Tell me a story

June 12, 2005|by JULIE E. GREENE

When the little old man returned from a journey to find himself and his wife a cat and instead brought home trillions of cats, his wife was shocked.

The Salem Avenue Elementary School fourth-graders could tell because of the alarm in library media specialist Alice Harr's voice and the way her hand shot to her mouth to cover the surprise.

Her expressiveness is what makes Harr an excellent storyteller, teachers and students said.

Storytelling - whether it's original or folk tale-based performance art or animatedly reading a book - entertains, educates, encourages reading and passes along the tradition of oral storytelling, local storytellers, librarians and art experts said.


Harr has read to Salem Avenue Elementary schoolchildren for 27 years. She sits in a chair, with the open book held in her left hand for the children to see the illustration and often uses body language to express character's movements or emotions.

"You have to. When you're dealing with elementary school kids who are working out the mechanics of reading, they need to see the enjoyment and the end product," Harr said. "They need to see the fun in reading, not just sounding out the words and thinking about the meanings. They need to hear the rhythm, hear the emotion and expression. It all helps them to understand how much fun it is to read."

Performing artist Niki Perini, of Hagerstown, tells stories a variety of ways.

"I think that it's great to be eclectic and first of all to know your audience. You have a relationship with your storytelling audience and so you want to take them through the different experiences," Perini said.

Telling a story from the heart, without a book, carries on the tradition of communion, Perini said - of people gathered around a fire telling stories orally so everyone has to listen carefully.

Different from oral storytelling is presenting a story from a book, one known well enough that the storyteller's eyes don't have to see every word and can make eye contact with the audience.

Third is being "in the story" or performing the story, even interacting with the children or audience so they, too, get involved, Perini said.

This way the same story, told to six different groups, could result in six different versions based on how the audience and storyteller interact, Perini said.

Storytelling series

The Washington County Arts Council has organized three storytelling series this spring and summer.

"It's really good to provide children with opportunities to experience a live performance," said Kevin F. Moriarty, the arts council's executive director.

The storytelling series also allows the council to fulfill another part of its mission, providing work for Maryland artists, Moriarty said.

"The stories need to be engaging, they should have an educational component, the performance should be capable of setting the children's imaginations free in a constructive way. Basically, the children should walk away having had some cultural enrichment, something educational, something fun," Moriarty said.

Amy Mason took her daughter, Rebecca, now 6, to just about every one of the arts council's storytelling events last year.

"What was important for my daughter was she sat captivated. They got her attention and they held it," said Mason, of Hagerstown.

Mason was impressed with the cultural diversity in the program. This year's storytellers include Linda Fang, who shares Asian stories, and Candace Wolf, who tells tales from around the world, Moriarty said.

Telling a story

Some people define storytelling narrowly - as stories performed and not read.

"It's definitely an art form," said Donna Parks, head of the children's department at Washington County Free Library.

"It's passing down the oral tradition. A lot of that is lost because of television. You have to hang onto it any way you can," she said. "You lose a lot of your literature and your background if you don't keep tying into your oral literature."

Parks said she tries to change her voice to sound like the character, who could be a child or an old woman. There are storytellers who don't do that at all and others who really get into it, she said.

Professional storyteller Crystal Brown writes about 90 percent of her material. Because she is paid, she cannot use some-one else's published material.

She brings huge bags of costumes for the children to wear so they can act out the story as she tells it.

"I never sit down. I'm very animated and gesturing and changing my voice a lot because I'm sort of modeling what the children can do," she said. "They're hearing a story and they're not looking at a picture and they're not looking at words so they're making up their own picture in their minds. So it becomes a creative act for them."

Brown believes such storytelling stimulates children's emotions and inner self in a way that makes them want to read.

When they hear stories, they get excited or sad. They're touched in some way, she said.

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