Stories Inspire Stoires


For years now, I’ve witnessed the amazing way in which stories inspire stories.  When I tell stories to children, they often respond by telling me stories in return, and in most cases they tell true stories from their lives.

This week after telling the story, Stone Soup, a 6 year old boy told me that he had gone to a steak house with his grandparents.  After I told the Chinese version of Little Red Riding Hood, a 7 year old girl told me that her dad heard wolves howling outside their house in the middle of the night.  Today, after telling the story of Hanukkah, a 5 year old boy told me that I had made a mistake and that he knew the right way to tell the story and began telling it to the whole school.  Unfortunately, I had to ask him to wait to finish his story until I finished the assembly and then we would talk, which we did.

Tomorrow, I get to tell stories with a sign language interpreter and can’t wait to hear the stories the students share with me.

Happy Storytelling!

Cheryl Thornton

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Encore for Aesop and Hercules


Halios_geronEach Tuesday I tell stories to a class of 2 and 3 year olds.  We had our first class this week and as always, I was amazed to see the powerful effect myths and stories have on young listeners.

When I stepped into the classroom on Tuesday morning, one little boy was crying for his mommy.  Having seen this sort of thing many times before,  I knew it was best to get started right away, before they all started crying.  I began telling the fable of the Lion and the Mouse.  After establishing the jungle scene, the weeper stopped crying and started listening.

When I finished the fable, a bright-eyed little 3-year-old girl said, “Do that again!  Start from the beginning!”  She wasn’t sure what is was that I had done, but she wanted more.

Next, I told the first labour of Hercules, and the little boy who’d been crying, shouted, “More,” with gusto!

By the end of the 30 minute period, they were all sitting silently, fully engaged in listening to stories from long ago and far away, like old hands.

Happy Storytelling!

Cheryl Thornton

The Storyteller’s Journey Includes Bringing in the Hay


hired boyLast week, school started in our part of the world and I was asked by a principal to help kick off the new school year with a storytelling assembly.

At the beginning of the presentation, I invited the gym full of students to join me on the Storyteller’s Journey, to discover their own voice and learn to tell their own story.  Throughout the hour, many eager children helped me dramatize ancient world myths and even on  the first day of school 200 children sat attentively engaged in the mysterious narratives of long ago and far away.

After the assembly, I suggested that they practice their new skills by re-telling one of the stories at home.   I asked which story they might like to tell and several children raised their hands and answered my question.

Ten minutes or so later, as I walked from the gym to the exit passing various lines of students snaking their way down the hallway in search of their classrooms, a willowy 6 year old boy spotted me, stepped out of line and said, as if continuing an interrupted conversation, “It is hard for me to decide which story to tell because I liked them all!  I might not actually get the chance to tell one because I’ve got to get the hay in before winter, but I’ll try.”   The principal had mentioned that the school was located in a strong farming community.  With that, the young farmer and newly christened storyteller, waved good-bye and set off in search of his long gone classmates.

Happy Storytelling!

Cheryl Thornton

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The Shared Fire of Inspiration


Detroit Industry‘Detroit Industry’ by Diego Rivera. Conceived in 1932 and completed in 1933, this amazing mural tells a story – many stories, in fact – to communicate the vitality of American manufacturing, centered as it was in Detroit at that time.

pacino di buonaguida

‘Appeal of Prato to Robert of Anjou’ by Pacino di Bonaguida, from the 14th century. Subject matter differs from era to era, but the intention of telling a story runs throughout history.    Mithila Art

Sacred art from the ancient kingdom of Mithila, in present day Nepal. Visual storytelling that blends the sacred and profane. Styles vary from culture to culture, but the impulse to create and communicate spans all of humanity.

Composition II

Composition II by Piet Mondian.

Art is a fundamental way in which humanity leaves its mark.  Like graffiti on the wall of existence itself, each image tells a story that we can experience,  interpret and share in our own creative way.

As storytellers and artists, our job is to inspire others with the richness of life and a sense of possibility. For adults, the effect can be personally and professionally transformational. When applied to children, the results are often a wonder to behold. There’s nothing like witnessing a person discover their own ‘voice’, or visual language, and in so doing, the voice of others.

