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"The Magic of Family Storytelling"
"Goodbye Stage Fright; Hello Stage Energy"
"Kids Writing"
"A Story At Play, A Story At Work"
"A Spy Sneaks In"


(published in the December 2010 issue of Tidewater Women Magazine)

Have you noticed that during holiday dinners, folks often start telling family stories? Do you find that as your children get older, they become more and more interested in hearing those same stories over and over, especially if the stories involve them?

 Scientific evidence shows that children who hear stories do better in school and become better writers. Participating in storytelling has even better benefits. So how can you encourage storytelling in your family?

 Many years ago when my daughter was about six or seven, our family was having dinner together when her brother said one of those annoying big brother things, and she exploded. She stormed out of the room and closed herself away in her bedroom, head under her pillow.

 I waited a few minutes for her to calm down before I dared join her in her room. She was in no mood to have me say anything reassuring or even understanding. So I sat on the edge of her bed, pondering what to do. Strewn around her room was a collection of trolls. Remember those half-ugly, half-adorable hard rubber dolls with wild hair and exaggerated faces? She loved them!

 Now, I knew that the words “once upon a time” contained magic and power. But I had never made up once-upon-a-time stories. Still, it was evident my daughter was too mad to talk to me, so I took a breath and said, “Once upon a time there was a troll.”

 She didn't look at me, but there was a distinct hiccough in her wailing. She wanted to hear the next sentence. “Um. The troll lived in a drawer of a little girl's room. In fact, there was a whole family of trolls that lived in that drawer. At night they would come out and swing on the curtains.”

 And just like that, my daughter began to shove the pillow, inch by inch, off her head. By the time I finished the story, her anger had dissipated and she was ready for cuddling.

 The next night before bed my daughter wanted another Troll Story. And the next night, another one. Soon, she decided that the Trolls should meet the little girl so she could join their adventures, and then her Blankie became a character in the stories. He always came along and often became the hero.

 These stories went on for years. She's grown up now, and neither of us remembers much about the plots, but we do remember sharing endless Troll Stories. Sometimes she'd choose to contribute to the story; sometimes she just wanted to listen.

The stories offered us entertainment when we were waiting in lines or when she was trying to go to sleep, but they were also a way to sidle up to problems when Trolls had things happen to them that were remarkably similar to situations that my daughter was encountering.

 Here are some of the things that worked for us. Give them a try—you'll be delighted how readily your children pick up a love of story.

 • Make it a habit to share stories every night before bed—and any other time of day you can manage. It doesn't matter if you read them or tell them.

 • When you decide to try telling your own made-up stories, the simplest starting point is a toy or blankie that your child loves. Let that item become a character who does an everyday activity, something familiar that your child would do.

 • Once you've gotten started storytelling, find places to ask your child what should happen next or what new character might appear. If nothing else, this takes the pressure off you as teller to come up with fresh ideas!

 • If your child has had a rough day or if she or he is having problems with friends or at school, incorporate the problem into the story. You never have to say that's what you're doing. It becomes a gentle but effective way to suggest ways to cope.

 • Be prepared that your child may want to hear the same story again. If you can't remember what you created, get the child to help.

 • Once you've established the habit of storytelling, you and your child will find it's a companion and an entertainment no matter where you are.

 • And then…you can start in on an entirely new world of stories about things you did as a child.

 Storytelling is a great opportunity to spend time with your children and grandchildren. And one last thing … cuddles and hugs are the perfect happily ever after.

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You can't breathe, your hands won't quit shaking, and your mind flops around every fear you've ever had, and it's all because you're about to perform in front of other people. You have stage fright.

You want to just give up and go home, but you know you can't. Not to worry, there is help.

Folks are always suggesting that people with stage fright take deep breaths and calm down. Personally, that just gets me more anxious. What I really want is a productive place to send my mind and my body. Here are a couple of things that help me.

•  First off, understand that once you get onstage, stage fright usually goes away or at least calms down because you're concentrating on what you're actually performing.

•  It's when you're still backstage before the performance that you can start directing your feelings to work for you, not against you. That's the time to start treating those sensations as a source of positive energy … you're getting excited; you're raring to go onstage and make people happy.

•  So before you go onstage, distract yourself by moving intentionally. Rather than trying to slow yourself down, try bouncing up and down or jogging in place.

