There is a common misconception that storytelling is reading books aloud to little children, or telling stories orally only to children. Storytellers must often explain exactly what it is we do--we tell stories live, in the moment, without reading them, to audiences of any age. We find our stories everywhere and anywhere: a chance comment in a grocery store, a mention in a book or newspaper article, another story, a memory, our life, our family, our community. We find the story, think about it, research it if necessary, consider various points of view for telling, and many other things before the story is ever spoken aloud.
Each teller has a personal style. Mine is a conversational, reminiscent of evenings in front of fire, at kitchen tables or on front porches, swapping and listening and sharing anecdotes as the night descends. I have found this method of presentation comes naturally to me as one of a large family of 13 children--the sharing of stories at our house was a daily occurrence, with everyone afforded the opportunity to chime in. I have also found my style adapts easily to whatever venue at which I perform.
I find my participatory style effective even in school settings. I usually suggest that rather than an all-school large assembly performance, I visit class groups of 60 or less with usually no more than two grades per group. My reasons for these smaller groups are several: first, I find I can make better eye contact with the individual child this way; storytelling relies heavily on that eye-to-eye communication to be most effective and in a theater setting this is not as easily and intimately accomplished. Second, it allows me to dispense with a sound system in most instances, again removing a barrier between the students and the story. While sound is sometimes needed because of acoustics of a particular setting, I think the natural voice is most, well, natural to storytelling. Third, a smaller setting allows me to field comments from the children between stories. Children want to share; they know things and have stories of their own to tell. While there usually is not an opportunity, unfortunately, for deeper conversations about what they have to say, being able to share even a little bit allows me to validate their story, and their storytelling ability. Fourth, we get to know each other. When I leave I feel like I know the children in the group and they feel a similar connection to me. It is important for children to feel acceptance and respect from their elders and small-group storytelling allows mutual respect to develop between teller and listener. And last but just as valuable, I can select stories suited to the developmental level of each grade. A kindergarten student operating at the concrete level of reasoning will not be likely to understand the humor or a tall tale or follow intricate story plots. Fifth grade students may get bored with the repetitive stories that are effective with younger children, for example.
Yesterday was a good case in point. At this particular school, I move from classroom to classroom instead of the children being brought to me. I started with the preschool group and ended the day with the fifth graders. The principal approved ghost stories for the two upper grades but these could not be told to younger groups because of parental requests--not even the very mild and playful tales. With preschool I told stories with puppets, songs with a flannelboard and we had lots of participation with the children playing parts in the stories and songs. Kindergarten and first got a couple puppet stories, a Jack tale and other Appalachian stories along with a song or two. For third grade I continued with Appalachian stories and two traditional folk tales, one told as a rap and the other a Spoonerism (Rindercella) to demonstrate that there are many ways to tell a tale. Since fourth grade studies West Virginia history in our state, I focused on West Virginia historical tales an traditional Appalachian stories, including a few ballads, a coal mining story, the story of my parents' meeting during World War II and a ghost story or two. For the fifth grade I repeated some of the stories told in the fourth grade but added some West Virginia ghost stories and ballads for more mature listeners. I brought puppets for the younger groups and coal mining artifacts and historical documents for the older groups. Woven through each performance was an ongoing conversation that created the transitions between stories and sometimes determined the next story I would tell.
In the course of the day I heard stories from the children. I heard about a haunted tunnel after I told the story of one such tunnel; I heard about a local site with a Native American historical background and a legend to go with it; I heard about bear hunting and about immigrant grandparents, about a creature said to leave green slime in its path, about coal mining and superstitions. I left with the feeling that these children are from families that still tell stories, that share memories and folklore. I do not think this was a unique school; I think that given the opportunity all children have stories they want to share, if only they had a time and place to do so. The time I had with them afforded an opportunity for at least a few of them to tell their tales, and I can only wonder what stories the others would have told if only we'd had many more hours in the day. During the whole day there were no discipline issues; the children remained engaged and interested, group after group.
This day was just one example of what it can be like to tell stories in a school setting; the experience was not new to me as this is what I normally experience with school visits. The bottom line is that children want stories; children listen to a well-told tale and children have stories to tell. Storytelling is needed more than ever as an avenue for children to communicate, learn, imagine and create.