Visual literacy… An aspect of education (and life) too easily overlooked.

Happy (visual) storytelling!

– Matthew Giffin

‘The Frame Story’


We just got back from a quick trip to Detroit; a kind of spur-of-the-moment road trip, to reconnect with a place that holds great personal resonance.

I was seven years old In 1967, which was the year my parents had moved us to downtown Detroit. Shortly after we settled in, the city erupted in the most destructive, deadly riot in American history. The sirens, the plumes of smoke, the sound of machine guns in the not so far distance… made a deep impression.I lived there until I was 15, spending my formative years navigating the reality of Detroit, downtown, in Lafayette Park.

That was a long time ago. In the years since then, the image of “Detroit” has crystallized in the popular imagination to the point where the mere mention of the word can conjure up vivid imagery, reports of violence, unprecedented urban dereliction and, of course, some of the most evocative, lyrical music America has ever produced.

One thing I can say for certain; there is nothing safe or neutral about Detroit. Indeed, so potent is Detroit’s outlaw image that I believe a kind of minor archetypal myth has emerged in the form of an experience, seemingly shared by a suspiciously huge number of travelers –  exclusively white men, I have noticed – wherein a wrong turn is taken from a highway, necessitating the need to ask directions in either a liquor store or a gas station.

I’ve heard slight variations of this story many, many times. It is always told with an incredulous smile and a bemused shake of the head, as if the storyteller were relating an encounter with a Komodo dragon that he and his family had somehow miraculously survived.

This death-defying cliché of high adventure generally achieves the desired empathetic response. For everyone knows that Detroit is dangerous; we all like to broadcast that we can survive a brush with the dark side and, above all, we need a happy ending.

For me, however, Detroit is more than merely dangerous and far more than a survival story. It is a place that I embody. I grew up there; I own my version of Detroit, wrong turns off the highways, great music, riots and all.

My corner of my old neighborhood is now ramshackle and run down, but to me, the broken streets and the weeds growing up through the sidewalk speak of a lot more than simple defeat. They seem strangely full of intriguing possibility.

And I know I’m not alone in this assessment. From urban farming to e-business, there’s some pretty creative stuff happening in Detroit these days. Hmmm…

The drive to Detroit from Toronto is about four hours long. We decided to take this little trip because traveling is a good way to write. The passing landscape and gigantic trucks keep the linear mind occupied, allowing the dreaming mind to play freely. A great way to work out the details for the frame story of the new Storyvalues app we are developing.

The story involves an orphan boy who lives in a port town. People from all over the world come there, to live and do business. The boy earns his keep by running errands and making deliveries for his neighbors, but his greatest love is for the stories he hears from the people he knows in his neighborhood; wondrous stories from every part of the world, stories of adventure, danger and imagination; the shared experience of humanity that tells us in a deep way that we are not alone. 

Unfortunately, the city has an evil Lord mayor who has decreed that no stories other than the official ones he has deemed ‘true’ shall be told

This has a chilling effect on the people. No longer free to tell stories, they keep to themselves and, in time, the silence turns to alienation and suspicion. They begin to fear one another. Eventually they become so isolated from one another that even the map of the world changes; the continents drift farther apart and break into smaller land masses; small islands scattered across a vast, impersonal ocean.

You’ll have to buy the app when it comes out to get the full details….

However, I can divulge that it becomes the singular responsibility of the boy to defy the Lord mayor, to remember and share the stories he has learned, for it is only through the sharing of stories that the people will again bond and trust one another to form a connected, inclusive world. We arrived in Windsor, checked into the hotel and then headed to Detroit to see the Tigers play at their fantastic, relatively new stadium, smack dab in the middle of downtown. We stopped first at Hockeytown, a bar just up Woodward from the ballpark, enjoying a pre-game beer up on the roof, watching rivers of people file down the street and into the park.

Scanning the crowds, it looked to me like most of them had arrived from the suburbs.  This was a totally different crowd than the one I remember as a kid, when my father and I went to the old Tiger Stadium.

