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