•  What really helps me get in a performing frame of mind before going onstage, is to entertain myself by fooling around with character walks. I might stick out my chest and walk on tip toes, chin in the air. And then I'll switch to making my body a totally floppy ragdoll, complete with loose, swinging arms. If I'm lucky, I'll make myself laugh. Instead of making room for nervousness, I've increased my energy to performance level.

•  Just think, once you get on stage, you'll be sharing your art with an audience of people that came to have a good time. They're on your side. They want you to succeed.

The longer you continue performing, the more likely you'll come up with your own methods of controlling and coping with stage fright. In the meanwhile, have fun trying these tips for directing your energy away from nervousness and into positive stage presence.

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But Kids Haven't Even Lived Yet! How can they be writing their own stories?

Why should elementary school teachers take time out of their already harried classroom hours to teach their students to tell personal narratives or life stories rather than just write them?

Because the process of storytelling dovetails perfectly with the curriculum that is mandated by the state and nation.

Students are required to learn communication skills. (Virginia SOL 3.1, 4.1, 5.2)

That would include effectively sharing stories—communicating to other people things that have happened to them, using skills of eye contact, gestures, posture (5.3).

According to the curriculum, students' writing must have focus and clarity. (3.9, 4.7, 5.8)

That's a mandate about writing not about verbal communication. But when a student tells a story to a partner or to the class, that student quickly figures out when the story is losing the listeners' interest. The teacher can then take that opportunity to talk about what parts of the telling do keep the story focused. When the listeners don't understand what's happening in the story, they can ask questions, so that the student's story gains clarity.

Students are required to understand plots and to be able to organize. (3.5, 4.4, 5.5)

A personal story needs to have enough details and twists and turns so that a twenty second anecdote can turn into a full-bodied story that people want to hear more than once. This means the teller or writer needs to see the plot arc of the story—how it begins, what is the climax, and how it is resolved. The writer or teller needs to organize how these are presented during the story.

Once students have gotten a handle on telling their story out loud, and have experienced how listeners react to their stories, then they are prepared to take out a pencil and write down what they've already thought out. And their written work will already have a head start on focus, clarity, organization, plot, and a myriad of other skills that they are expected to master during class time.

Listening to stories and telling stories are the stepping stones students need before they can learn how to write effectively. And yes, once they've been prepared, kids can write successfully, and feel proud doing it.

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(published by "The Journal of the Virginia State Reading Association")

Bursting to Read!

When I was little, I loved to have my mother read to me, and I knew that one day I wanted to be able to read for myself. My sister was five years older than I was, and I watched with great envy when she went to school. One fall her new teacher asked her, "What does your father do for a living, dear?"
My sister said, "Oh, my father doesn't work. He just sits around in his chair all day and reads."
The teacher quickly found an excuse to call my mother and ask if our family was . . . all right . . . what with our father being out of work.
My mother was puzzled. After she sorted out why the teacher was asking such a question, though, she said with more than a little pique, "Oh. Her father does have a job, actually. That's the reason he reads all day. He's a college professor!"
At last it was my turn to go to school to learn to read for myself. I was thrilled! I was convinced that when I went to school, I would instantly be a Reader. When my mother left me off for my first day of kindergarten, I was shown to my desk. It was smack in the middle of a huge room filled with identical desks. The room was completely stark, except that all around the borders of the wall, up by the ceiling, were placards with letters on them. I understood that these were the key to my learning how to read, but I had no clue what any of them signified. I felt overwhelmed and intimidated.
When I realized that I was not to become a Reader that day, or that week or even that year, I was devastated. Even now, I don't want to think about how long it took me to achieve actually becoming a Reader!

But fortunately, I had a mother who read to me and a father who modeled reading, so I was motivated to learn. And once I did learn, I read voraciously. Eventually, it was that childhood reading that brought me, by a circuitous route, to my adult career as a storyteller.
But what happens to children who don't learn love of books at home? What happens
when children don't have stories read or told to them? They miss an integral part of their education, for it is through listening to stories that children begin to understand language. They absorb grammar by hearing it spoken correctly. They learn form by hearing stories with patterns of threes and plots with beginnings, middles and ends. They learn empathy and morality by identifying with characters in the stories.
In this time when teachers must be concerned with whether or not their students will be successful in standardized test taking, is there time to do something as frivolous as letting children hear stories? Is it possible to integrate oral storytelling with the required curriculum?

