Monday, June 11, 2007

Notes From the Field (part I)

“My Old Men”
Storytelling and the emotionally shut down child

Let me see if I can set the scene for you. The room, though rather brightly lit, seemed like a cave. There was a sadness and hopelessness in the air that topped any homeless shelter or drug rehabilitation facility I had ever performed in. My audience sat in a semi-circle facing me with world-weary faces and dead eyes. There was a sense that someone had hit their “off switches”. They all looked about one hundred years old, when in fact they were between ages ten and twelve.

Fast forward eight months. I enter to a chorus of “Hi, Ms. Julie” and “It’s my turn to tell a story, isn’t it?” Lively eyes search my face for what’s in store this week. The air feels like a giggle; buoyant, energetic, and full of fun.

The transformation that took place in that class might seem like something from a fairytale. But there were no magic wands or secret potions. It was the telling of tales that allowed a class of emotionally scarred students to trust, open their minds, and risk expressing themselves.

Storytelling can be the ultimate safe space; teaching lessons, while giving hope and inspiration without being preachy. Trickster tales, hero’s journeys, stories of fools, and personal sagas can all be used to open the door of a locked down soul.

A firm believer in the healing power of humor, I chose stories of “noodle heads” to begin my time with the boys I nicknamed “my old men”. Outlandish tales like England’s “Lazy Jack” and Puerto Rico’s “Juan Bobo”, in which the main characters do ridiculously silly things, were my openers. My telling style is large, physical and humorous anyway, and for these boys I went over the top. I sensed that to see even the slightest reaction from them, I would have to risk making a fool of myself.

As I shamelessly hammed it up, wringing every bit of silliness I could out of the story I began to see flickers of life. I’ll never forget their sly “I’m watching, but I don’t want to look too interested” glances.

Using these wacky tales accomplished a number of things – right away the children knew that storytelling was not a somber lecture-like activity. It was fun! By pausing often to have them weigh in on the hero’s outlandish behavior, they knew that their opinion counted, and that any story I told wasn’t just mine – but theirs as well. Questions didn’t come with answers that were strictly right and wrong – they were each allowed to have a completely different take on things, and those differences were celebrated.

By my second class with the “old men”, R, a student with so much aggression and lack of impulse control that he merited his own teacher in this small class of ten, sat up, smiled and even answered a question. His “on switch” had been activated.

Stories of fools abound, and in choosing them I suggest ones that have the hero repeating a pattern of silliness so that the children can begin to figure out the ending. The children gain great confidence when they guess the outcome. Personally, I live for the excited whispers saying,”Oh, I know what’s going to happen now!!”

Also, the sillier the tale, the more opportunities for those comedic moments that work so well at opening people up. Dare to be as “out there” as the story dictates. Your openness will lead the way for theirs to follow.

From fools I moved on to tricksters. Every culture has their own trickster tales; stories where the little guy, usually a small animal, wins out over “Mr. Big”, using brain instead of brawn.

Knowing that most of my ten “old men” were victims of some kind of physical abuse, it didn’t surprise me when they cheered on Monkey as he escaped from the jaws of Crocodile, or Turtle’s swim away from the greedy farmer. But what did take me aback was the way they made connections between one story and another.

It became a game as each student recalled some bit of a story I had told before, and related it to the tale of the week. Tiny, and I mean miniscule, details were remembered. When one student brought up a tale from weeks ago, it sparked another boy’s memory.

One needs to be careful in choosing trickster tales for abused populations, since often there is a “comeuppance” of some sort involved in the story. I generally choose those stories with animals instead of people, so any sort of retribution is in no way real, and can be viewed as funny.

Interspersed with the trickster tales about Anansi the Spider, Brer Rabbit and others, I decided to, as my “old men” would say, “show some skills”. There are tons of tales that incorporate origami, handkerchief folding and cats cradle-like string figures. Taking something as ordinary as a piece of paper and creating elements of the story you are telling is a great attention getter. But the real magic comes when the students learn to do it too.

Thinking back on the first time I handed out paper for them to fold almost always makes me smile. Their fingers mastered the shapes faster than their teachers (which they LOVED), they helped each other, and during my next visit I heard from at least half the class that they had shared the story at home.

Other skills, like scarf juggling and simple magic tricks can be easily worked into many folktales and are teachable to children.

Just as each culture has it’s buffoon and trickster, they also have their wise man. Wisdom tales that teach profound life lessons without nagging were the next group of stories I added to the mix.

By now, the students felt free to express themselves, so I would stop at crucial points in the story, and find out what they thought should happen next and why. In the Irish tale “The Blanket”, a farmer is about to throw his father out of his house because he has gotten too old to be useful. I put the story on “pause”, and, helped by their teacher, each child gave their opinion of whether the son was right or wrong, and what should happen next.

Of course there were some,” He shouldn’t do that!”


“I don’t know – just ‘cause.”

But for the most part, after a little time to think, they were able to come up with compelling replies. Viewed through the lens of a folktale, issues like greed, jealously and anger were a lot easier to talk about and explore. Long after I was gone, their classroom teacher sometimes used these stories as jumping off points for further discussion.

All through this process, I felt it was important to make myself as available to my “old men” as possible. If I was asking them to come out of their shells, who was I to hide. I answered every question and considered every comment, and eventually did something I’d never done with children before – I told a personal story. Not a “this is what happened to me yesterday at the grocery store” anecdote, but a structured tale with a beginning, middle, and end. I shared a moment of my childhood, where, I finally shed my label of “THE SHY ONE”. I even brought in my childhood teddy bear.

They could barely believe that I – who they had seen be everything from a turtle to a llama, had once been terrified at parties – and in fact sometimes still was! But the greatest moment came when they realized not all stories came from books. I had long ago explained that I spent a lot of time looking through the 398.2 section of the library for the folktales I used, but once I told a tale I created myself, it unlocked their minds.

On a spring day, as I walked to the front of the room, A raised his hand and said,”Ms. Julie, I made up a story I’d like to tell.”

A tale that was rich in details (and tidbits from some of the stories I had told) emerged, and our “storytelling festival” began. Each week I let two students tell a tale before I began. I made a list of all the stories I had told them through the year and they were welcome to tell any of those or make up their own.

Their teacher was stunned (as was I) when R stood up and perfectly retold a paper-folding story. Did some kids loose track of what they were saying? Of course – but it didn’t matter. Without forcing them, and without begging them, one by one these “old men” came out of retirement, and returned to their childhood, barking like dogs or walking like a man carrying a donkey on his back!

Having children, especially this population, tell tales, is such a huge learning experience and gift. Their confidence, focus and imagination can grow in unbelievable ways. And the chance to express themselves safely is priceless.

As the kids (which I could now call them) began to be more interested in telling stories, I shared with them the following techniques. I asked them first to imagine the story until it became like a movie in their minds. We worked on them showing in voice and in body how the characters behave. As a memory aide they drew “cartoons” of the story – highlighting the important parts.

Did they perform before the whole school or go on to win American Idol? No. But they were a changed group who felt freer to let their emotions show, and their imaginations run free. They were now children and not old men.

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