Wednesday, December 30, 2009

National Storytelling Network

I'm not a great group member, but there's one of which I've been a member since 1991: the National Storytelling Network. No, that's not exactly accurate. I began as a member of the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, known as NAPPS. Then there was a divorce. That is, the organization split in two, with joint custody of the National Storytelling Festival. Now we have the International Storytelling Center and the National Storytelling Network, two worthy organizations.

I'm not just a member of NSN, I'm the Kansas Liaison to NSN. In maintaining a mailing list for Kansas storytellers (others are welcome), I pass along news from NSN and other storytelling organizations, I publicize other storytellers' events and I encourage folks to join NSN.

So why join NSN? Here are my reasons:
  • This is the best organization in the country that represents storytelling. It's member-driven, not a top-heavy organization (there's a small staff, but tons of the work is done voluntarily by members).
  • NSN publishes Storytelling Magazine quarterly. The magazine always has a guest editor who pulls together articles on a specific theme. I was guest editor a few years ago and can attest to the cat-herding aspect of getting storytellers to write about our artform. Somehow it works. The magazine is a rich source of inspiration and information on storytelling. I've saved every issue I've ever received.
  • The NSN Conference is a gathering of the tribe, a place where storytellers gather to learn from each other, hang out together, listen and talk about what we love. This conference (different from the National Storytelling Festival, which is performance driven and held in Jonesborough TN every October) travels around the country. Next summer it will be in Los Angeles. Members get a good discount on conference registration.
  • NSN has an excellent grants program. Lots of great projects have been funded through NSN grants. The Sponsored Member Program allows storytellers to use NSN as an umbrella nonprofit.
  • There are lots of special interest groups of NSN, including Healing Story Alliance, Environmental Stories, Storytelling in Higher Education and more.
  • NSN members can use the Greenwood World Folklore and Folklife Database for free. It's a huge resource!
  • The NSN Directory is one more way I can get my name out into the world as a storyteller.
  • NSN is the parent organization for Tellabration, the night of storytelling in November held all over the world. As a brand-new storyteller, I attended the very first Tellabration back in 1988 in Chester, CT and participated in the second and many subsequent events. This event reminds people that storytelling is NOT a dying art.
There are plenty more reasons for joining. Maybe some of you have others to add?

By the way, this is a great time to give a year-end donation to NSN. The organization can definitely use your help!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Auntie Alice

Christmas is a season for telling family stories. Tomorrow I'll travel to another state to visit my sweetie's family, and I know for certain I'll hear his family stories.

On Saturday I found myself telling him about my great-aunt, Alice Margaret Schuyler Lighthall. I've been thinking of telling some of her story for years, but I'm not sure which part or where to begin.

Every year at Christmas, she and my grandmother (her sister) would arrive at our house, Auntie Alice from Westmount, an English-speaking city now within Montreal, and Gran from Springfield, MA. This picture would have been one of their last visits with us. Auntie Alice is reading, Granny is contemplating the prospect of a cup of tea, I'd guess.
Where do I begin? Auntie Alice was born in 1891 and lived to two months shy of 100. She told me once she didn't want to live to be 100, and so she didn't. She was mentally sharp until the end. I visited her a month before she died, so I can attest to this.

Here are some of the pieces of her life:

Auntie Alice wanted to go to McGill to study law, but her father didn't want any "bluestockings" in the family.

In 1916, she joined the St. John's Voluntary Aid Detachment, which took her briefly to England and then on to General Hospital No. 5 in Rouen, France, where she was a nurse through to the end of WWI. I have a copy of her journal from those two years. It doesn't reveal much of her feelings, as she was an intensely private person and my mother says she was afraid her parents would be too inquisitive. The journal includes photocopies of watercolors she painted while there (though she didn't actually have much time to paint). Here are a couple:
(Chateau near Petit Couronne, Rouen and No. 5 British General Hospital, Rouen. Wards 19 and 20 and air raid trenches.)

She was instrumental in the Canadian Guild of Crafts, started by her mother. According to the Guild website, this organization "was founded in 1906 in an effort to conserve, encourage and promote Inuit art, Amerindien art and fine crafts of Canada." I was present in about 1983 when she was honored by the Guild of Crafts for her lifetime of dedication.

Because of her work with the Guild of Crafts and other organizations, she was appointed to the Order of Canada.

Auntie Alice was a published poet and was the president of the Poetry Group of Montreal in the 1960s, according to an article in the Westmount Examiner in 2008.