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Storytelling comes in many forms. Here are a few of them and how they relate to classroom learning and reading.

HISTORY: Studying the War of 1812, students can learn the facts of the war, which they may or may not retain until the test. But if they hear the story of the British warships landing and Dolley Madison running about the President's house trying to save her parrot and a huge portrait of George Washington from the British soldiers before fleeing for her life, they will understand the war on a far more intimate level, and they will retain it far longer.
FOLKLORE: Because folk tales are so old, they contain time-tested and potent messages for life. Couched in story, these messages are presented in a non-threatening, non-didactic manner. When young children hear the story of "The Three Little Pigs," they don't need to be
told that it pays to think ahead and take time to carefully build their lives. The message comes
through clearly as part of the story itself. The tale also sets up a rhythmic pattern of threes: three little pigs building three houses out of three different materials; three attempts by the wolf to get in. So the listener is experiencing language patterns and learning to predict outcomes.

PERSONAL: Many of the best storytellers today are telling personal stories, and often those stories are about their childhood days. Children come to school every week, full of talk about what happened over the weekend or on the way home from school. But often they either ramble on and on with no focus, or they skip the details altogether! If they hear fully fleshed-out experiences fashioned into complete, coherent stories by their teacher or a professional storyteller, they will begin to see a connection between real life and literature.
MYTHOLOGY: All of literature and much of our contemporary lives are based on the gods and events of myths. These gods had the same emotions and flaws as mortals. Everything was simply bigger and more extreme with the gods! Through Hercules students learn about the pitfalls of unleashed anger. Through Perseus they understand perseverence and willingness to accept help.
In addition, these stories are full of etymology. The word " furious" comes from the Furies. Our symbol for the medical profession comes from the winged caduceus given to Hermes by Zeus. The days of our week are named from Norse myths.

LITERATURE: Classic literature can seem inaccessible because the way we speak and write has changed so completely over the centuries. If, however, students experience the story of clever Odysseus battling brutal Cyclops told orally, they will have a frame of reference when they try to read "The Odyssey." After all, many of these classic stories were passed on orally long before they were written down and read. The same process holds true of the stories of Dickens and Poe and Hawthorne. Once people become familiar with oral versions of the stories, they become enthused about them and can then be more open to reading these more difficult stories.

Once schools and their teachers agree that these different types of stories have relevance to their curriculum, how can they include them in school?
Students benefit by hearing storytelling, whether it is presented by a professional storyteller in an assembly or informally by their own teacher. The act of listening is enough!
However, it is also possible to make sure that storytelling reaches students in various ways. Storytelling can be done in costume with a few props. This is particularly appropriate when period clothing or related items heighten understanding of historical periods.
Storytelling can engage the most restless of children. The stories themselves are mesmerizing. Children who can't sit still for anything else will sit in open-mouthed wonder as they let themselves drop into a story and visualize it for themselves. Thus many fairy tales and other stories are best told with nothing added, allowing the listeners' own imaginations to roam, exercising a part of the brain that is stilled while watching television.
Some stories lend themselves to whole audience participation in refrains of words or gestures. This kind of participation enhances the rhythm and patterns of repetition that give folk
tales so much power. It is also a way to enable children to do controlled wiggling!

Then there are tellers who invite students to act out story with them, thereby engaging the kinesthetic learner. Students are energized not only by participating but also by watching their friends participate.
And when students are given the time and opportunity to learn to tell stories themselves, storytelling opens the door to self-expression. Nothing teaches a story or a form better than actually doing it. When students experience telling a story out loud for a group, their skills in presenting any kind of class report are honed. If they've had to research history or literature or folklore or myths in order to find the story to tell, they will remember that research, and that story will settle deep inside their mind and memory.
So, does story have a place in school, not just as an entertainment, but as a part of the curriculum? Without any question, the answer is yes. Story is a gift to the teller and a gift to the listener.

