5th Grade Civil War Project

2-day residency with 5th graders.
Girls and boys are in separate classes.
They are studying the Civil War.

So after I told stories about the boys their age who found a way to enlist or sneak into the army and fight in the Civil War — either as buglers or drummer boys, flag bearers or possibly even given a musket — after I told stories about the women who were spies and nurses and disguised themselves as men to serve as soldiers — we brought it back to the girls their age (in the girl classes), the ones left behind to help on the farm or keep the family business going.
Their job was to be one of the girls left at home, worried about a brother or father or uncle. Those girls and their mothers might have been part of a quilting circle, making quilts for the soldiers. Some of those quilts were embroidered with inspirational messages before sent off.

The girls were given the (paper) quilt pieces and a pattern for putting them together. Then they were challenged to write a poem as their embroidered message. The poem was based on a Hopi poem I had found in the pattern of ‘Hold on to …. Even if ….’.

The ‘Even if ….’ part of the poem came from the stories they’d just heard about the boy soldiers — the heart of the Civil War, not just the facts.
The ‘Hold on to …’ part of the poem was their challenge — to put themselves into that time and place and encourage the boys to keep hope.

Wow. The quilts were gorgeous. The handwritten poetry was awesome.
Here’s what they shared when I returned a week later:

Hold on to the taste of Grandma’s warm cinnamon strudel.
Even if you have nothing to eat.

Hold on to the sound of your children laughing.
Even if all you can hear is bullets whizzing by.

Hold on to how hard you laughed when Aunt Isabella told that joke.
Even if you are scared to death.

Hold on to sunshine.
Even if the sky is filled with gray clouds.

Hold on to warm summer breezes.
Even if there are bullets in the air.

Hold on to hot apple pies.
Even if all you have to eat is hardtack.

Hold on to fireflies in June, and catching them in dusty peach jars.
Even if all the light is gone.

Hold on to skating on Mr. McGregor’s pond in the winter and going home to hot cocoa and cookies.
Even if the nights are dull and the food is scarce.

Hold on to our fun nights in the hayloft.
Even if your nights are on the ground.

Hold on to swimming in the river with your family when the birds chirped and laughter was everywhere.
Even if you are in battle with bullets whizzing by and blood on the ground.

Hold on to collecting leaves on a cool autumn day with your brothers.
Even if you are sweating in the hot sun or freezing on a cold night.

Hold on to last year’s Christmas dinner.
Even if all you get to eat is dry, crusty hard tack and goober peas.

Hold on to dancing in the firelight.
Even if there’s no fire keeping you warm tonight.

Hold on to planting the oak tree in the backyard and catching fish at the swimming hole and swinging on the old birch vine.
Hold on to the flowers we picked and the stones we skipped in the river and the day I beat you at checkers.
Hold on to the day you kissed your daughter and the songs we sang and the laughter of your family.
Hold on. Hold on.



March 14, 2012 at 10:30 pm 2 comments

3rd Graders Collect Family Stories

This is long. And maybe it falls into the ‘You had to be there’ category. And it’s hard to capture magic on paper, but I’ll try.
I’m winding up an 8 week residency with 3rd graders. They read folktales from their country of origin. They found a folktale they wanted to tell — didn’t have to be from their country of origin. They’ve been learning to tell the tale and will share it with kids in younger grades next week.
As part of the project, they interviewed a family member to collect some of their family stories. I gave them a book with 10 questions. They were to interview one adult family member — ask a question, listen, ask more questions if they were curious, and only then write the interesting details. They could write in the book. Their family member could write in the book. They could take turns writing in the book.
One week later, the books came back.
The fun part was seeing both the kids’ and their family member’s handwriting in the book. For most of them — the ones that didn’t do a phone interview — it was truly a shared project.
Some kids drew illustrations. Others included photos of the person they were interviewing.
When I arrived they were so excited to share what they had learned. And they were tickled to have learned something new. And since they’d been learning all about how to tell stories, I had them share the ‘story’ — not the list they might have written and not what their family member wrote — but the story. They studied what they’d written for a moment, took a deep breath, and started to tell — hopefully the first of many tellings so that the family story becomes a true treasure often repeated. And they told with voice, and gestures, and facial expressions, and joy — applying all of those concepts from the folktales they’d been working on to this story too. It was truly an honor to witness it all.


March 14, 2012 at 9:31 pm 1 comment

Who’s Teaching Who?

Working with the writers in my favorite 2nd grade class today:

Last time I was there, Olivia – whose father had just recently died of cancer, wrote a gorgeous true story about being sad, and a tree in her back yard where she likes to sit, and when the sun comes thru the branches she thinks about him and doesn’t feel alone.
Today she shared with me a fictional story about a girl named Elizabeth “who suffered a loss” (her words) and cried and cried and cried. Elizabeth didn’t eat or play or read or do anything fun. She just cried.
Then one day Elizabeth decided to make Tear Soup. It took 3 months of crying, but finally the soup was made and just as it was finished the doorbell rang.
A friend was there. Elizabeth told her “harshly” to go away. But later Elizabeth apologized for being mean and invited the friend in and they watched movies and read and went outside and laughed. They laughed and laughed.
After the friend left Elizabeth realized she had forgotten all about the Tear Soup. But she knew she would never forget her dad.

