‘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

 

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Storytelling Apprentices


For the past several months, I’ve been working with a group of twenty storytelling apprentices at Shaughnessy Public School.  The students, age 6 to 13, have been shadowing me as I tell multicultural stories to all the grade levels in the school. During our sessions we explore and discover the elements of storytelling; setting the tone, expression and body language. 

The goal of the project is to inspire, encourage and empower these young learners to realize their potential by becoming masters of verbal and physical communication. Storytelling is perhaps the ideal approach to this kind of creative literacy.

So far, the apprentices and I have told over 30 myths and folk tales. We use musical instruments, props and costumes as we interact and dramatically interpret each story. Media literacy also plays a role; most of the stories we tell during the story sessions are  available on my online program, Storyvalues Interactive.  The students make full use of the program, spending time in the computer lab listening to the stories and learning about  each story’s culture of origin by exploring the interactive story pages.

In our live storytelling sessions, we instruct the students to focus on a specific aspect of storytelling, such as how voice is used to portray character, set the mood and support a narrative.  Sitting in rows with notebooks and pencils in hand, they look like journalist at a press conference, jotting down (or in many cases, drawing pictures of) their observations.

Proof that they are completely absorbing the information is provided by looking through their notebooks and by observing their enthusiastic participation in the performances. For many of the students, the program has provided a way to build self-awareness and confidence in how they express themselves.

This brilliant project was initiated by an amazingly talented teacher/librarian named Barb Cook.  Barb and I have worked together many times over the past ten years. She has always impressed me with her dedication to her students and creative approach to literacy.  The walls of her library overflow with student artwork; a testament to her ability to spark the interest of her students to help them learn comprehensively and passionately.

Next month, we will celebrate our wonderful storytelling apprentices in a school assembly wherein they will be using their newly developed gifts as storytellers and self-confident communicators.

I can’t wait to post the results. Stay tuned!

– Cheryl Thornton

Welcome to the Storyvalues Blog


It is increasingly rare, in this image saturated, test-score obsessed era, for children to have the opportunity to follow their instincts and arrive at their own creative conclusions.

Yet that is precisely what is needed to empower and enable them to rise to their full creative potential, so that they may thrive as adults in what will certainly be an era of greater creative expectation and possibility.

In a fundamental way, the ability to be creative, to imaginatively interact with the world in which we live, establishes how we see ourselves and our role in working and living with others.

Using Storyvalues, students, parents and educators can  experience stories, images and sounds from around the world and interact with ideas that inspire expression of personal and cooperative creativity.

  • See and play samples of the diverse musical instruments featured in the recordings.
  • Become aware of how music, words and voice can join to create a unified expression.
  • Take part in story-based follow up activities that increase comprehension and listening skills.
  • Gain insight into how people of every culture share the traditions of music and storytelling.