Monday, September 15, 2014

Bread and Roses Festival, Lawrence, MA – Community Comes Together

Monday, September 1 – Labor Day. My car was loaded with tent, chairs, and banners, but with hazy expectations for the workshop. Months ago I had a vision that gave Stories in the Streets the nod to present Your Story, Our Story: If you lived it, you can tell it at Lawrence’s Bread &Roses Heritage Festival, the biggest Labor Day celebration of its kind in the region. Now I had three volunteer storytellers on board but still no clear directions on when and where to set up. I worried that both my vision and volunteers could disappear into the melee.

Some tellers used our story prompts.
This one: Pets
Two weeks later, I am still smiling.  As I had hoped, story predominated. Just a little prodding was needed to get our first storyteller to give her account of the attention she and her husband lavish on their “grand-dog,” “Can you believe it? I’m eighty-three and don’t have a single grandchild.  Now, that’s what I would really like.”
The sound of story spread from the tent and more people trickled in.  An eager-faced 15 year old skipped in. She recognized me from a fairytale residency I had done at her school.  She declined any coaching – “No, you already told me what to do.” – then gave an account of social ostracism from her elementary years. (“Worst four years of my life.”) However, her timing, verbal asides and facial expressions made us laugh; her lifted shoulders and head showed us her present-day confidence.  We all felt she just needed us to listen.
Here were our oldest and youngest “street tellers”, both born and residing in Lawrence.
The aim of the Bread & Roses Heritage Festival is to celebrate the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence. It serves as a current day reflection on the Lawrence Strikes of 1912, termed the Bread and Roses strike. The strike succeeded in raising wages and conditions because of the unification of more than a dozen ethnic groups.
The spirit of solidarity was in the Stories in the Streets tent. Terese made real this summer’s prevalent image of Market Basket protestors holding signs and chanting in front of empty store parking lots. We reveled with a father who managed to bond with his teenage son on a European trip gone wrong. We lamented with a young, single mother who suffered from epilepsy. She was arrested at her daughter’s preschool because the local police could think of a number of incriminating reasons for her banging on the wall that did not include a medical condition.
Auntie Kim's gravy store went
along with the Holidays theme.
People traveled to the festival and some came specifically to tell at our tent. We met Auntie Kim from New Hampshire and Ruth Canonico from Chelmsford, both storytellers who shared.  Others meandered over from the neighboring tent of the Lawrence History Center delighted that they could listen AND tell.

Story sharing helps community come together. We hear what makes people passionate and frustrated and delighted, and so find the common threads that unite us all.

What Happens When Storyellers Set up Shop?

The snowball effect.

(I met Anna Eyre this summer when she worked with Raising A Reader in Lawrence.  She is a keen observer and longtime wordsmith and became attracted to storytelling.  Anna volunteered to help facilitate the Stories in the Streets workshop tent at Bread & Roses Heritage Festival.  I welcome her comments.)

Even though the heat soared well into the nineties and was thick with humidity, under the shade of Stories in the Street’s canopy, story fluttered.  Beginning with a woman’s exclamation that the place so many have been following in this historic show of customer and employee support is, as she said, “my Market Basket,” story took to the wind and began to bring people in. Rather than standing around the fire, we gathered around a small stool and modest microphone to hear an Abenaki tale of the sweetness of hard work, the tale of a friend who could perhaps become a lover, a
father’s journey with his son, and others.  Soon a man stood to tell us of the untapped potential that resides in cities like Lawrence and how he, after speaking with new friends at another festival similar to Bread & Roses, had been contacted by a high school student.  He went on to tell of how he became a mentor and friend to the student who he then helped get into and go to college. 

The Bread & Roses Heritage Festival brings community members together to celebrate the ways in which our individual stories can be heard and snowball into a force that catalyzes positive change.  The story of how the Market Basket dispute affected one of the storytellers brought the larger dispute close to home and made us understand how a group of caring people can change labor and stand strong until what they believe in becomes a reality.  The story of how one of our storytellers unwittingly became a mentor inspired us to take social justice into our own hands and find a way to make a difference in the life of a person whose potential might otherwise have gone untapped.

We all have a story to tell and when we begin to tell them, others want to tell their stories as well.  Story is magnetic.  By the end of the day, the canopy that had housed three story tellers to start, housed more than fifteen.  One story reminded a person of another story and so on.  When we hear one another’s stories, we hear how we are related to one another no matter how different we may appear to be.  The Bread & Roses festival celebrates our ability to unite and what better way to unite than through individual story?

