I teach two sections of storytelling every semester at Ithaca College. Often students come to class thinking it will be a survey or historically based class on the function of stories in different cultural, religious and racial communities. Many have also confided that they hope it’s an easy “A” class because “y’know, it’s stories.” Taking center stage in the classroom I project authority and confidence as I give them the prospectus of our time together.
“Rather than a text heavy class with a great deal of lecturing I teach Storytelling as a Modern Communicative Art in the workshop format. The focus of our time together will include watching storytellers from other cultures and writing short reflective responses on the power and influence of these artists.”
I know they are all thinking, “Whoo hoo, Youtube and short written responses.”
I continue. “We will also be reading a great deal of stories in order to understand and recreate story structure and meaning.”
They’re still with me! No glassy eyes yet. Then I drop the bombshell.
“And oh by the way, each of you will tell three stories of varying lengths and genres throughout the class, engage in peer support and feedback and we will be doing a public performance downtown at the end of the semester.”
I watch the blood drain from their faces and their pupils dilate. One of them mumbles, “I would rather throw myself under a bus.” Which reminds me of this quote: “College is fun as long as you don’t die.” Tsugumi Ohba, Death Note, Vol. 4: Love
And then we get down to business. I tell them a personal story about growing up on the St. Lawrence River in northern New York. They find out how I got the scar under my chin at six years old. They know I was the only one to get stitches for my scar instead of my father’s usual duct tape remedy. They learn my mother is a warm but distant maternal presence for me. They find out that my father took us on crazy Sunday drives to the town dump so my mother could get a little time to herself. I am telling them my story, my experiences, my beliefs and my imaginings. What I am actually doing however is introducing them to the power of stories to connect us to one another, to communicate our rich cultural and personal identity, and to draw us into an enriching shared experience that will mark our time together. “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.” Native American Saying
After the story I ask two important questions that will guide us throughout the semester “what did you notice?” and “what do you wonder?” Socrates knew that “Wisdom begins in wonder” and I am asking them now to engage fully in their wonderings about life, truth, relationships, morality and something greater than themselves. I am also using these simple questions to assess what they need to know as well as what they are capable of doing and when. The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines wonder as “to have interest in knowing or learning something: to think about something with curiosity.” In order to tell a story well we have to reawaken our curiosity in both our tangible and imaginal worlds. Finding a way to engage with and express the imagination as if it is tangible is what storytellers do. Oddly enough, our first task is to learn to listen.
“Close your eyes and listen to the sounds around you for thirty seconds,” I give them my first set of instructions. The room quiets and in half a minute students calm and become aware of their surroundings. We listen to the sounds around us and then the sounds and memories within us. We also listen for the sensory details that accompany and enliven our memories. We listen to one another speak and finally, we listen to the texts of other people, races, cultures and times that seek to express the human experience. As we listen we seek the language that will create a picture in the listener’s mind. Stories, like music and dance exist only in the moment of their expression. Stories live in the mind of the teller who utilizes image driven language, gesture, physical and facial expressions to incite the story in the listener mind. What I have to teach is really quite simple. There are only a few ingredients to the story stew. What each individual student makes from those ingredients is up to their intrinsic motivation. The desire to excel is not something I can teach them nor is it something I should teach them. John Gardner, the American educator said, “The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursuing his education.”
Slowly throughout the semester we turn into a class of people who learn to trust our individual and collective memories, creativity, expressions, impressions and judgment. Here is what one student had to say in her final reflection paper about her storytelling experience:
I was extremely nervous-to the point where I had pseudo-panic attacks…but by the final performance I was not nervous or shaking. I learned the true value of storytelling. It’s about expressing yourself and your emotions to engage … and trust…
Storytelling, teaching and learning are all about engaging in something larger than oneself, exploring something other than oneself and expressing something of oneself.