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Crafting the Story of a Civil War Spy
by Lynn Ruehlmann
(published by "Storytelling World" under the title "Crafting History Stories")

One day, as I stood in the foyer of my friend's house, waiting to collect my daughter after a visit with her daughter, my friend asked: "What's your next storytelling project?"
"I'm not sure yet," I said. "I've decided it's time to do a history show. What I'd like most would be to find a really interesting woman from Virginia, so the show could tie into our state curriculum requirements."
"Oh?" said my friend. "My daughter is doing her History Day project on this woman from Virginia who passed spy notes during the Civil War by pretending to be crazy."
"Oh! Oh!" I clamored. "I've read about her! Somewhere I've even got a copy of a fictionalized story I saved about her for future use -- I didn't remember she was from Virginia, though! I know her name … it's, ah, it's … oh! It's 'Crazy Bet,' right?"
"That's it," confirmed my friend.
"She's perfect! Thank you, thank you!"
And I went home to start researching.

Once I'd read enough to decide that Crazy Bet, whose real name was Elizabeth Van Lew, was in fact a subject that fascinated me and a woman who would be the perfect fit for my next storytelling project, I set about finding more information about her.
I searched local libraries for books and magazine articles on Van Lew and other related subjects -- female spies during the Civil War and an overview of the conflict itself. Every time I found a book that was well-researched, I made sure to look over the bibliography.
That was how I discovered that Van Lew had kept a diary during the Civil War that had been reprinted! It was also how I found that some of her papers are still archived at The College of William and Mary. Needless to say, I found a free day and headed to Williamsburg to read them.

Now the project loomed formidably. I had way too much information! My show could only be 45 to 50 minutes long. I had books and articles and handwritten notes that contained scattered pieces of information about a woman's life. I had information about being a spy during the Civil War. And I had huge volumes of history on the war itself.
How could I ever consolidate it into one show that would be educational and entertaining and cohesive enough to be both artistic and readily understood by audiences of various ages?
I needed an overview of an entire war, but I also wanted to be specific about one brave woman who put a human face on history.
I needed to break the project down into manageable pieces.
I started by putting the information I found most pertinent on index cards.
I looked again at what I knew about Elizabeth and identified the stories that I personally found most intriguing.
I waited for a day when no one was home but the dog and cats and tried to keep them at bay while I spread out the index cards on the floor.
I began by arranging my favorite stories about Van Lew herself in chronological order, leaving big spaces in between.
Then I went through all my other index cards and plugged them into what seemed for each one to be the most appropriate spot between the stories. When I was done, there were still a lot of cards left over. Get a grip, I told myself. You can't include everything in one program!
I set the unused cards aside.
I stacked the other cards in the order upon which I'd decided. I waited a few days to let it all settle. Then I headed for the computer and made an outline of the emerging program.

Now I could see that I had a potentially powerful show. And yet I still wasn't exactly sure how to combine all these marvelous stories with background information.
It happened that I had a short tour scheduled about this time, so I put Elizabeth Van Lew in the back of my mind during the drive into the mountains of Virginia. One afternoon, after I'd finished my shows for the day, I found some fields on the mountainside, parked the car, and started walking and talking to myself about the problem.
Should I be narrator and tell these stories as individual unrelated incidents with the facts sandwiched in between? It could be done that way; but wouldn't it be more fun to have one unbroken story? And if that were the case, wouldn't it be a whole lot more interesting to have a Civil War-era persona tell the stories?
I could be Elizabeth herself. But, frankly, she was a difficult woman -- courageous but stern. I wasn't sure I could create as engaging a narrative if I had to behave that way throughout the show. In retrospect, it might actually have been fun to take on this character; but, at the time, it didn't seem appealing.
I also had to decide on the time frame of my program. Van Lew's story continued after the war was over, but I had to make choices; and it seemed to me the most powerful part of the story was what happened during the war itself.
Who, who, who, I thought, could best tell this story? Someone who could be at once objective and omniscient. I tramped and tramped and let my mind drift to the enjoyment of the gorgeous, crisp fall day and the parchment crackle of walking across mowed ground. Suddenly there was a burst of light in my mind!
The niece!
At the archives in the William and Mary library, I had read an article in an old Harper's Magazine in which Van Lew's niece had returned to the family mansion years after the war and rediscovered the attic room where her aunt had hidden escaped Union prisoners.
There was barely any information at all about the niece, but she had been in the mansion during the Civil War. She survived the war to know how everything turned out. She knew her aunt.
And she also knew what outsiders thought about Crazy Bet!
So, when I returned home, I was set to write the script. Now I needed to figure how to segue from one incident to the next -- and how to slip in facts about the Civil War, so that the story would make sense to those not well-versed in the period, yet offer a fresh perspective for aficionados. My stack of index cards gave me the grounding I needed along with the freedom to move material around and toss out what didn't fit.

