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

 

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