Anna Elena Eyre

Reflections on an Evening of Storytellers Sharing Stories with One Another

Somewhere behind me a mysterious woman is approaching.  I know this because the storyteller is pointing there and in her eyes I can almost see the reflection of the strange woman dressed all in black.  I sneak a look behind my shoulder and see the hallway to the kitchen, but when I look back at the storyteller I see the dusty street of a small town in Virginia.  There, the sun is setting and I can see the dust glint particles of light as Anna (which happens to be my name too) sits on her stoop and watches the woman slowly approach.  My heart beats a little faster and the room becomes quieter.  All of us are with Anna on the stoop, waiting for the storyteller’s next word to lead us further into this mystery.

The storyteller jumps and we all do too! And although we are all there to tell stories to one another, we have forgotten our own stories and are living the one being told by Susan Lenoe.  We all imagine the specifics of what this woman looks like differently, but we are all imagining the same woman.  We are able to do this because the storyteller is so enchanted by the story that she has moved us into a collective imagining.

The ability of the storyteller to live the story, allows the listeners to live the story as well.  Other forms of storytelling including movies, TV, and videogames do not allow us to live the story in the same way because they do not allow us to imagine or visualize.  A book may allow us to imagine the characters and setting, but we most often do not read books in groups.  More importantly, the characters in a movie or book can’t respond to our response.  Great storytellers work with and respond  to the audience to breathe a story to life. The story is happening all around us and we—the listeners— are a part of the story as much as the storyteller is.  There’s a tremendous power in the ability of people to imagine the same thing but imagine it differently and share in the experience.  When we listen to a story we all share in the experience of the characters and find different aspects of their experience that ring true with our own.  Our responses subtly show these truths and a storyteller who is sensitive to these cues is able to draw these truths out even more. 

All of our experience is rooted in story.  I often wonder, would we remember an event if we did not tell the story of how it happened?  Even when we do remember an event, another person might remember it differently, or the memory of an event might change over time.  Without story, would we know how the event happened or if it happened at all?  Story both grounds us in our own experience and allows us to imagine and live the experiences of others. 

 No other art form allows us to understand one another more than storytelling. That night, listening to Susan’s story, I was Anna in Virginia facing a past I didn’t know could haunt me—we all were.    

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Resurrection of the Dodo

The Dodo became extinct in the late 1600s
In a recent Stories in the Streets gig, I had an interested audience of random-aged children and parents. I decided to tell Tug of War, a story with audience participation. In this folktale Rabbit cunningly gets Elephant and Blue Whale to participate against each other. The folktale originated as an African folktale then traveled with the slave trade to become a popular Creole tale.  I began the story, “On a small island just off the coast of Africa the sea pounds against the curved golden shoreline; a warm wind blows through the jungle canopy; and on this ever so small island called Mauritius there lives …” Whereupon a perky seven year old piped in, “a dodo, a dodo, I know dodoes come from Mauritius because I watch a lot of educational TV.”
Well, they came from Mauritius.  But, with such a lively introduction of a character, I had to weave dodo into the story. Improv style, I added Dodo as Rabbit's go-to guy. Voila! Dodo resurrection complete.
Now on to another resurrection, my let-fall-by-the-wayside-of-good intentions storytelling blog. 
The dodo bird fell into extinction because it had a bad set up.  It lived on Mauritius as a large non-flying bird with no natural predators. Mauritius was discovered first by the Portuguese in 1500’s and inhabited by Dutch settlers in the 17th century. The humans, along with animals they brought, simply walked up to the poor dodos and ate them up – no contest.
Now, I hope, the resurrection of my blog will be the tale of the dodo in reverse.   Like Dodo, my blog was rather inert. I knew there was competition out there in the social media land and so came to a near instant conclusion that I couldn’t compete and rolled over to play dead. 
Later I realized that I had wings – working every day as a storyteller produces content – but I didn’t know how to fly – how to consistently flap my pencil/keyboard to produce dialogue that would interest other storytellers/ educators/child raisers.  Fortunately, I have found a helper to help "lift" my blogging.
A few weeks ago I connected with a brilliant young woman who wanted to gain more insight into the hows of storytelling from me.  She suggested that perhaps the sharing could be a two way street.  So, we are conspiring to resurrect this blog together.   I will author one week; she the next. So, tag Anna Eyre, you’re it. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Growing in Every Way

The flowers bloom, vines creep, and fruits ripen on the trees. Children are naturally curious and eager to participate in the natural world around him. Connect the growing environment to literacy activities.

