Category Archives: Storytelling

We have been blessed with an introduction into the world of oral storytelling. Here are some ideas about sharing those tales around the campfire.

Ten Apples up on Top: My Homeschool Journey

Okay. I can do this. I was a teacher, after all. I can homeschool my son. I just need a timer, a whiteboard, perhaps a bulletin board. Oh and a desk. And a planner, definitely can’t function without a planner. Third grade. All right, let’s go. 

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One mom, one teacher, one kid. One apple. No problem.

Ah, first homeschooling year. How I weep when I think back on you. My schooly approach was so me. Schedules, timers, and worksheets, oh my. I thought I could knock out school in a couple of hours and have more time to play with my kid. Real World Alert: Ten math problems can take ten hours to complete when a kid isn’t interested in doing them. Tears and tedium. That was the theme of year one.

If one apple isn't working well, why not try two?
If one apple isn’t working well, why not try two?

The next year, I found my true calling in life: Researcher and Implementer of Curriculum. I read books, spent money on curriculum, tried more books, more curriculum, repeat, repeat, repeat. If I happened upon a forum post that included something I wasn’t already doing, I felt a burning need to try it. Now, keep in mind, when I say try something new, I don’t mean substitute the old with the new. I mean add on the new on top of the old. I think my stack of curriculum choices was taller than my fourth grader.

Are your apples cooler than my apples?
Are your apples cooler than my apples?

Oh, hi, Mrs. Jones. Fellow homeschooler. The one with all the cool bookshelves and art station and observatory and backyard wetlands and gymnasium. In your house. My little homeschool world looked less shiny compared to those homeschoolers who seemed to have it all together, all the time. I knew I could never win. I was working so hard to provide an education for my kids (younger sister had entered the mix by this time), and then I would meet someone doing what I was doing, but for seven children. In her spare time after her full-time job. Seriously.

So many of the early years of homeschooling were filled with my struggle to overcome anxiety and a sense of inadequacy. I hadn’t been trained to homeschool, as it turns out. Being a teacher helped not at all. I felt stressed and tired all the time, and I had just two kids and no job.

I had learned some tricks, though. Tears flowed a lot less often. I discovered ways that my kids liked to learn and really didn’t like to learn. Gone were the timers, the long math sessions, and many curriculum choices.

I was finally getting into a groove. I aspired to be more like the mothers who approached homeschooling with a relaxed, flexible attitude. I started to view other homeschoolers not as rivals, but rather as wonderful mentors.

Balancing apples while skipping rope is a lot like teaching math while folding laundry.
Balancing apples while skipping rope is a lot like teaching math while folding laundry.

Then, since the kids seemed a bit lonely, I decided to join a co-op. Cue Mrs. Jones’ friends…

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Sure. I’m teaching my fifth grader calculus, and my first grader decided to learn to write using a quill and ink. She only writes in cursive, of course.

Actually, co-op was wonderful for our family in many ways. I got access to a wide variety of homeschool styles and finally had the chance to mentor others, for a change. I noticed how many first-year homeschool moms were terrified and convinced they couldn’t do it. Since I had begun my homeschool journey from a “let’s do all the things all the time” perspective, I usually wasn’t the best person to talk to a new homeschooler on the edge of losing it. But I could point them in the direction of some excellent laid-back moms!

We're living a crazy life: with the kids 24/7, chauffeuring across the state for music/art/drama, and learning to love a house that never gets clean. But we're in it together, so it's okay!
We’re living a crazy life: with the kids 24/7, chauffeuring across the state for music/art/drama, and learning to love a house that never gets clean. But we’re in it together, so it’s okay!

Our homeschool community is a busy place. We come in all sizes: unschoolers, classical educators, “let’s not do math this year” types, and everything in between. In my area, though, one thing we homeschoolers have in common is a life of busyness. We’re similar to our schooling friends in that way: lacrosse, drama, music, art, Krav Maga, and field trips fill our days. We never knew a car could keep driving with 200,000 miles on it, but we’re determined not to miss anything. We’re chasing that misguided idea that the perfect opportunity for our kids is the one we haven’t done yet:

In the cart! Everyone! Quick! All the life-fulfilling activities are just ahead!
In the cart! Everyone! Quick! All the life-fulfilling activities are just ahead!