She wrote a Christmas pageant set in France, which had Druids as well as Christians in it.

She was fascinated by archaeology and civilization. She was one of the founders of the Westmount Historical Association, and it was due to Auntie Alice that the Hurtubise House was saved from demolition in 1955. This house was built in 1739 and is now owned by the Canadian Heritage of Quebec.

She listened, really listened, to children.

Auntie Alice spent much of her time reading. At her old house in Westmount, she had stacks of books by her easy chair, sporting flags of bookmarks throughout. In her later years, she'd sometimes fall asleep at our house while reading a massive tome, woken only by the clunk of the book on the floor.

She was funny and smart, as well as tremendously dignified. She favored swoopy dresses with multiple folds and patterned scarves. I believe she made the dresses. When she arrived at Christmas, she was festooned with small tote bags.

She lived with her parents until they died. Auntie Alice never married. Because she was the last of her generation in Montreal, her cellar was full of the belongings of relatives who had died. It was an amazing treasure trove! There were fourteen trunks down there at one point. Once I was rummaging around down there (with her permission), and opened a small box to find a set of false teeth. I guess you don't just throw those away.

If you had breakfast at her house, you had to be prepared to have a boiled egg that was closer to raw than cooked. She must have just waved it over the boiling water and called it done. Because we were expected to be polite, we ate everything we were served, no matter what. I put lots of salt and pepper on my raw egg.

We loved her dearly.

P.S. I know my family, especially my mother, will have plenty of comments to add! Suggestions on where to begin?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tips for Hosting a Family Story Night at Your School

Every now and then I like to write a how-to article for teachers, librarians and PTA/PTO members. Here's one!

Looking for a family event to build listening and literacy skills, encourage parent involvement, build the school community, and make the school library a more welcoming space for students and parents? Why not try a Family Story Night? Invite the students, their families, staff and a storyteller for an evening event in the library or the gym.

Family Story Nights can be great fun. Be prepared for some chaos, though. Kids are excited to be in school when it’s not regular school time. It’s natural for them to want to show their friends off to their parents and their parents off to their friends. The schoolday restrictions are easily forgotten. I clearly remember running full tilt down the hall at an evening event in fifth grade, something that was absolutely forbidden during school time. Students may need a little extra guidance about how to behave.

Who’s in charge? Be very clear from the start about who is in charge of the children. Parents often assume teachers are, while teachers assume parents are. It’s not the job of the storyteller, in any case.
  • During the main event, request that families sit together.
  • If parents start chatting among themselves, remind them gently that they need to be good examples to their children. Do not expect the storyteller to do this.
  • If younger children create a disturbance, suggest the parents take them out of the performance for a short while.
Here are some ideas for Family Story Night. No need to do all of these; pick a few that will work for your school:
  • Hire a professional storyteller with experience at this kind of event. Be sure you discuss the details, including payment, venue, contact info, sound system, estimated size of the audience and length of time the storyteller will perform. Usually 30-45 minutes is appropriate, depending on the attention span of the audience. Remember that there will be a range of ages, from preschoolers up through grandparents at the event.
  • Invite the kids to come in pajamas and to bring blankets or sleeping bags. (Not all storytellers enjoy this, so be sure you’ve discussed it in advance.) Teachers and librarians may join in. Kids think it’s funny to see their teachers in bathrobes.
  • Suggest that the students bring a favorite book, and for about 15 minutes before the storytelling, invite the family groups to read together—kids reading to parents, parents reading to kids, kids reading to younger siblings. Have extra picture books available.
  • Give tours of the school library before or after the storytelling.
  • Allow students attending to borrow extra books from the school library. Be sure you have enough staff or parent volunteers available to check the books out at the time.
  • Ask the students to decorate the school in advance with hand-drawn posters of books they love.
  • Take pictures of teachers with their favorite books to decorate the gym or library.
  • Invite the public librarian to come and say hello.
  • Provide snacks for the very end of the program, as the kids are going out the door. Please, don’t serve snacks before or during the stories!
  • Solicit local businesses for funds to provide a book for every family.
  • Give out bookmarks.
  • Invite the local TV and newspaper reporters to cover the Family Story Night.
  • Make sure the event is over by 8 p.m. so children will be rested for school the next day!
For another take on Family Story Nights, check out storyteller Sue Black’s blog post, Pajama Night Delight.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

New video on Youtube

I've been working on another blog post, but it's taking time to gather my thoughts. As a stopgap, here's the latest video I put up on my Youtube channel:

This is from my DVD The Bully Billy Goat. I use the song in many of my programs as a way to give kids a wiggle break, and also as a way for us all to release emotions. I had a really cool kid at San Roberto school in Monterrey make fake tears on his face with his water bottle for the sad verse (I didn't get a chance to tell his mother how happy I was to have Joe in the front row--he was the best listener in that audience).

