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 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

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

Storyvalues Featured by MaRS Discovery District


Storyvalues, Inc., is pleased to announce that we have been selected by MaRS Discovery District in Toronto as an educational innovator to watch.

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The online article features a short interview with Storyvalues owners Cheryl Thornton and Matthew Giffin, wherein they discuss the important role of storytelling in education and marketing. Here is a brief excerpt:

Storyvalues has a magic secret: storytelling.

Every year we perform for thousands of children and adults throughout Ontario, where we see time and again how a well-told story captures the imagination and inspires the intellect.

At these events, we distribute passports to children to take home to their parents, inviting them to listen to and explore the stories on the Storyvalues website.

The resulting interaction is deeply meaningful, encompassing factual information as well as rich creativity.

This kind of profound engagement, achieved through storytelling, is the cornerstone of successful marketing as well as the foundation of education itself.

Storyvalues, Inc., wishes to extend sincere thanks to MaRS Discovery District in Toronto and to Joe Wilson in particular, whose guidance and support have been invaluable.

Link to full article here:

http://marscommons.marsdd.com/business-models-matter/storyvalues/

The Ancient Secret of Student Engagement


“Tell me a fact and I will learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” – Indian proverb.

Each year we bring our live interactive storytelling performances to over 100 elementary schools in the Greater Toronto Area. Most of the performances, regardless of the age of the audience, last about one hour. Almost invariably, after each performance, the adults in attendance express amazement at how engaged the children were during the show.

Cheryl Thornton performs at a Storyvalues Literacy Night Event in Toronto, 2012.

Many of the shows involve audiences of up to 400 children, spanning all the ages of elementary school. It is a rare thing indeed when there are disruptions and it is amazing to see so many kids engrossed and engaged with the dynamics of what is happening during the show.

What exactly is happening during the show that accounts for their rapt attention and willingness to participate? What is it about the performances that children find so compelling?

Having witnessed this phenomenon for over ten years, in literally thousands of schools, it is clear that stories speak a language children understand. By encompassing both fact and fiction, stories offer a compelling bridge to the imagination that inspires children to interpret the information they are receiving in their own unique ways, to arrive at their own creative conclusions.

In other words, the stories give them something interesting to think about. Their minds become engaged in creative thought. Once that happens, they learn. Simple as that.

Of course, for this to happen you must have the right stories and a storyteller who knows how to tell a story in a compelling way. Fortunately, hidden in the vast collection of folktales humans have created since the beginning of civilization, there  are stories that so poignantly express essential truth that, when effectively told, resonate very deeply even today.

Concerning the ability to tell a story, all professionals can benefit from learning the techniques of effective storytelling. Storytelling is an essential part of effective communication and being tasked with the challenge of engaging a classroom full of young children is no small thing. They are a tough crowd to win over and are not often shy about expressing their disengagement.  Having the ability to tell a story can make a big difference.

This is why interactive storytelling is such an amazingly powerful educational tool. A well-told story provides a context for learning that goes way beyond the mere transmission of factual information. Stories not only teach; they also embody why the information being transmitted is relevant. Interactive storytelling makes education active, creative and fun.

And that is why effective storytelling engages students. Once so engaged, the sky truly is the limit.

– 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

 

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

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