Eventually, we each end up here:

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Life causes us to stop and regroup. Perhaps it’s the winter storm that keeps us housebound for a week, or the surgery that means no one gets driven to band practice, or maybe it’s the end of a marriage that brings activity to a halt. It’s hard to be grateful for these moments of boredom, pain, and anguish, but I can find some gratitude in the enforced pauses. After a Kablam! happens in my life, I’m not quick to pile the apples back on top of my head quite so quickly as before. I’ve finally found a way to let some opportunities pass me by, to evaluate carefully whether or not it’s worth taking that class, traveling to that tournament, or participating in that concert.

And although my life is still one of busyness, I take comfort in my homeschool community.

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We’re all balancing a tall apple pile. Mother, teacher, wife, friend, coach, nurse – we homeschool moms do so much. It’s nice to know I have my posse of homeschool moms to support me in this wacky life choice.

Here’s to all the apple balancers everywhere. What fun! We will not let them fall. [Although when they do, we’ll be there to help you pick them up and make a nice pie with them.]

“No, Mom! I do it!”

That quote was one of my son’s favorite phrases when he was a toddler. He usually wanted me to stop helping him get dressed, climb a ladder, or get a game out. He sometimes wanted me to stop singing along to a song on the radio; in that case, the phrase would change to “No, Mom! She do it!” He never appreciated my dulcet tones, I guess. 😉

I have noticed over the years that I do have a tendency to insert myself too much into my kids’ lives. I don’t have much patience, so it’s difficult for me to watch young fingers struggle to cut out a shape without just grabbing the scissors and saying, “Here. Let me help.” Some parents are great at letting their kids figure it out, watching kids struggle in the kitchen as they place the flour in the measuring cup, spilling half of it on the floor in the process. I aim to be more like those moms all the time. Sometimes, I even succeed.

This idea of Parental Help came home to me after a weekend spent at a Destination Imagination competition. Here’s a lovely photo of my daughter’s improvisation team. I’m their Team Manager.

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Destination Imagination has a strict No Interference policy for teams. Here’s an example of how the No Interference rule woks (from the New Hampshire DI site):

If someone not on the team, including a Team Manager, builds or creates an item using the team’s idea, they may not use that item. The team must start over and build it themselves in their own way. If someone not on the team, such as a Team Manager or a parent, tells the team how to do something, whether they are building something new or just practicing their Presentation, the team must politely tell that person to let them do it themselves.

I’m sure you can imagine how hard it is for adults to zip their lips and let the kids find a solution for themselves. I’ve heard of Team Managers who had to take a walk around the building to avoid telling a team that a particular method of assembling expensive materials was not only not going to work, it was going to destroy said expensive materials. No Interference.

What if we parents exhibited a bit more of the “zip your lip” approach to our kids and their projects? What would the school’s science fair look like if parents really didn’t do 95% of the projects for kids? What would the robotics competition look like if there were no “Daddybots” (the ones built by dads on a team of young beginners who obviously lack the skills necessary to create these work-of-art machines)? What would happen if we – gasp – let our kids make their own costumes for History Day?

I suspect that if we embraced the No Interference rule with our kids, there would be a lot of train wreck projects showing up in schools. Ha. But I think if we became Lip Zippers, we would go a long way towards minimizing that achievement gap everyone’s always so worried about. Our kids don’t need more papers and tougher tests. They need to inhabit the world of “Let’s figure this thing out.”

Writing down your kids’ stories: One mom’s approach

This picture was taken many years ago, when my daughter was active on the storytelling circuit.

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Storytellers travel from festival to festival crafting a bridge of communication to recreate the vision held in their brains within yours. One storyteller told me, “I have a picture in my brain. It’s so vivid. I want you to see it the way I see it.” Then he told the story.