I don't bill myself as a singer--my hope is that I can encourage other storytellers, teachers and librarians to sing with kids, no matter the quality of their singing voices.

In light of the H1N1 flu, it's not such a good idea to encourage kids to put their fingers in their mouths. They'll do it anyway, but since I was in Mexico (and had one class not be able to attend a performance because they were in quarantine) I've changed the way I do this song, just making my voice sound like I'm underwater without using my finger. Not as funny, and not as good a photo opportunity, but there it is.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Altars, ofrendas

I've got a few more pictures to put up from the Mexico tour. I'm at the post-tour stage where I'm wondering if it was just a lovely dream. The pictures remind me that I was truly there. I keep finding small themes in my pictures. Here's one.

Here's an ornate baroque altar from a church in Queretaro. In the middle is the Virgen de Guadeloupe, who is deeply important in Mexico. I recommend zooming in to look at this picture.

This little altar was deep inside Las Grutas de Garcia.

In contrast, the Day of the Dead ofrendas are temporary. This was part of the ofrenda in Xochimilco. Don't these skeletons look dapper?

And speaking of dapper, these paper skeletons were decorated by kindergarteners and preschoolers at the Liceo de Monterrey. I took this and the next picture in part to explain to North Americans that as I wrote earlier, Day of the Dead is a giant celebration for the whole family, not scary at all for small children. One of the teachers at Tomas Moro was telling me how her small children love setting up their altar, choosing who it will be dedicated to (her brother-in-law who died a few years ago), deciding which of his hobbies to display.

This altar is on the wall at the Liceo de Monterrey, perpendicular to the decorated skeletons above. It includes pictures of family and friends who have died.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mexico building entrances and facades

Here are a few of the pictures of building entrances and facades from the Mexico tour.
This horsehead was up at the roofline on a building near our hotel in Mexico City. Quite a contrast with the noisy electronics stores at street level.

Colonial style in the town of Garcia, Nuevo Leon (near Monterrey).

This was in the Barrio Antigua of Monterrey. I'm not sure, but I think that tire is for sale.

Another entrance in the Barrio Antigua. One side is stacked with books, the other with big chunks of tree trunks. Where did that wood come from? There were no big trees in the area. And what was going to happen to it?

This is a close-up of the door handle on the building above.

I saw many of these hand door knockers, but I only had my camera with me for this one. Some of the most ornate were in Colonial Queretaro. This one is in Garcia.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Back to Mexico City

On Tuesday night, we flew from Monterrey back to Mexico City, arriving at the hotel at about 11:15 p.m. The next morning we met Pedro, our cab driver, at 6:15 a.m. I am a morning person, but manoman, that was hard. We arrived near the school early enough to go to Vips, which though owned by Wal-Mart, was one of my favorite breakfast spots--bottomless cups of coffee, papaya with yoghurt and granola, fresh-squeezed orange-nopal juice. Yum.

On Wednesday and Friday, I was at Tomas Moro School in Mexico City, at two branches. I've already had some great e-mails from the kids at this school--hello, everybody!

I really enjoyed this school. The teachers and students were friendly and welcoming. The setting at the Maguey branch reminded me of cabins in the mountains. The buildings fit beautifully into the natural environment--the line between indoors and outdoors seemed almost porous, as I've mentioned before, so very unlike the hermetically sealed US schools.
Notice the open doors of these classrooms:
At the branch in Maguey, I told stories to preschool up to high school students. The level of English was high, as was the level of enjoyment. Alberto was able to get some good pictures of the listeners on that Wednesday:

I didn't bring all the puppets out for all the classes. Mavis made an appearance for a few, though. Notice that I'm wearing my fleece vest and a scarf, and many of the kids are bundled up. It was lovely to be almost outdoors, but chilly! I'm not sure many buildings in Mexico City are heated.
On Friday, my last show was at the other branch of Tomas Moro. We arrived there without getting caught in traffic. In a city of 26 million, that's truly a miracle.

I told stories at that branch to the high school kids in the gym. Not a large group, and I wasn't sure they were with me in the beginning, but by the end of the show, the students were on my side. They had excellent questions, such as "what's the difference between acting and storytelling?" and "If I wanted to be a storyteller, how would I begin?" I might have to write some blog posts answering those as best I can!