Finally I had a script to learn. Once again, it seemed like a formidable task. But then I remembered: these are stories, after all! I may have decided to wear a period dress and include a few props, because I was doing a first-person story -- but what I do is tell stories, and I'd picked ones that fascinated me.
Consequently, just as I do with folklore, I learned the chronology of the stories in the show and the transitions between. I memorized some actual quotes but scripted the rest in my own words.
As I began performing the show, I found parts that didn't flow as well as I had imagined when I wrote it.
So I reordered and revised.
And eventually settled into "Spy! The Story of Civil War Spy Elizabeth Van Lew."


An excerpt from the show, "Spy! The Story of Civil War Spy Elizabeth Van Lew." 

It was not until late afternoon and evening that the trains began to bring in the Union soldiers -- their wounded, the prisoners of war. Huge empty warehouses in downtown Richmond were opened up and converted into prisons for these men.
Aunt Betty said to her mother, "With everyone so busy taking care of the Confederate soldiers, who is left to even care about the Union prisoners and their wounded?" She knew she must do what she could to help them.
She also knew she could not expect just to go to a prison and be allowed right in. She would need a pass. So she went to the office of Lt. David Todd, the half brother of Mary Todd Lincoln -- President Lincoln's wife. Mary Todd Lincoln, like the other children of her father's first marriage, was a Unionist, but the children of her father's second marriage were all Confederates, and Lt. David Todd was one of these. Already this war had torn apart so many families, and the Todd family was one of them.
Aunt Betty marched into Lt. Todd's office and said, "I should like to have a pass so that I can visit Libby Prison and bring supplies and comfort to the prisoners there."
"Oh, I could not allow that," he said. "It would be dangerous for a lady to go in there!"
She tried to change his mind, but when she failed, she said, "Then who is your superior?"
He sent her to the secretary of the treasury, C.G. Memminger.
Off she went to Memminger's ofiice. "Sir, I should like to have a pass so that I can visit Libby Prison and bring supplies and comfort to the prisoners there."
"Oh, I could not allow that," he said. "It would be dangerous for a lady to go in there!"
"Sir! I have had the pleasure of hearing your wonderful speeches about the need to have charity and kindness toward our fellow human beings, even toward the unworthy. How can you give such moving speeches and think that my humane desire to help these poor prisoners could be anything but a good thing?"
Memminger gave her, not a pass, but at least a note introducing her to Gen. John Winder, who was in charge of the prisons and police force in Richmond.
By the time she arrived at his office, she knew what she would do. "Sir! Oh, sir! Your hair! It is magnificent! So full and white! Why it could adorn the temple of the Roman gods themselves!"
Gen. Winder gave her a pass -- the first of many that he gave her during the course of the war.
Aunt Betty went right home and began to prepare. She and her mother still had the farm outside Richmond, so they were able to bring plenty of fruits and vegetables to the prisoners. They also brought paper and pens so the men could write letters; they brought books from their own library, and soap, and needles and thread, and rags for handkerchiefs and bandages.

When Aunt Betty arrived at Libby Prison with her pass, Lt. Kelly, a Confederate guard at the prison, ushered her in. She stood in the doorway looking in at the prisoners. "This is even worse than I had expected. They are so crowded in here! Where do they sleep?"

"Oh, Ma'am," said Lt. Kelly, "Right where you see them. There is nowhere else."

"So many of them look sick. And it is simply stifling. How can they breathe?"

"Ma'am, you are not nauseous from the stench are you?"

"Certainly not. I am ready to go in."

"What a lady! Here, let me help you pass out these things."

And Lt. Kelly took Aunt Betty's basket and went in one direction, while she went in the other. As soon as his back was turned, one of the prisoners pushed a letter into her hand.

"Please, Ma'am; my wife is sick at home. Could you get this letter to her? She will think I am dead otherwise."

Aunt Betty said, "Of course," and slipped it into her sleeve.

Another prisoner had been writing on a piece of sacking paper, and he shoved that into her hand as well.

"Please! You must get this to a Union officer, no one else. As quickly as possible. It is very important."

Aunt Betty slipped that into her sleeve as well. When she got home, she looked at the message and found it had been written in code.

And so without quite intending it, she had passed from being a union supporter to being a union spy!

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