The majority of this crowd appeared relatively affluent, white and nicely suntanned; almost every one of them was wearing a crisp, white Tiger jersey. Clearly, this was a crowd that was solidly behind the team, in town to catch the game, then up the highway back home. The new stadium affords a fantastic view of the magnificent architecture of the city centre; the old, iconic skyscrapers now largely emptied by years of economic, social and political neglect.

It was a beautiful summer evening. The Tigers won, pulling within a half game of first place. We drove back to Windsor to the hotel and flipped on the news.

The previous day, twelve people had been killed in a movie theatre in Colorado by some lost soul who had amassed a huge arsenal, with ammunition purchased online and delivered to his apartment which he had booby-trapped with high explosives.

As always, the canned music was ominous, the news graphics were spectacular and the talking heads were beside themselves with excitement. This is now a familiar scenario, with a very predictable dialogue of desperation mixed with demagoguery:

“We must stand together; God loves us and we must support each other”… 

“We need more, not fewer guns. This never would have happened if others had been armed as well”… 

“In this country we have a right to self-defense”… 

“What role did the movie play in all of this..?” 

“I don’t want the government telling me what I can and cannot do”…

Politicians gauge the mood and echo whatever voice they think will further their careers. Lobby groups swing into action, influencing what questions will gain traction and how to package the story for mass consumption. What are the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ views? The status quo is thus maintained; in the form of an a seemingly insolvable debate.

An awful lot seems to ride on the aftermath of this unspeakable tragedy, in which innocent people died for no apparent reason at all.

We return to Toronto the next day, taking our time driving up the Ontario coast of Lake Erie. A spectacular landscape of farmland, waterfront and little towns. Along the way, we continue working on our story.

“Somewhere, in a port city, there is a boy who has been given the perilous task of defying the directives of the evil Lord mayor, to share the stories he has heard, so that the people may remember their true identities and again come to express themselves and understand one another”…

Have you ever felt homesick for a place you’ve never seen? Sometimes a trip is just a long drive; other times the journey can lead to a familiar place you’ve never even been before.

Our story is still unfinished, but it seems clear that it hinges upon having the people turn their conversations from ‘how they can defend themselves’ to ‘how they can support one another’…

– Matthew Giffin

 

Storytelling Apprentices, Part 2


It has been a month since we celebrated the success of our Storyteller Apprenticeship Program at Shaughnessy Public School, with a spectacular school assembly.  The memory still makes me smile.

For six months, starting in January 2012, twenty kids, aptly dubbed, ‘storyteller apprentices’, shadowed me with notebooks and pencils as I told stories in all the classes.  This wonderful assortment of students, ranging in age from 6 to 14, and in height from just over 3 feet, to well over 6 feet tall, attentively watched and listened to thirty stories, observing and taking notes on storytelling techniques.

They learned how to use their voice to portray character; how gestures and facial expressions convey emotions; how to identify and support the big idea of a story, and how to look and sound confident, even when you feel shy and frightened.

I worked with teacher/librarian Barb Cook on this project. When she first introduced me to my twenty apprentices, most of them looked at me with shy skepticism, wondering, “How on earth could storytelling possibly be fun?”

Well, the students had lots of fun, and I had the pleasure of watching them evolve from a wobbly, disconnected group into a confident, compassionate supportive storytellers’ cooperative, demonstrating yet again how storytelling can be a team activity with tons of cooperative learning opportunities.

On a day in June, at the conclusion of the program, to celebrate the end of the school year and to showcase the new skills they had acquired, my apprentices joined me on stage to help tell three folktales in an all school assembly.  On the morning of the performance, during the brief hour and a half we had to rehearse in the library, I became aware that a significant change had occurred in these students over our six months together.  Their confidence was much improved and the group had an over riding sense of community and belonging together.

When we first came together in January, everyone felt the incongruity of being a small group of mixed ages.  There are significant differences between a six year old and a fourteen year old, that go beyond size.  However, after spending time learning and working together, a strong feeling of camaraderie clearly developed between the students.

During our rehearsal, I watched a grade 8 student help a grade 1 student secure her costume and overheard two grade 3 students sharing tips on how to stay calm and not ‘freak-out.’  During the assembly, all the storyteller apprentices performed their parts with confidence and pizzazz.  The show exceeded everyone’s expectations. The audience was thrilled and the storytellers were amazing!