Family Literacy Nights in Mexico

I often perform at Family Literacy Nights in the US--I've got one coming up this Thursday in Wamego, KS. I had three in Mexico last week, at two branches of the same school in Monterrey.

The first show was difficult, in large part because of the setting. It was in a big echoing room, with many small children who didn't understand enough English to care what I was doing up by the microphone. I realized too late that I should have asked the parents to sit with the children. I think the librarians were as dismayed as I was.

The next one was that very night, at the same school. Fortunately, we moved to a smaller, cozier room and there were only a couple of tiny children who sat easily with their parents. It was a completely different experience!

As the families came in, I played with the kids, getting them to sing "Twinkle, twinkle," "The ABC song," and "Baa baa, black sheep," all at once. When I began the show, I discovered that the students were great fans of Robert Munsch. They knew some of my favorite Munsch stories, such as Moira's Birthday and Stephanie's Ponytail. I told one they knew and one they didn't, then went on to my own stories. We had a fabulous time! I even got a fan letter from one of the parents the next day (hello, Adriana!).

At the end, as often happens at Family Nights, kids came up to say goodbye to Trixie:

The next night I was at the other branch of the school. They've had more Family Nights, so the families knew what to expect. Here are a few pictures from that session:
The parents were wonderful listeners as well.

At the end, kids came up to ask for my autograph. We were in a hurry to get to the airport to fly back to Mexico City, but there was still time to sign a few. Trixie didn't sign, though--she's left-handed while I'm right-handed, so it would have taken more time.
Here's the real payoff for a Family Literacy Night: kids checking books out of the library after the stories. At this branch, the children are told they can borrow extra books if they come to the event. As a former librarian, this makes me very happy.

Las Grutas de Garcia

Sunday before last was a day off. Whew! After breakfast, Alberto and I hopped in a cab to the Monterrey bus station, then took a bus to the town of Garcia, then a cab to the foot of the funicular, then the funicular itself up to Las Grutas de Garcia. I think the exact translation of "gruta" is "grotto," but this was much more than that, an enormous set of caverns inside the mountain. The caverns were discovered in 1843 and are over 60 million years old. They now have tour guides, stairs, lights, and paths that cover more than a mile inside, but it's not a cakewalk--I found myself out of breath a few times.

In looking at my pictures, I realize I didn't get any that show the scale. Mostly I was fascinated by the stalactites and stalagmites.

The shapes are incredible!
This one was called "The Hand of Death." It rose more than twice my height. [After I posted this, my sister commented to me that it looks like our hands. True! It also reminded me of the way my father and uncle would jokingly imitate a pair of very old men shaking hands--even when they themselves were getting up in years.]
Though this is labeled "El Gorila," the tour guide pointed out the striking resemblance to Homer Simpson.
Here I am in my Monterrey tee shirt just inside the caverns.
And here's Alberto, my intrepid tour manager and friend.
This is the view from the outside. In the lower right, you'll see the ticket counter for the funicular. It was also possible to walk up. It takes about an hour.

From the caverns, we went into the small town of Garcia for a delicious lunch on the town square. This is the church in that square.

Then back to Monterrey by bus. Happy-trip!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Monterrey writing workshops

Through the years, I've offered a workshop for kids called Storytelling, Storywriting. We start with the difference between written and told stories, discuss structure and backstory, and play with a story or two. Then we write, using a modified version of Natalie Goldberg's rules for writing practice, from her book Wild Mind. Sometimes we have time for a last writing game, sometimes we just write (and read aloud) more.

On Saturday, I presented this two-hour workshop twice for 105 fifth-grade students, age 11 or so, at the Young Authors' Workshop at Colegio Ingles in Monterrey. The students are chosen by their teachers to attend this special three-day workshop. They come from different cities, from schools where they are taught in English for part of the day. The students arrive with their teachers and then go home to host families here in Monterrey. For many, it's the first time they've been away from home.

I was apprehensive about doing this with non-native English speakers, until I remembered that I did it in Belgium a few years ago, in classes where only some of the kids were native speakers. It worked, both there and here.

Here's what some of it looked like: Notice the teacher writing with the kids. These teachers were enthusiastic and helpful throughout. Some modeled good writing behavior, some did general crowd control. Many told me they would take the exercises back to use in their classrooms.