In my Growing in Every Way program (part of Stories at Play), I begin with prompting the children to tell me their observations.   “Has anyone seen any flowers by their house or school?”   “What color are the flowers?”  “Were they growing out of the ground, or on a bush, or a tree?” 

Then I ask, “How do plants and flowers and vegetables begin to grow?”  The children may or may not supply the answer; either way, this segues into a told, very hands-on version of Ruth Krauss’ The Carrot Seed.  The children mimic holding the seed between thumb and finger (fine motor skills), pulling a trowel (new word!l language development skills) from their pocket, and then digging the hole, planting the seed and repetitively watering and weeding (gross motor skills). 

This story introduces the sequencing of plant growth.  At the end, I ask the children to imagine themselves as seeds curled up on the ground.  I prompt again, “What do seeds need to grow?”  Then we expand with the water and sunlight, begin to sprout.  We use one arm as a little shoot peeking out of the ground, then rise up to our knees forming the flower’s stem, arms peel out like leaves. Then we stand up and go from bud (arms curved above our heads) to blossom.  All this wonderful movement is a form of scientific inquiry.  We are recording the stages of the plant cycle with our bodies.

I love looking out at my field of young flowers.  “What color flower are you?”  I may prompt them with flower names, like daffodil, tulip, hydrangea (there’s always someone who’s blue) and sunflower.  One of my favorite answers, “I’m a rainbow-colored flower.”  

All this takes about 15 minutes which may be enough for a young child’s attention.   If the group’s attention is fading, the process of becoming flowers can be continued at art time where the children can draw the colors of their flowers.  I’m sure there will be plenty of rainbow flowers here!  Or, foam shapes of varying colors can be glued onto a rectangular paper for the children to create their own flower gardens.  

Children who are still focused can hear a story about growth.  There are so many.  My favorites are a version of the Russian folktale, The Giant Turnip (I use Giant Pumpkin because I don’t’ think too many see/eat turnips anymore) and Jack and the Beanstalk.  Storytelling engages children.Involve the children by having them repeat chants such as, “… and they pulled, and they pulled, and they pulled.  But the pumpkin would not come off the vine,” or, “up, and up, and up, and  up, Jack climbed, faster and faster and faster.”   

Finally, I like to ask the children what they need to grow.   This produces an array of answer from the healthy, “carrots,” to the probable, “pizza,”  to one of my all-time favorite answers, “birthdays!”   

At this point, tell another story about animals or humans who grow and grow.  An all-time audience favorite is the Danish folktale, The Fat Cat (storyteller Margaret Read MacDonald has a lively, colorful version in print.)  At the end of this story we can reflect upon what is good for us to eat, and what is probably not so good.

My mother always told me the summer sun made me grow faster.   Now, I’m not sure if she meant in height or, as our summers were full of exploration, if she really meant she could see us growing in every way.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Playful as a Preschooler

Using Similes in Preschool Storytelling

“… as big as my teacher,” “as big as a school bus,”  “as big as my house.”  Ask a preschool child how big an elephant is, and these are some responses.   Ask them to show you “as fierce as a lion,” and their little hands clench like claws, their faces grimace and their eyes squint.  Yes, very young children can express themselves using simile.   

While simile and metaphor are not seen in the curriculum until 2nd or 3rd grade (appears in the Common Core Standards in 3rd grade), if you talk to children using this language,  they will better understand the literary terms when they are introduced.   

March is a great month to introduce simile as it couples with the month and weather theme, “In Like a Lion; Out Like a Lamb.”  I have created a storytelling program that reinforces this simile.  
In March in New England we saw days of wild snowstorms, as well as calm days where winter coats were unzipped.  At the beginning of the program, I point out to the children that the snowy, cold, windy days are as wild or fierce as a lion; the calmer days, as gentle as a lamb.   Then I tell two stories that highlight the character of the lion and the lamb.

Mosquito Teaches Lion Good Manners (another folktale to use is The Lion and the Mosquitos) is an African folktale in which I have the children roar along with me every time the lion roars.  When lion meets the elephants around the watering hole, I have the children start thinking in simile with the “how big is an elephant?” prompt.   After the story, I ask the children to think of a lion and tell me what he is like.  They often repeat words used in the story: “he’s strong,”  “he’s fast,” “he roars,”  and add some of their own from describing physical features to, “he’s tough.”  All of this is good feedback.   Then I ask what does the lion’s face look like when he roars?  They answer that he looks mad.  “Another word for mad and tough, is fierce,” I add.   Then I ask them to all show me, “fierce as a lion.”
I contrast the lion to a lamb.  “Is a lamb tough?”  “Does a lamb look mad?”  “No, lambs are sweet and gentle.”  