You can see how this idea is key to writing stories, as well. As a writer, I have a vision of a world or an experience I want to share with you, my reader. I use all the tricks I know to make this image vivid and lively, drawing you into my brain so you can see it as I do. Those are the books we readers love to read the most, right?

Olivia was an oral storyteller. The stories my daughter told were sometimes folktales (The Barking Mouse and Martina the Beautiful Cockroach were two favorites), but Olivia mostly told personal tales. In the storytelling world, a personal tale is based on the teller’s past experiences. It can range from completely truthful to downright tall tale-ish. I already told the story on this blog of how I wrote the first story Olivia told. Today I’d like to help you explore ways you can capture the experiences of your own children in writing.

I thought about capturing my own stories in writing so that my kids would have something to read about my childhood. I have struggled writing down my own story since it seems necessary to start at the beginning and work my way forward. I tried this once. I got to the elementary school part of my timeline and stopped. It was exhausting trying to remember everything in order, and I noticed my memories from back then were fuzzy at best. My sentences ran along the lines of: “I remember switching to a new Kindergarten sometime mid-year. They were having a cool snack that day. It might have been ice cream.” These images are disconnected and not vivid. I decided that capturing moments of times in my kids’ lives was easier somehow. So I started writing their stories, instead.

So how do you capture a moment in your child’s life in a story? Here is one path to writing a captivating tale:

  1. Write a list of moments.
  2. Think of a theme.
  3. Tell the story.
  4. Write the opening with a compelling hook.
  5. Loop back to your opening hook in the closing.

1. Write a list of moments.

Are you like me? Do you have trouble calling up memories from your childhood or that of your child? Here’s one thing I did when I needed a new theme for a story for Olivia to tell: I sent out a request to friends on social media to help me remember some of the crazy stuff that had happened to Olivia. Any memory at all. The time she got an ice cream cone and the dog ate it. The time she left half her overnight items at a sleepover. Any little memory has the potential for story greatness. My friends and family came through!

For one story, I ended up choosing to tell about the time Olivia banged her nose on her knee when trying out a trampoline for the first time. It was sad at the time, but hilarious when we thought back on the events of the day. Great fodder for a story!

2. Think of a theme.

With a list of memories, you can ponder which ones you’d like to turn into a story. In the storytelling world, a personal story has an overarching theme. A theme is some sort of lesson or deeper truth that the listener can hear and agree with, nodding his head enthusiastically and feeling a connection  with the teller. The overarching theme is a nice way to begin framing a tale.

When I thought about Olivia’s time on the trampoline, I imagined the middle-aged listeners who would hear the story and I tried to think what they might be interested in hearing. I knew they would have fun traveling down their own memory lanes as they heard a story of kid high jinks.  It’s always thrilling to remember being a kid. But I wanted something else for them in this story. I realized the theme of this story wasn’t “Kids will do silly things sometimes.” It was really about me. I was one of those overprotective mothers who didn’t want her kids on trampolines. At all. The theme of this story quickly became “Overprotective parents can let go of their worry. Sometimes.”

3. Write the story.

I milked my overprotective nature for all it was worth as I wrote this story. I called on every memory of picking child-safe dishware, installing protective car seats, and worrying over scary news reports about the dangers of ______ (fill in the blank with your worst parental fear).

Moms today have lots of fodder for a story about being overprotective, don’t we? We are under such pressure to micromanage our kids’ lives. A recent article about parents being visited by Child Protective Services for letting their kids walk to the park alone illustrates my point. Storyteller Andy Offut Irwin speaks of growing up as a “free-range child.” In this day and age, we’re expected never to let our kids roam free. No free-range chicks in our yard. We need to build those coops sturdy and tall with lots of wire fencing. The pressure is intense!

So I told the story of the time my daughter begged me for a chance to jump on a friend’s trampoline. I finally agreed. And wouldn’t you know it? She tried to do a flip on the trampoline and gave herself a bloody nose. Typical. Ha. I filled in the details with all the reluctance I felt and all the cajoling my daughter had to do to get me to agree. It wasn’t all true, but the general theme was spot on. I was an overprotective mother, and I had to find a way to get over it. This trampoline experience helped me do that!