I am in awe of this second grader.
And the healing power of her stories.
And her ability to process her grief thru writing.
And the mother who kissed her good bye this morning with the words, “Have a good day, my brave girl.”
Brave, indeed, to put one foot in front of the other and navigate this world without her father.

After I caught my breath and finished taking it all in; after I looked again into Olivia’s eyes and saw the proud smile that reached there; after I told her how much I loved her story and her writing — I stepped out of the way … of the real storyteller in the room…… the one who takes risks and writes from the heart and is willing to share and is just brave enough to hope she will make it thru this …. so she could take her book to the school’s Publishing Center.
Yep, I just got out of the way. It was Olivia who taught me today.

December 2, 2011 at 5:12 pm 2 comments

Production Notes

I’ve been taking a writing class with Chicago’s 2nd Story. http://www.2ndstory.com/
They meet twice a month in a wine bar and read/tell their stories. Music is used to introduce stories as well as within stories.
Between stories a flight of wine is served by the storytellers so that they can interact with the audience.
Side note: they also produce multiple events in other venues around town, but Webster’s Wine Bar is ‘their’ place.
In addition to learning new stuff about the writing process and the 2nd story model in particular (1st person narrative, begin in action, dialogue, etc) and now totally understand the words “what you do doesn’t fit in with our aesthetic”, I’m learning how they produce events.
Not planning on talking again about personal stories vs folktales for adults and which one is ‘better’.
But since they produce differently than the typical ‘storytelling’ events I’ve been involved in, and are quite successful in the niche they’ve created, here’s what I’m  thinking today:
What I Like About the 2nd Story Production Model
1-A) They give great descriptions of exactly what their event is about. Folks don’t need to try to figure out what storytelling is. They know what they’re going to get before they walk thru the door.
We say that forgiveness is divine, but what about those we can’t forgive? Join 2nd Story this November as our tellers share stories of hating and being hated, of forgiving and being forgiven. From a young woman’s imaginary internet feud with a local celebrity, to man’s struggle to be at peace with the life and death of his alcoholic father, our tellers will guide you on a journey through the instinct to hate, and the challenge to forgive.
1-B) They know exactly what everyone will be telling before they arrive that night, thus enabling them to offer the specific description.
No teller/reader arrives, looks at the audience, and then decides what’s right.
Instead they tell their audiences in advance what stories will be told — drawing an audience that is interested in exactly, more or less, what they are offering.
2) They offer a descriptive title. Rather than ‘Storytelling Festival’ or even ‘Tellabration’ (no offense intended and not trying to stir the pot and get everyone riled up (but does anyone besides storytellers know what Tellabration means?)), they might say:

A Cold Day in Hell: Stories of Hatred and Forgiveness

3-A) They get the storytellers in a room, more than once, and coach the stories.

Must be available to coach to participate.
It’s being produced under the 2nd Story banner — they want quality assurance that it will reflect well on 2nd Story.
Yes, it is beautifully written — and they know this because the stories were pre-selected during an audition process. This audition process involved sending the story in via email, then showing up for a live reading.
Yes, perhaps you have told it before.
But this is 2nd Story where we want it to be more conversational than ‘performed’, where we want to get to the heart of the matter, where we want to make sure it moves from party anecdote to some sort of universal appeal, where we want your best. And maybe you haven’t even unearthed your ‘best’ in this story.
So now we’re going to refine the story — coach it, point out the good stuff, note the stuff that could be better, make sure it comes in on time, and coach the presentation.
Side note 1: This is practical and do-able for 2nd Story, because it is Chicago based — storytellers live locally.
Side note 2: Yes, they want it to fit into their mold — not going to argue that.
Side note 3: Yes, I recognize a ‘theatre’ mindset in the production process.
Side note 4: They’re never surprised by the story going over time or by the perhaps ‘wrong’ story choice for this audience.
In ‘our’ world, we’ve seen both.
Side note 5: Editorial: But as I sit in my class with the instructors who are telling me all about the 2nd Story model, who are coaching us in the 2nd Story art form, with (some) people who might want to tell in a 2nd Story event, I’m thinking: Wow, this has never happened with the storytelling events I know. I’ve been involved on both sides of the equation — festival, conference, event — producing and telling — and the process is always the same: story chosen, bring it, tell it. I’ve listened to audition tapes and thought, “I’d really like to choose this story for this event but it needs a bit of coaching”.
And ‘we’ don’t do that. So maybe the story is selected, but not coached. Maybe the story is not selected.
Either way, we’re not growing our audience if we go the first route and we’re not growing our storytellers if we go the second route. And in the end we’re not growing our art form.
4) They know who they are:
We tell our stories so you’ll tell yours.
5) They don’t shoot for the BIG audiences. They collaborate with small venues and fill them up.
They sell tickets in advance online for a reduced price in order to ‘guarantee’ seating. Yes, the venue is small. Yes, if you want a seat then plan on getting it early so as not to be disappointed at the door that night.
6) They do shoot for the sponsors and grants and have figured out how to make that happen. Note the bottom of their website with that information listed.
7) They’ve got an army of enthusiastic volunteers each taking a piece of the task and running with it — marketing, new site development, grant writing, sponsors, production, sound, music, website, podcast, etc, etc, etc
Side note: I haven’t yet figured out how they’ve energized and mobilized this army of worker bees, but that’s my next goal.
8) They offer a continuous stream of various classes.
Expounding nearly done:
9) I realize you can’t compare a national or state storytelling organization with a local Chicago one — apples, oranges, and all that.
But what can we take from this model and use to be better than we were before?
And for those of us working locally — who can get storytellers together before an event, or who are developing small venues, or are looking for new directions, or who are open to considering that we can join forces with other forms and models of ‘storytelling’ — what can we take from this model and use to be better than we were before?
Side note: Editorial: Assuming we do want to be better than we were before.
Wanna talk?
Let me know.

