Always a Storyteller


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Yesterday, my group of grade 6 and 7 Storyteller Apprentices were joined by the grade 8 classes to listen to Greek myths, stories from the Arabian Nights and First Nation tales.

11 to 14 year olds are such a baffling age group.  They can swing wildly from being bored out of their gourds to electrifyingly engaged and enthusiastic.

During the first story I told, from the 1001 Arabian Nights, I asked a seemingly comatose group of grade 8 students for volunteers to portray the genii and the fisherman.

To my great surprise, most of their hands shot up in the air! I chose two amazing 14 year olds boys to help bring the story to life, both of whom had participated in the Storyvalues Storyteller Apprentice program the previous year.

When I first met these two guys 14 months ago, they were very sceptical of ‘the whole storytelling business’, shy and hesitant to perform in front of others.

Their transformation over the six months working together was truly spectacular.  I was thrilled to see that it hadn’t been temporary; they performed with gusto and pride, helping to set the tone for the rest of the session.

Like in the 1001 Arabian Nights frame story of Shahrazad and the sultan, I honestly believe that stories have the power to transform and heal.

Once a storyteller apprentice, always a storyteller!

Happy Storytelling!

– Cheryl Thornton

 

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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 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