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

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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

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