After the assembly, the apprentices reconvened in the library to celebrate and discuss their success over ice-cream sundaes.  We interviewed each student on video, asking what they learned from being storyteller apprentices.

Many said they had grown in confidence through learning how to tell stories.  Others said they no longer considered themselves to be shy after moths of telling stories to each other and to the 200 students gathered at the final performance.

A grade 3 boy said he used to be very shy, but now wants to attend a performing arts school when he reaches high school.  A grade 7 boy said he had fun standing in front of the whole school and making them laugh.  A grade 8 girl said she felt proud of her accomplishment. Indeed, I had witnessed her transformation from a girl who kept her head bowed, looking at the floor, to a self-confident girl who smiled and looked into your eyes.

In the aftermath of the program, Barb Cook spoke to other teachers in the school, accumulating hard data that showed an improvement in both grades and attendance by many of the storyteller apprentices, even those who had been identified at risk of dropping out.

To me, this provides empirical proof for what I’ve witnessed firsthand through over twenty years of storytelling. Specifically, that stories and storytelling, like all art forms, have the power to engage, transform and inspire children – and adults – to grow into their fullest potential.

There is a great need in society for strengthening personal connections, engagement with education and for building supportive, inclusive community. Storytelling can be a very powerful agent for positive change in this regard. Stories speak to who we are, both individually and collectively; the rich interplay of fact and fiction helps us create our own personal view of the world we share with one another.

I look forward to meeting other students and educators who are up for a journey that leads to a fantastic and very real place.

– Cheryl Thornton & Matthew Giffin

Real Life Words, Like Feathers


There is a fantastic Jewish folktale, originating from Poland, called ‘Words Like Feathers’. It tells the tale of three extremely talkative women who inaccurately identify a boy as a thief. In no time at all, word spreads until the entire village thinks of the innocent boy as a criminal. It takes the village Rabbi to show the women that words can cause widespread damage, impossible to undo.

As an example, he instructs the women to empty the feathers from a pillow. As the wind takes the feathers in every direction, he instructs them to find each one and put it back.

An impossible task, just as it is impossible to ‘un-speak’ damaging words once they’ve been spoken and accepted as true.

This story has a poignant lesson about the power of words and the importance of using words consciously, with care and accuracy.

We added this story to Storyvalues to support bullying prevention initiatives in schools. It is a very popular story. Personally, I think the attention being placed on the problem of bullying at school is long overdue. The idea that bullying is somehow acceptable is finally giving way to a burgeoning consciousness of the long-term negative effects of cruel, destructive behavior.

The question I have is, how can we expect to change bullying behavior at school if that very same behavior seems is acceptable within adult society?

In the past few months alone we’ve seen many instances in the media wherein divisive and inflammatory words have been consciously used by radio and TV talk show hosts, religious leaders and politicians. These highly publicized outbursts invariably involve labeling and targeting certain segments of society: “black”, “white”, “gay”, “liberal”, etc., detailing exactly what it is that sets these groups apart from what otherwise would be “acceptable”.

Is this not a form of bullying? Or does this fall under the vast heading, “freedom of speech”? Is it somehow different when a prominent talk radio host calls an individual a “slut” than when a grade 7 student does the same?

Political and corporate leaders regularly speak ‘half-truths’ about ideological opponents, knowing that the comments will gain a foothold in the public consciousness once they are broadcast or appear in print. How is this different than a school bully spreading a rumour about another student through social media?

One might say that, like bullying in school, this type of thing has ‘always been a part’ of the social landscape, as if that would make the practice somehow ‘acceptable’.

What is different is that now our messages are broadcast much more efficiently. The ‘feathers’ now enter an extremely efficient and powerful windstorm , traveling much farther and wider than ever before through multiple forms of media, creating an echo chamber that magnifies the message and engulfs anyone who is in the range of a TV, radio or computer.

That’s pretty much everyone at this point, including kids, whom we claim we’d like to protect from this kind of behavior.

What are they learning from all of this?

– Matthew Giffin