Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Teaching Stories, part two - What I do!

Very tall 10th grader learning his story!
Earlier in January, I worked with some great kids in New Hampshire teaching them part of the Ramayana. If you have read earlier posts of mine, you will know the Ramayana is a huge epic! We took only one of the kandas, one of the books: the book of Beauty - the Kanda Sundara. It tells the story of Hanuman's leap to Lanka to find Rama's wife Sita, his meeting with Ravana, and Hanuman's torching of Lanka before returning to tell Rama's army about his discovery of Sita and the need to rescue her pronto! I had to tell the rest of the six books, or kandas in 10 - 15 minutes! Trying to sum up a story made up of about 24,000 verses, 500 cantos, in an hour performance was quite the feat. (Visit my earlier post - - for more details of the story.)

The grade I was working with was 6th, and they got it. We had fun, and they learned a lot, an awful lot, in the four days I had with them. And really it was three days as the fourth day was practice, coaching, and dress rehearsal.
Helping a 4th grade student with her story
Every student in the class learned a section of the kanda we were telling. We had broken out the Kanda Sundara into 7 sections (being one of the magic numbers). That way each section had either 4 or 5 students to tell it. Some did not want to tell in front of everyone, but that was fine. As long as they told their story section to their 'team' and that they learned it, that was fine.
Quite often the students broke into pairs and we made sure that the kids were working with people they did not normally work with. This made them work a little better, I thought, or maybe just differently! Some students really did not want to tell at the performance. Same rules applied though. As long as they could tell their section, it was all good.
There is never enough time for everyone to tell a piece of the story at a performance. That is one thing that is different to chorus, music, drumming, dance. In those mediums, all the kids get to play together. With storytelling, only one person performs at a time.

My wonderful 6th graders, photo courtesy of Mike Munhall
with teachers Ms. Spaulding and Ms. Shaw top left, the other incredible AIR teacher,
Jasmine Shah in the middle, me at back
So what do we do when it comes to picking out the kids? When it gets close to the end of the residency and the performance is looming, everyone should know their story. The kids then vote on their favourite teller. They cannot vote for someone they have not heard tell (hence making them work with people they do not normally work with). They cannot vote for themselves. There were two 6th classes so plenty to perform! One cannot always eliminate the popularity contest, so speaking with teachers, I sometimes choose a student who has done well but might not be picked for one reason or another, or I find someone who has grown the most during my visit. I ask them first if they would like to perform. Most of the time it is a big: YES! Then I ask, who does NOT want to tell, and get them off to one side. In this case, we ended up with 2 people wanting to tell each section except for one section which had three students. We got the 2 (or 3) kids in one section to face me side by side, then we asked all the other kids to line up behind the student they most wanted to hear tell at the performance. If they did not want to vote because the students were 2 friends, or if they could not decide, they could abstain from voting! This happened a few times, and it was great to see the young people making good choices. Mostly it was a pretty close call and had to head count, but there were one or two sections of the story where there was a landslide. One of them was with a young lady who, on the first and second days of me teaching, had been constantly telling me she did not want to perform. She had 'won' and wanted to tell her story section! Always I say that people do not have to perform. I want them to want to do it.

Aritst in Residence and dance instructor,
Jasmine Shah, and myself
On the last day we did rehearsal in the space we were going to use for the performance that afternoon and evening. All the work we had thus far done, was in the classroom. The kids who were not performing either knelt and acted something to do with the story using the techniques we discussed in the classes, sitting next to the performer. Otherwise the students sat in a semi-circle behind the performers. This was so all the students were part of what was happening even if they were not physically participating. (This can be a little annoying as the kids not performing think they are invisible and sometimes a couple will whisper to each other or make faces at each other!)

The first performance was in front of the whole school: 1st - 12th grade. It was great. Some nerves, but most of the kids, who during practice were reciting words as if in a play, started to loosen up and use new words and expressions. They all did such a great job. When it came to the evening performance with the parents and siblings it got even better. The students were relaxed and had a fun time with it. My last instruction before the night began - to mostly have fun out there - seemed to pay off!

The best part of teaching people to tell stories, whether it is part of an epic, a story about winter, or a personal story or business story, is seeing folks grow and become confident. The other best part is getting thank-you notes afterwards! It warms me to the heart!

If you want me to come to your school, or business and teach storytelling, visit my website, and get in touch! I do work with businesses, schools, colleges and communities.
simon at diamondscree dot com
It was a wonderful residency. I share an office space with our District Literacy Coach and was just telling her how much learning occurred during your residency.  Our students learned more in those four days about the elements of a story that I ever would have imagined.

- Patti Osgood, Community Outreach Coordinator

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