Scary Stories


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Yesterday was Halloween and I told ‘scary’ stories’ to my Thursday group of 5 and 6 year olds.

After telling the Chinese folktale, The Brave Girl and the Monster Snake, a little boy told me he had a video showing a capybara being eaten by a python and thought it was too bad the capybara hadn’t  heard this story about how to survive a monster snake attack!

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 Hero’s Journey’… Through Elementary School, Part 1.


“The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”  – Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell identified the stages of ‘The Hero’s Journey’, as found in archetypal stories from around the world, to equate to those found in our own personal lives.

He stated that the transformations of childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age, old age and even death all hold the potential for us to awaken to our greatest, most ‘heroic’ selves.

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We live next door to an eight year old boy named Kayden. Whenever we see him playing outside he is wearing either a cape or a sword. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kayden just ‘be Kayden’. He’s a fireman, a train engineer, a police officer, Batman, Superman, Robin Hood, Harry Potter, King Arthur, a mail carrier, a ship’s captain, an airline pilot…

To Kayden, every day is a hero’s journey. He is busy internalizing the heroic storyline through his own creative interactions with life. With the support of his patient and insightful parents, he’s setting the tone for his own journey.

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By all accounts, it will be heroic…

Like most kids, Kayden spends most of the day in school, acquiring the necessary information needed to matriculate through an educational system that is less about ‘heroism’ and more about facts, standardized testing and working within a shrinking budget.

Is this any place for a superhero?

– Matthew Giffin

 

Storytelling and the Art of Inference


Sorrow of the King by Henri Matisse‘Sorrow of the King’ by Henri Matisse

One of the greatest artists the world has ever known created the above image. The assemblage of cut paper is lyrical and melodic, using an inspired choice of colour that infers a kind of story. If we take a moment and are so inclined, we might well be curious about what is going on here.

The arts invite us to play with possibility; to wander in and around what the artist has created, to think and feel and come to our own conclusions.

Looking at Matisse’s work posted above, if we let ourselves, we might even imagine hearing the music and wonder at the source of the king’s sorrow. We can follow the inferences to see where they lead; possibly to a new and interesting way of seeing the world.

Or not! 

Each year we hear from many educators about how challenging it is to ‘teach inference’ to children and how difficult it is for modern students to draw parallels between their own experience and what they are learning and experiencing at school.

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The question is, ‘why is this so’?

‘Art imitates life’, as the saying goes. As storytellers and artists (and educators), our job is to inspire as well as to inform. Like the painting by Matisse shown above, the world does not explain itself through factual information alone; it requires participants to ‘play along’ to create something original from the raw materials of experience.

Interactive Storytelling is one of the most effective ways of bringing children (and adults) into that realm of profound creative play where inference comes naturally, as a result of deep engagement. It offers a way to play along with the world, to uncover a deep relevance that encompasses both fact and fiction.

It all comes down to engagement. As we have seen countless times, enthusiasm for learning (and the ability to make personal connections with information) comes out of hiding when children are engaged.

The art by Matisse shown above is such a vibrant, joyful image. It seems odd that the King is sorrowful, but perhaps he’s just not been inspired to see the creative possibilities that exist all around him.

Nothing a well-told story can’t cure!

-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

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