The only tough part was getting the kids to listen. While they were writing, they were absolutely silent, but when they were done, they were so excited about writing and reading aloud that it was deafening!

After the second workshop, I went to use the bathroom. I heard a voice from another stall intoning, " the ghost...with the" Love that!

I've had an e-mail from one of the other students, telling me how much he enjoyed the workshop. Hey, Pablo! Keep writing!

Mexico Tour, scrambling to catch up

I had good intentions to write more often! Last week I was in Mexico City and Monterrey doing fifteen shows and two tw0-hour workshops, so I have an excuse.

On Tuesday, I went to the Comunidad Educativo Tomas Moro for three performances with older kids. It was especially appropriate to tell Mary Culhane and the dead man just after El Dia de Los Muertos, though the dead man in the Irish story is creepier than how death is portrayed in Mexico for the holiday. I told some of my other favorites for the groups of slightly older kids.

A small digression about my favorites. In the Q & A sessions, kids often ask which is my favorite story. I explain that in storytelling I know of only one hard and fast rule: only tell stories you love. Therefore, my favorite is the one I'm telling at the moment. I love them all. The favorite story of my listeners over the years has proved to be The ghost with the one black eye, though.

I went directly from the school to the airport, where I met Alberto. We flew to Monterrey, in the northeast. Though it's quite an industrial city, Monterrey has its own charm. Our hotel is in the Zona Rosa, a pedestrian area near the old city. It's ringed by the Sierra Madre mountains, some of which are impossibly steep. Here is a view of the mountains and the cathedral from the hotel (you can't see the high rise buildings on either side, but they're there):
That mountain in the background is called "the saddle."

And here's a view from Liceo de Monterrey, the girls' school where I spent three days:
I had a great time at the Liceo. I told stories to everybody from the five-year olds to the college prep students (not the preschoolers, though). On the first two days we were in the Forum, a space with a stage and also where the children do gymnastics. It's open to the outside, with curtains to make it quieter and warmer on cool days. Many schools in Mexico feel more open than those in the US, which seem hermetically sealed from the out of doors. Here are a few pictures from the Liceo:

I show the students a map so they can see where I'm from and they can get used to my voice: Here are some of the younger ones joining in on a standing-up song:

And the ever useful Shaking Hands:
I wish I had pictures of the older students--I think they weren't sure they were going to enjoy the stories, but they did. They even liked the puppets. Beautiful faces on these attentive listeners, aren't they?

Next post will be about the writing workshops I did on Saturday.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Monday at Xochimilco

Part of a Day of the Dead ofrenda in Xochimilco

Last Monday, we took a little trip to Xochimilco, a borough in Mexico City known for its canals. The clerk at our hotel suggested that we should go on Sunday because it would be more crowded. We didn't understand why that would be better, so we went on Monday, el Dia de Los Muertos.

We took a metro and light rail to get there, then walked for about fifteen minutes to the canals. We (Alberto and I) were surprised at how helpful people were at the light rail station and along the way. "Embarcaderos? Go straight, then turn," they said, without even being asked. Hmm.

When we got there, we discovered that it would be expensive to rent a boat (and boatman) to go on the canals. Alberto did some bargaining but it was still expensive at 400 pesos for a couple of hours (13 pesos to the dollar, so around $30 for the two of us). It would be cheaper to go with another group, but when we tried to join some people who were willing to have us along, the boatmen told us we weren't allowed to. We felt that we were being railroaded into an expensive situation, so we turned and walked away. This was probably why it would have been better to be there on a more crowded day.

Wait, wait! It turns out that there are several docks with boats to take tourists on the canals, so competition is strong. The boatmen thought we were going to another dock--we didn't even know they existed. One came after us and coaxed us back with a price of 300 pesos for the two of us. We accepted.

It was a lovely ride. I can't imagine how it was the day before when it was crowded. As it was, the traffic was at times heavy enough that we bashed into some other boats. Here are some of my better pictures of the day.

It was Day of the Dead, so here's an ofrenda on the canal:
We took the shorter trip. We could have taken a four or five hour ride, which would have taken us near the Island of the Dolls, where there are dolls hanging in the trees for good luck and for the spirit of a young girl who drowned there. Instead, we saw dolls in the trees on our trip that represent that island:

Here's Alberto:
And here's a view of some of the other trajneras (gondolas):
If we'd wanted to pay more, we could have had mariachi music or marimbas, or we could buy snacks, beer, souvenirs and plants from floating shops along the way. As it was, we just enjoyed the boat ride.