November 12, 2011 at 5:07 pm Leave a comment

The Junkyard Wonders – Storytelling for Bullying Prevention

“What some see as bent and broken throwaways are actually amazing things waiting to be made into something new. Something unexpected. Something surprising. Here’s your chance. Forget what the object was… imagine what it could be!”

For kids who feel different or odd – maybe only sometimes; maybe all the time.
For kids who shy away from ‘different’ classmates – maybe only sometimes; maybe all the time.
For your next family read-aloud (grade K-6) select Patricia Polacco’s newest book, The Junkyard Wonders.

November 3, 2011 at 7:06 pm 1 comment

Halloween Hobo — Storytelling for Bullying Prevention

Halloween Hobo
© Sue Black

When I was a little girl, every Halloween costume was the same as the year before. You see, my parents didn’t have a lot of money. And I had 3 brothers and 3 sisters so we couldn’t just pile in the car and go over to KMart and buy seven new costumes every year. Instead, we were told to “Go in the basement and find something to wear in the hand-me-down box”.
You know what a hand-me-down box is, right? It’s that big cardboard box down in the basement. The one overflowing with jumbled up, wrinkled clothes that your older cousins and your big brothers and sisters don’t fit into any more. Those clothes will be yours some day, as soon as you get a little bit bigger. That’s the hand-me-down box.
My brothers and sisters and I – Jeanne, Jo, Mark, John, Judy, Lenny, and Sue – we marched down into the basement, sure we’d find an awesome costume hiding in the hand-me-down box. We threw shirts and pants and skirts and dresses and underwear and socks and boots high into the air. We screamed when we saw something perfect. We ended up tugging and pulling clothes away from one another. By the time we were done, the end result was always the same as the year before. We were holding over sized shirts and worn out pants and boots with holes in the toes. The Below kids were going trick or treating as Halloween Hoboes again!
But one year was different. (more…)

September 28, 2011 at 4:31 pm Leave a comment

You and Me – Bully Free! Bullying Prevention Strategy for Today

You and Me – Bully Free! Bullying Prevention Strategy –

For kids:
When you experience or witness bully behavior take these steps:
(1)   Stay calm
(2)   Say ‘stop’ if you can
(3)   Walk away – not because you are ignoring the behavior but because you refuse to accept it
(4)   Talk to an adult at school and at home

For the adults in their lives:
When a child who has been targeted reports bully behavior to you:
(1)   Stay calm
(2)  Listen
(3)   Thank them for telling you
(4)   Communicate: “This isn’t your fault.”
(5)   Find out how they’ve handled it so far; brainstorm prevention strategies; find out how your child wants you to help
(6)   Provide ongoing supervision and structure to places bully behavior occurs
(7)  Remember that targets are chosen for their perceived inability to defend themselves. Be in it for the long term: remain observant, aware, involved, engaged — keep checking back with the target, the bystanders, and the one who bullies — model tolerance, inclusion, respect, and empathy

For the adults in their lives:
When you observe bully behavior:
(1)   Stay calm
(2)   Intervene immediately; don’t ignore it
(3)   Intervene even if unsure it is bullying
(4)   Be clear the behavior must stop
(5)   Compliment bystanders who have intervened; suggest future actions for bystanders who didn’t step in this time; send them off
(6)   Check in with the target to make sure he/she requires no immediate medical/physical care; assure him you’ll check in with him later; send him off; check in later – talk, listen, brainstorm, find out what you can do to help
(7)   Let the one who bullied know the behavior is not acceptable and must stop; implement appropriate consequences(this will vary based on your relationship to the child — and we’ll talk about this in a later post)
(8)   Provide ongoing supervision and structure to places bully behavior occurs
(9)  Remember that targets are chosen for their perceived inability to defend themselves. Be in it for the long term: remain observant, aware, involved, engaged — keep checking back with the target, the bystanders, and the one who bullies — model tolerance, inclusion, respect, and empathy

August 18, 2011 at 7:35 am Leave a comment

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