the written word back to oral is much more difficult than one might think. Children (and adults, too) can be pretty daunted, thinking they have to learn a story word for word. You can tell them, as I do, that they need not worry about particular words, but instead think of the scenes, work on the images, and tell their story in their own words. Still, there is that awkward memory of the words on the page, as if that is really the story. This is true for all art – making something your own, and not acting according to the schematic that is first presented – the work has to come from inside. As they say, the map is not the territory. But getting off the map is very difficult.

I developed an exercise last week that begins to address that process. The students had chosen the story, read it over a number of times, and made story maps of it – trying to identify each scene and drawing a picture that represented it. But they needed to tell it in their own words. Here’s what I did:

I had the students set up chairs in two circles, one inside the other – the chairs facing each other, so each kid had a partner. I then told them that the students on the inside had two minutes to tell their stories. More precisely, to just tell what happened. I timed them. When they finished, their partners on the outside told their stories. When the pair had finished, I had the people on the outside move one chair to their left, and we repeated the process. When those pairs had finished, I had the people on the inside move one chair to their left and repeat the process again. But this third time, I told them they were allowed to take three minutes to tell the story.

It worked pretty well. With the directions given, there was an eruption of protest. Kids said they couldn’t remember the whole story, or if they could, they couldn’t tell it in such a short time. “Too bad,” I said. “Just get through it”. They did. The second telling was easier. With the third telling, when I gave them an extra minute, they breathed a sigh of relief, and with my encouragement, slowed down to tell a little more. There was till some struggling, but after telling the story three times in fifteen minutes, the outline of the story was becoming clear in their minds. Because of the time limit, they had to throw away the written text and just get to the point. Now they had it fixed in their mind what happened in the story, and could begin to make it their own.

The exercise got me thinking about the challenge of being real in one’s art. It is hard to move from a concept of what the art is to the art itself, because in the end it has to come from inside of us if it’s going to be real. I was reminded of this when I went to see a play last weekend. It was pretty uninspiring, and my brother-in-law, Philip Stewart, who has done a lot of acting in his time, noted that the lead was not really acting, but indicating – the role wasn’t coming out of him, instead he was doing things that pointed towards what his character should be doing or feeling – like using shorthand. It’s like a kid who draws a picture of a tree where the trunk is brown and spread at the bottom, and the top is a round, scalloped ball of green – the schematic tree in the head, not a tree that actually exists. Or the writer that uses metaphors someone else has used before. Or the storyteller reciting a script they have memorized, rather than using their own language to impart the pictures in their head.

Making the students respond in a short amount of time, pulling the script away from them, leaves them to their own devices. They don’t have time to think, they just have to do – and it’s just doing that leads to authentic performance. When they have to use their own words, they begin to make the story their own. Then the story can grow.

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Thanksgiving prayer

Now in thanks we bow our heads
With grateful words before we’re fed
Turkey for all, except Aunt Marian
Since she’s become a vegetarian.

My brother drools here right beside me
My stomach rumbling deep inside me
Aunts and uncles , gramps and grans
With settled hearts and folded hands

My dog is here and he prays too
“Drop that turkey, oh please do”
And I say thanks, no ifs or buts
For all those here who drive me nuts.

– Bill Harley

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

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I’ve been spending a good amount of time in the car this fall, and listening to Ireland by Frank Delaney. It’s one of those big sprawling novels that gives you history (guess about what?) and makes you think. The overarching story is about a boy turning towards manhood who hears a traveling storyteller – the storyteller is the connecting tissue through the whole novel.

Midway through the novel, there’s a letter from the storyteller to the young man, explaining what he’s trying to do as a storyteller. Whatever else Delaney is doing, he gets oral narrative right. It’s a brilliant passage about storytelling, and in the middle of it he says (paraphrasing), “You should never underestimate the intelligence of the audience. But you should underestimate their knowledge.”

I think Delaney is right. I often backtrack in my stories, explaining things that I’m not sure everyone in the audience will understand. If a member of the audience does understand, then it’s a chance for them to nod and say “Yes, I know that!”. I see them nod. If they get it, it’s a chance for them to breathe and regroup in their listening which is absolutely essential for oral narrative. If it’s a bit of information they don’t know, then it signals to the audience that the storyteller is taking care of them because it’s absolutely essential that everyone present understands what is going on.

So, for instance, I tell a version of “Sody Salleratus”, a traditional Appalachian story. One of the recurring lines in this story that occurs in dozens of cultures is, “I ate me a bucket of beans and a barrel of lard, and now I’m gonna eat….”.

This story, to me, is the quintessential story for primary grades. But most kids don’t know what lard is. Did you? So when I say that – “bucket of lard” – I come to a screeching halt. I look at them. Right at them. “Do you know what lard is?” I ask. Some may say yes, but most shake their heads. What kid is close enough to a farm to know what “lard” is? Then I say, “It’s animal fat!”

“Eeeeeew!” the kids say.

“Right,” I say. Then launch back into the story. No judgment. Assumption of their intelligence. (Every kid has looked at some piece of animal fat they DO NOT WANT TO EAT – [except for children of you good vegetarians]). (Too many parentheses.) But they know what that means for someone who is eating animal fat. Not a healthy diet.

Anyway…

In that moment, I give them some information and acknowledge their ability to assimilate it. it is a great moment – really one of my favorite moments in that telling.

I have gone far astray from my points:

1) Ireland is a very interesting novel for storytellers.
2) Balancing knowledge (information) and narrative (forward movement) is what storytelling is all about.

Too arcane? Not for some of you. Take two and call me in the morning.

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