4. Write the opening with a compelling hook.

If you’d like to make your story even more exciting, perhaps worthy of sharing at your next family reunion, talent show, or even a storytelling gig, then you can spice it up with a compelling opening. Openings for stories are hard. “Once upon a time” may work for fairy tales, but it doesn’t usually grab the listener’s attention (Well, perhaps if you say something like, “Once upon a time, I died.” That would certainly make your listener sit up and take notice.) For my audience – the middle-aged listeners at a typical storytelling event – I tried to pull on our common experience from childhood in the 50s, 60s, and 70s when coming up with an opening to draw listeners in. In stories over the years I have used references from television; old-fashioned video, board  and outdoor games; movies; memories from dining out or shopping; and more. What I try to do with listeners is give them a flashback to childhood in their time and then contrast it with my kids’ childhood. The contrast is often funny and sometimes poignant.

For my trampoline story, I could have referred to the hands-off way our parents let us play as kids (“Be back home by sundown! Bye!”). I could have referenced the relative lameness of toys back then (“Kids today have trampolines and airsoft guns. We had a jump rope and the ring with a lemon attached to it you could swing around on your ankle!”)

[Note: Remember that one? It was called the Lemon Twist. Here’s a trip down memory lane for you.]

For this story, I chose to evoke a familiar scene: the opening credits from Little House on the Prairie. The way the girls in pigtails careen down a steep slope while their parents look on fondly from the wagon stood in sharp contrast to my parenting style. I would imagine my child cracking her skull in three places on that grassy hill of doom and I would tell her to “Slow down!” With this opening, I let listeners remember that iconic scene and then I brought them into the theme of my story. Opening hook. Kabam.

5. Loop back to your opening hook in the closing.

One way to close your child’s story is to wrap back around to the opening hook. I might have chosen to relate the time in Little House when the “Great Gambini” tried a magic trick and ended up dying in the burning box. Sometimes it pays to be overprotective, eh?  That would have cemented my theme quite well, although it might have been a tad depressing for the audience. Tying back to an opening gives a story a rounded out feeling.  In the end, for the trampoline story, I went a different way. Listen below to hear what I did!

I hope you all will think about telling some of your children’s stories. They make wonderful keepsakes and it’s an easy way to dip your toe into the writing pool. We all love telling stories about our kids, right?

Here’s the trampoline story for those who’d like to hear it.:

 

Teaching a Foreign Language? Tell a Story.

In my early teaching days as a foreign language teacher, I often didn’t feel good at my job. Kids were hard to control and I felt they didn’t retain anything I taught them for long. When I took a job in a school that taught level 1 through full immersion (where the teacher doesn’t speak English at all in class), my teaching hit an all-time low. I had students looking at me and begging, “Please, just tell us what you want us to do! We don’t understand you!” Ugh.

I went to a conference that summer and learned about teaching language through stories. People, it revolutionized my classroom. It turns out that teaching through Comprehensible Input, giving students stories to use as a context for understanding, made those students not only relax but also produce language on a level that astounded me.

Imagine the difference between teaching a set of vocabulary words like kitchen, bathroom, basement, garage, dining room, living room, attic, and house and teaching them a story such as:

The boy doesn’t have a pizza. He wants a pizza, but there aren’t any pizzas in Topeka, Kansas. He goes to Phoenix, Arizona and sees a girl with a pizza. He says, “Hi! I don’t have a pizza. I need a pizza. Do you have an extra pizza?” The girl says, “Yes, I have an extra pizza.” She gives the boy the pizza. The boy is happy.

Which group of vocabulary words do you think will stick best in your kids’ brains? Stories give us a hook for our everyday memories, right? They also can provide hooks in the subjects we study. History taught as a list of dates? Blech. History taught as a series of stories? Yes! I’m in! Foreign language is just the art of sharing our stories in another language. Storytelling and language study go hand in hand.