 I then tell a French folktale about “Mouton, the Sheep and El Gato, the Cat.”  (It is interesting that most versions have the cat’s name in Spanish, making me suspect that the tale originated in the south of France.)  In this story, the sheep is a “scaredy-cat:” she doesn’t like to go out into the woods surrounding the house and is frightened in a most silly way, when the wolf comes knocking at the door.  

After the second tale, I ask the children to stand up.  They then re-enact “fierce as a lion,” because they love playacting ferociousness.  Then we erase the lion from our faces and I ask them to look as sweet and gentle as a lamb.   Perfect little smiles appear and often their hands are grasped under their chin in an almost prayer like manner.   

Not so coincidentally, the children are now calmed down at the end of storytime and ready to make a transition.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Compare and Contrast : A StoryPlay activity for Preschool to Kindergarten

“His cookie is bigger!”  “I want the piece with the MOST frosting.”

Children are little observers and they are comparing all the time, especially when it relates to them –“ I can jump higher”, “my daddy is bigger.’ The trick is to transfer their observations to relate to a broader world, especially as they step into the academic classroom. The Core Curriculum affirms “identifying similarities and differences” is important even in the Preschool classroom.  

I use storytelling to start a compare and contrast discussion with very young children. I start by telling two stories that have the same object – a cooking pot. My first story is Anansi and the Bean Pot.  Grandmother Spider tells Anansi not to touch the bean pot cooking on the stove while she is out buying spices at the market. But, Anansi loves beans and his desire gets the best of him.  He is lured to the bean pot first by the smell, then remembering their taste, then seeing Grandma’s Spider’s ladle by the pot. When Grandma Spider returns, Anansi tries to hide the beans he scooped out of the pot and into his hat by hastily jamming the hat onto his head. The beans burn Anansi’s scalp, making him sweat and cry. When caught by Grandma Spider, Anansi takes off his hat to reveal that the beans have scorched his hair off. (The story sounds a bit gruesome, but preschoolers enjoy nothing more than to see me pretend to be Anansi in exaggerated pain. It brings down the house.)

My second story is my rendition of the classic Grimms tale, The Magic Porridge Pot. (Paul Galdone has a good print version for young listeners.) A young girl, Emily, tries to help her mother out when there is no food in the house. Emily meets up with a magical old woman who gives her a pot that makes porridge using some special directions.  The pot makes magical porridge the first time.   The next time the mother needs to use the pot, Emily is at school. The mother forgets how to stop the porridge from cooking and the porridge overflows, running down the street like a porridge river.   Emily saves the day by running through the porridge and using the magic words to stop the pot from cooking.

When I tell these stories, I purposefully do not describe the pot, except to say that Anansi’s pot is on the stove, and I “show”  Emily carrying the magic pot home.  In the second story, I do take time to interact with my young listeners when describing the delicious, magic porridge. It smells of brown sugar and maple syrup and even pancakes … and I prompt them to tell me how it smells. I get everything from ice cream to grilled cheese. There are two places in the story where their imaginations are engaged with the porridge descriptions.

After the tellings, I take out two pieces of paper. At the top of one I write “Anansi’s Bean Pot,” on the other, “Emily’s Porridge Pot.” As I’m writing, I ask the children to tell me what was cooking in each pot. Then I say, “Both pots are the same because they are used for cooking. The pots might also be different.  Do you think they are the same size?  Which pot do you think is bigger?”    

Because of the way I portrayed the stories, the children usually tell me that the Porridge Pot is bigger. Then I look for another similarity: they both have handles because they both need to be carried. Then I ask them about color and other differences.  Usually, the magic pot is more colorful.   Often the children will say that the magic pot has a spoon with it; the bean pot has a lid. (The spoon is an important part of the magic instructions, and at one point in the Anansi story, Anansi lifts the lid to “just smell” the baking beans.) 

This compare and contrast exercise can be as detailed or as summarized as time and age level allow.   In small groups, the children can actually color the pots. With older children, they can go back to their desks and draw the two pots. I always end with a reflection on not just the similarities and differences between the pots, but also the stories. For example, in the Anansi story, Anansi got into trouble. In The Magic Porridge Pot, Emily was a helper; it was the mother who got into a bit of trouble.

Compare and contrast, or similarities and differences, is a great foundation for future story readers and storytellers. After all, isn’t every classic tale about how the main character is both the same and different in the end. For the storyteller, examining and highlighting the similarities and contrasts as the story develops can assure and interesting tale.

Other "cooking pot" stories: