(This is a blog written for the National Storytelling Conference, Fire and Light, July 2014)
I learned how to tell stories while substitute teaching in the New York City public schools. Talk about boot camp! I was often working with “at risk” children, many of whom were…shall we say…deeply disengaged from the classroom activities. When I began to bring in stories… not read them, but tell them…my ability to engage the students and my relationship to the students and their relationship to me shifted radically. I used to joke that before I told the story, the kids were throwing the chairs out the window and as soon as I finished, they continued; but during the storytelling, all eyes and minds were with me. A bit of hyperbole, but essentially what I experienced. There was something going on between us during the telling that radically changed the behavior of these children and atmosphere in those classrooms.
As well, of course, there was a lot of teaching and learning going on. I realized quite quickly how much information was being transmitted effortlessly while I told and they listened to those stories. Being a trained teacher, I began to note the cognitive skills along with some basic social/emotional skills that were embedded both in the stories themselves and equally in the experience of listening to stories. And, of course, once they began to fashion their own stories and tell them, a world opened up for these young, often marginalized, New Yorkers.
Great teaching, like great storytelling, is about communication. It is about contextualizing information, creating Aha! Moments, journeying into new territory to find hidden treasure, sharing a passion and meaning making. Sound heavy? Not at all. Teaching can be fun, as much fun as telling a good tale.
We know that storytelling has been used throughout human history not only to entertain, but to transmit information, explain cultural codes, and problem solve (to name just a few of the applications/uses.) We now know it also enhances interpersonal and cross-cultural awareness and encourages personal expression. It engages participants of all age and all levels seamlessly and deeply in the subject at hand. It’s a natural teaching tool and I have used it from pre-schools to University Master’s Programs, in after school offerings for children living in homeless shelters, as an English language teacher for adult immigrants and with incarcerated women, both on the east coast and currently in New Mexico. And, of course, I’ve taught teachers … both for professional development workshops in the schools and, for the past 10 years, for New York University’s Program in Educational Theatre and the TESOL/Foreign Language Program. I know the power of storytelling to fire up a classroom.—
I’m bringing some stories and some terrific activities to the National Storytelling Conference, FIRE and LIGHT, in Arizona this summer. We will easily and with great fun experience the power and efficacy of storytelling in the classroom and beyond. The workshop is called Storytelling: The Fire in Great Teaching. Come help me heat up that room in Mesa!
Showing up…in the County Jail
Once a week I lead “Stress Management” workshops at the Santa Fe County Correctional Facility. (the county jail) One of the challenging things about working with the system is that I don’t ever really know who will be in the group. This is, in part, because there is such a constant turnover of inmates (the average time spent is, I believe 9.5 days). As well, even when I ask for a particular “pod,” hoping to get some of the same women I worked with the week before, often I am brought a different group. So my job becomes to show up. And then they…whoever “they” are…show up. And then I decide what to do. Of course, I come in with a game plan or two, but often that needs a shift, if not a total change. I show up, they show up, the session proceeds from there.
Good News Circle: Reciprocal Engagement and Gratitude
My sessions have a particular structure within which is plenty of open space to accommodate the necessary fluidity of the situation. We begin with a Council Process circle, asking each other three questions: What is your name? How are you feeling right now? (in one word or sentence…not a long explanation) What is your good news? (again, short…one to three sentences…and not about getting out of jail.) And if no good news can be thought of, the default is “I am alive.” It encourages us to think beyond the immediate situation of being in jail and to realize that as long as we are alive, have eyes to see, friends to listen to us, etc, we do, in fact, have good news. Each participant asks the next in the circle. We each ask, we each answer, we all listen to each other. This becomes practice in reciprocal engagement in each other’s stories and in gratitude.
The Body Poem: a Moving Meditation
We follow this with variations on a beautiful moving meditation I learned from Elizabeth Cogburn many years ago. As we bend and stretch, breathe and return to balance, we have images for each movement …”glyphs” Elizabeth called them…which connect us to the natural world and to our own internal beauty, strengths, and the individual gifts we offer each other and the world . The Body Poem, while encouraging these incarcerated women to move and release held tensions, also deepens connections to the wider world and strengthens self esteem.
And, of course, we work and play with story. Old stories and new ones, and their stories as they wish to share them. I bring in old tales with themes that are familiar to these women, themes such as finding peace in the middle of chaos; dealing with trolls and crocodiles; finding the value in our “imperfections”; friendship and the power of community. We talk about, write about, draw, role-play, change and create new stories. So much richness to work with! And such an open and responsive group to work with!
“Who Wants to Go to Stress Management??????”
The women who answer the guards’ loudly yelled, “Who Wants to Go to Stress Management??????” are curious enough to leave their rooms, bored enough with the routine, and often are actively seeking to change patterns of behavior that landed them in those razor-wire encircled concrete walls. They show up in that cramped classroom. And we ask each other our three questions: What is your name? How are you feeling right now? What is your good news?
And when asked for my good news, I often respond: “My good news is: you came to the group. Thank you for showing up.”
I have been working once a week with women in the Santa Fe, NM, county jail. Today, upon hearing the news of Maya Angelou’s death, I brought some of her writing in. The women did not know who she was. We talked a bit about the title of her book, I know Why the Caged Bird Sings. These women knew about being caged birds.
Do they “sing?” We did not go there. However, after looking at/talking about a few things, we did some free writing about anything we ‘d talked about in our time together. They chose to write about other topics in our discussion. I chose to write about caged birds and their singing.
I do not know Maya Angelou’s answer to her evocative question, but here is what I wrote, madly writing along with 3 incarcerated women in a concrete room in a concrete building surrounded by razor wire and the high desert of New Mexico.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. There is a life force that will push through even the hardest concrete. It sings out, “I am alive.” It sings out, “My spirit is unbroken.” It proclaims, “I am me, I have a song to sing, and I will sing…to the world, to the universe and to and for my own heart’s ease and joy. . I exist. I have a beautiful song. My gift to the world is beautiful. No matter where I am, in what circumstance, surrounded by barbed wire, literal or figurative; faced with those who do not see my beauty, who do not hear my song, I will sing, out loud and beautifully: Here I am and I am alive.”
That is why the caged bird sings.
In creating my new Face Book Page, Regina Ress-Storyteller, I found no category that names what I and my fellow storytelling colleagues do. Performer? Teacher? Writer? Producer? Recording Artist? Environmentalist? Humanitarian? Human Being! It is a wide and deep “hat,” this Storyteller Sombrero.
One of the things that makes being a storyteller so satisfying is the range of people I work with, the different settings I work in, indeed, the variety of talents and skills called upon for each different situation. In the past month I’ve told original love stories at a theatre in NYC, stories about my NY neighborhood in a small club in Greenwich Village, a remarkable 9/11 story of connection and community for a Storytellers of New Mexico house concert, and healing stories for and with some women in the Santa Fe County jail.
I am looking forward to telling some stories in Big Sur, CA next week and the week after that I will be teaching my graduate intensive, Storytelling in the Classroom and Beyond, for New York University’s Program in Educational Theatre. On April 6th I have the pleasure of hosting Charlotte Blake Alston in the professional storytelling series I produce for NYU at the Provincetown Playhouse in NYC. The week after that I will be telling stories at an assisted living facility in Florida. Oh…and my CD of original New York stories will be one of the featured Storytelling World honorees in the April issue of Storytelling Magazine.
Sorry, Face Book, One word doesn’t describe it. Especially since the category “Storyteller” is not listed! And in case you want to check out that page, here is the link: https://www.facebook.com/ReginaRessStoryteller?ref=hl
Looking back at some notes on past workshops I have facilitated, I found this great story about story, culture, history, and pride.
Haitian, And (Now) Proud Of It!
Some years ago, under the auspices of Arts Horizons, I led a series of workshops for parents on storytelling with their children at PS 79 in the Bronx. There were two parents groups: one was a group of West African women (one woman spoke English and translated for us) and the other was a group of Spanish speaking, Latin American women plus one Haitian.
That first day, Rose, the Haitian, sat slouched in her seat, hat pulled over her eyes, quietly defensive. As we talked a bit about our names and where we came from, we translated all the Spanish back in to English for her. Nevertheless it was obvious she was feeling a bit left out. We all spoke about what country we came from, but she was vague, talking only about being from the Bronx.
At the end of the hour, I gently kidded her about being our U.S. representative in the class…and then somehow it came out that she was Haitian. I responded with great excitement about how I knew lots of great Haitian stories, how there are fabulous stories from there….and did she know any?
“Not even a story about Bouki and Malice?” (two very popular characters in Haitian folklore)
She smiled a bit. Then went back in to her defensive, clouded over attitude and said something about how everybody looks down on Haiti and Haitians…and basically what a bad place it is to come from. I responded again with great enthusiasm about what I knew about Haiti, the culture (such as story, visual art, music) and how I’d love to visit some day. I asked if she would bring in a Haitian story for us the next week. She agreed to.
Week two: In walked Rose, hat tipped back on the head instead of over her eyes, standing and then sitting straight with a wonderful smile on her face. After we had done a few group exercises, I asked her if she had brought in a story from her country. With great pride she pulled out 4 pages of closely written notebook paper.
“I told my boyfriend that you asked for a Haitian story. He said, ‘Why not tell them the story of Haiti?’ So I got a book. Can I read this to you?”
She proceeded to read and tell the history of Haiti, how it was the first Independent Black Republic, how the Haitians had beaten the English, etc. She said several times that she never knew this history, she didn’t know her country HAD history! She was brimming with excitement and pride. We translated the gist of it in to Spanish for the others, though they certainly were getting the feeling of it.
She thanked me several times. I thanked her for sharing with all of us the wonderful history of her country. Then I pulled out of my bag a picture book copy of a great Haitian tale, The Banza, as re-told by Diane Wolkstein with illustrations by Marc Brown. I told it to them, sharing the delightful pictures. and I used the story as the basis of several activities for that workshop session. Rose knew the story, it had been a favorite and she hadn’t heard it in years.
Week three: Rose walked in without her hat. It was not that the weather had turned balmy: Rose’a head was high and her being full of excitement and new-found pride. How long this lasted after our workshops were over was out of my control. However, for this workshop-for-parents participant, the workshop series had brought out a beautiful and very proud Haitian soul.
I often speak of storytelling being like jazz… a flexible structure, places to land, room for individual voice and improvisation. Depends, of course, on the story and situation. One of my most wonderful storytelling experiences was in a women’s maximum security prison. One of the inmates and I did a tandem telling of a story in English and Spanish for an audience of inmates. Not only did we toss the story back and forth, we switched languages…I was telling in English, she in Spanish. However, sometimes I would say something in Spanish and she answered me in English. We had “rehearsed” maybe twice, but the performance was very much on the moment. I had no idea what she would say, nor she me…we just knew the story. And…we were very much aware of the delight and response of our inmate audience. It was totally delicious.
I am reading a journal I wrote a year ago about reading a journal I had written in 1986 when I was in Bandelier National Monument in a two week Sundance gathering with Elizabeth Cogburn. What I copied from that old journal into my journal last year was “The Listener controls the Story.”
I was not yet in the storytelling world, but clearly in Story. In myth, in fact. Practicing Myth. Dancing it, Singing it, Speaking to it and of it. In the wilderness of northern New Mexico. No wonder, when I first came to Storytelling, I began with myth. Inanna and women’s stories; Aztec and Mayan stories of creations and destructions; Egyptian stories of the power of words to create (and the politics of replacing the old gods with the new); Siva the creator, the destroyer, the lover. I wonder, looking at that sentence…”The Listener controls the Story.”..what Elizabeth had been talking about (the mythic images we were working with were from Kabala. And others. And others.)
We held council often during those two weeks (minus the three days of the Dance. Then we simply danced and drummed and dozed on and off. busy living the Dream, and not talking about it. Nor the two days of silence following the Dance. Dream time, ceremonial style. Diving deep into High Level Play.
Does the Listener control the Story? We storytellers, those of us practicing the old storytelling….not the five minute I am going the knock the socks off you get ready ’cause I’m a badddassstoryteller storytelling so wildly popular at the moment. Which is all fine. It is obviously wanted, needed, and serving some purpose in the unfolding of the universe. …but the dream time storytelling that takes the listeners and teller alike into a journeyed trance space… we practitioners of the old storytelling speak of the dialogue between Listeners and Teller, we tune in with the listeners and often change style, approach, even story itself in response to those gathered to hear. But the Story, too, must do some controlling of its own. And surely the teller. Surely the teller. Perhaps we need to throw the word “control” out. What does control an organic process? Some would use the word God or some other word we humans have come up with to describe the ineffable. (and isn’t that a great word!)
Perhaps it is Listening itself that controls all. That leaning forward, tilting towards, listing in the direction of . Well…Listening is a good practice. Better than Control.
And how is it that we “listen up” but not down? Ah…that is a meditation for another day. Thanks for listening.
Here is a story about the power of storytelling. This past weekend I taught my Storytelling in the Language Classroom for NYU’s Multilingual/Multicultural Program… graduate students studying to teach languages. Most of the students were from China. Only two of my 21 students were native English speakers. Most of these students were very reticent to stand in front of the class and speak.
To introduce one of our activities, I told the Chinese folk tale The Story of the Taoist Farmer, one with which most of them were familiar. We then played a game of “Round Robin” storytelling where each sentence of the improvised story alternately began with the word Fortunately or Unfortunately. They had great fun with that, sitting in their seats and creating a story. I then had them work in pairs to create a “reversal” story they could tell us in tandem. There was lots of talk and lots of laughter as the students, in the comfort zone of their chairs, created stories together. I then asked if any of them would like to get up and tell the class the story. Silence.
But then one of the students from China jumped up….and in her own words re-told a story she had heard Peninnah Schram tell last May in the storytelling series I produce for NYU. She remembered the basics of the plot and many of the details, if not exact, close enough. She was very excited to tell it…including her own rendition of the song Peninnah and Gerard Edery sang in the story. Indeed, she had the whole class singing along with her improvised melody! And she made the connection that the Jewish folktale she had heard months before, “The Nigun from Habonim,” fit the pattern of a good thing happening/a not so good thing happening that we had been working with.
This very quiet young woman from China told her new version of this old story with wonderful vocal expression, body movement and gesture. She rocked the class!
Happy New Year! Happy Samhain! Happy Halloween! I’m back in NYC and this afternoon I’ll be in the middle of Staten Island at the Todt Hill Library telling Halloween stories. Now, Todt is Dutch for DEAD. And we will be very near the old Dutch cemetery. A perfect place to end the run of 8 Halloween Stories library sessions. My big challenge, then, will be to get back to my little Greenwich Village apartment which is on the Halloween Parade route. Hundreds of thousands of people come to watch the parade, most in costume, jamming the narrow streets and sidewalks with ghouls and other madly fabulous apparitions. One year I found myself on the other side of the Avenue and the only way to get home was to join a samba band and dance home. Why not! I do love Halloween, as it brings back memories of dancing all night in the Crypt of St. John the Divine, circling with other mad and savvy celebrants of the earth, the sun, the turning of the seasons. And it means that the Winter Solstice is rounding the bend into view. We plunge into darkness and soon emerge into the light. Turn Turn Turn.
(NOTE: 2014 .. I am back on my regular blog…This will tell you where I was hanging out in 2013. I’ll post occasional Notes from the Oasis…but for current musings, stick to my Blog!)
I’m spending a lot of time in Santa Fe, New Mexico these days, helping to launch an art/event/community center. My titles vary…Barista, Event Co-Ordinator, Storyteller-in-Residence. And, of course, I wander through the terrain of PR person. General Schmoozer. Etc. The three women owners of the space are visionaries. They have gathered a group of visionaries. IE, the community is fabulous And the place, gorgeous. SO….my regular blogging has shifted over to another blog on this website. You can get there by clicking on Notes from the Oasis under Blog at the top of this website. If and when I start writing about travel, storytelling, etc….I’ll be back here. If you want to read about my adventures in Ecuador….and thoughts about turning personal stories into fiction, keep reading here. But most of my current blogging is about/from the Oasis in the Hillside Market.
I’m still teaching and performing and producing shows in NYC for NYU, etc. I wrote a Tango Love Story for my 10th annual love stories concert at the Provincetown Playhouse (NYC) in February. Entitled “Dance Me,” the story follows a “hesitant novice” who finds herself a “strict and beautiful practice”…Argentine Tango. She soon falls in love with both Tango and her Teacher. The story ends up with the tango dancers circling to the music of Leonard Cohen at sunset out on the end of the Christopher Street Pier in Greenwich Village. I told the story to a tango dancing, storyteller friend of mine from Buenos Aires. She gave it a rave review. So….if you are looking for me, I’m in and out of NYC, but most definitely hanging out … and blogging from…the Oasis Cafe in the Hillside Market, Santa Fe. Come and find me. R