If you would like to adopt this approach in your homeschool, I guarantee your kids will have a blast.  I am teaching a homeschool co-op class to middle schoolers and high schoolers in French this year, and we’re using this book:

look i can talk

If you know the second language a bit already, the resources found at this site will work great for you. The book just includes a series of stories and comprehension questions. Grammar isn’t taught directly; it’s acquired through practice with the language. [Note: I do quick “Grammar Pop Ups” in my class where I’ll explain the difference between tu and vous, how nouns have a gender, how adjectives have to agree with nouns in number and gender, etc. They are just quick asides, though. We get back to storytelling as soon as we can, always.]

The idea is to give kids lots of chances to hear the vocabulary words and interact with them. Take the story above, for example. I introduce the first line with unknown vocabulary words written on the board in French and English. There is also a paper on the wall with question words in French. My script (with student responses in parentheses) might go something like this:

Class, there is a boy. He wants a pizza. Is there a boy or a girl? (A boy) Does the boy want a pizza? (Yes, the boy wants a pizza) Does the boy want a hamburger? (No, the boy doesn’t want a hamburger) Does the boy want a pizza or a hamburger? (He wants a pizza) Who wants a pizza? (The boy wants a pizza) What does the boy want? (He wants a pizza) Claire [class member], do you want a pizza? (Yes, I want a pizza/No, I don’t want a pizza)

And so on. It takes a while to get all the way through a short story using this question and response method. Just think of how many encounters the class gets with the words the boy, wants, a pizza, doesn’t want, and a hamburger! When we finish the story, we might draw the story cartoon-strip style, pointing to pictures as I say part of the story. They might try to tell the story in their own words using their pictures and the vocabulary. They also could write a new version of the story where the boy wants an elephant instead.

I love the way my level one students are adept at telling simple stories instead of labeling all the rooms in the house. Storytelling seems more authentic since the chance that they will tell a story in France one day is greater than the chance they’ll name the rooms of the house, right?

If you’re trying to approach foreign language with your kiddos, I invite you to make a simple story. Introduce how questions and question words work, then tell them a tale!

If you’d like to learn more about this method, this book does a nice job laying it out (though the language is chock full of education-eze; reader beware!):

fluency through tpr storytelling

While these products focus on classroom teaching, they’re easily adaptable for home use. Let’s get going telling some stories! Dust off that rusty high school French, Spanish, or German today!

 

Freaky Panda

This is a story about how stories can shape your life.

When my daughter was seven, she was terrified of big things. It didn’t matter if said things were “alive looking” or not. She found the stuffed polar bear at the nature center and the cardboard cutout of Wall-E at the movie theater equally menacing. I found a need to help my daughter, to connect with her about her fears. But how?

I’m not a lifelong writer. My shelves aren’t filled with journals from my childhood. In fact, I felt pretty lousy at the whole writing thing until one university professor finally declared, “Relax, Kirsten. Your writing is fine.” So writing has never been my way to interpret the world or to cope with it.

I’m not sure how it started, but I sat in the kitchen one evening and thought about Olivia’s scary experience at the movie theater. The time when she thought the cardboard Wall-E was going to “eat her, for sure.” And I decided to write about it. I told her story but twisted the end a bit to feature a courageous girl who was ready to defeat Wall-E should they have any future encounters.

I read the story to the family, and they laughed. Well, Olivia laughed, but through some tears. It had been a while, but the fear of Wall-E was still a bit too fresh, too raw. I changed Wall-E to Po the Panda from Kung Fu Panda, and suddenly, the story was funny to her. My goal was to help her get over a fear and to show her, though a humorous story, that I understood how big and scary the world could be when you were seven.

The story could have ended there, but it didn’t! Because of the “Freaky Panda” story, Olivia had the chance to launch her career as a youth storyteller. She first told this story at the Brandywine Storytelling Festival and eventually ended up at the National Youth Storytelling Showcase in Pigeon Forge, TN. As a family, we forged a connection to the storytelling community. Opportunities to tell stories and to meet fantastic tellers have shaped our family in untold ways. Stories can indeed change your life!

Here is Olivia’s rendition of “Freaky Panda,” told in Tennessee.

Can your family’s stories create new opportunities to grow and explore? Absolutely! Start by telling one at a local storytelling event.