Storytelling: The Fire in Great Teaching

By Regina Ress

ressI learned how to tell stories while substitute teaching in the New York City public schools. Talk about boot camp! I was often working with “at risk” children, many of whom were…shall we say…deeply disengaged from the classroom activities. When I began to bring in stories… not read them, but tell them…my ability to engage the students and my relationship to the students and their relationship to me shifted radically. I used to joke that before I told the story, the kids were throwing the chairs out the window and as soon as I finished, they continued; but during the storytelling, all eyes and minds were with me. A bit of hyperbole, but essentially what I experienced. There was something going on between us during the telling that radically changed the behavior of these children and atmosphere in those classrooms.

As well, of course, there was a lot of teaching and learning going on. I realized quite quickly how much information was being transmitted effortlessly while I told and they listened to those stories. Being a trained teacher, I began to note the cognitive skills along with some basic social/emotional skills that were embedded both in the stories themselves and equally in the experience of listening to stories. And, of course, once they began to fashion their own stories and tell them, a world opened up for these young, often marginalized, New Yorkers.

Great teaching, like great storytelling, is about communication. It is about contextualizing information, creating Aha! Moments, journeying into new territory to find hidden treasure, sharing a passion and meaning making. Sound heavy? Not at all. Teaching can be fun, as much fun as telling a good tale.

We know that storytelling has been used throughout human history not only to entertain, but to transmit information, explain cultural codes, and problem solve (to name just a few of the applications/uses.) We now know it also enhances interpersonal and cross-cultural awareness and encourages personal expression. It engages participants of all age and all levels seamlessly and deeply in the subject at hand. It’s a natural teaching tool and I have used it from pre-schools to University Master’s Programs, in after school offerings for children living in homeless shelters, as an English language teacher for adult immigrants and with incarcerated women, both on the east coast and currently in New Mexico. And, of course, I’ve taught teachers … both for professional development workshops in the schools and, for the past 10 years, for New York University’s Program in Educational Theatre and the TESOL/Foreign Language Program. I know the power of storytelling to fire up a classroom.

I’m bringing some stories and some terrific activities to the National Storytelling Conference in Arizona this summer. We will easily and with great fun experience the power and efficacy of storytelling in the classroom and beyond. The workshop is called Storytelling: The Fire in Great Teaching. Come help me heat up that room in Mesa!

About Regina

Regina Ress, storyteller, actor, writer and teacher, has performed and taught across the US and abroad    for over 40 years. Her recent CD, New York and Me: We’re in a Long Term Relationship ( available on    her website and the conference), won a 2014 Storytelling World Honor award. She will be back for her 22nd year in the Hans Christian Andersen storytelling series in Central Park in September and is delighted to host her long running series Storytelling at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village. A current project is working with incarcerated women in the Santa Fe County jail.

Contact Regina



Out of the Tunnel and Into the Light of Peace

by Liz Weir

LizWeirI have lived in Northern Ireland all my life. The first 18 years or so were uneventful. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where stories were told. Many were about my family’s adventures in India during the late 1930’s when my father was a career soldier and of course I heard lots of true stories of the Second World War. Going to an all Protestant state school where we learned mostly British history I had no sense of my “Irishness”.

In 1969 everything changed, not just for me, but for all the people in my country. I started university in Belfast and that autumn saw the start of the Civil Rights Movement and then, sadly, a cycle of violence, of bombs, shootings and mayhem that was to last for the next 30 years. Living in Belfast I saw first-hand the results of carnage and when I became Children’s Librarian for the city I ventured into places most people in my town only heard about in news headlines. I met people of all shades of political opinion and learnt that blood is the same color on both sides of the religious divide. I met widows and bereaved children who wept the same tears. I told stories in jail to men whom some hailed as heroic freedom fighters and others regarded as terrorists and murderers.

Following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 the stage for set for a peaceful resolution to “The Troubles”. Those political prisoners were released no matter what their crimes,and in fact many have since gone into politics here and hold important positions. But all of this has left a legacy. Within our community there are ordinary people who still carry hurt, secrets and pain. For them there is no moving on and there can be no justice or peace as long as the killers of their relatives go free, whether those are civilians or members of the security forces.

So, how can stories help? If people take the time to listen to another’s story they are paying them respect. Even if the other person holds views which are diametrically opposed to our own, the very act of listening to their stories is important. It acknowledges them as members of a shared society. In post-conflict Northern Ireland other prejudices are emerging – racism, homophobia. There is still much work to be done to build a new future for our children but to do so we have to acknowledge what went on in the past. History cannot just be air-brushed.

Over the years since 1969 I have listened to thousands of stories, stories which have helped me develop more fully as a person able to understand those whose beliefs are very different from my own. In my workshop in Phoenix I hope to explore practical ways in which the sharing of difficult stories can be encouraged and supported.

We in Northern Ireland are indeed emerging, blinking, into the sunlight of peace.

About Liz Weir

Liz Weir is a storyteller and writer from Northern Ireland who has told her stories to children and adults on all five continents. She has appeared at major international festivals including the National Storytelling Festival and the Australian National Storytelling Festival. Liz Weir was the first winner of the International Storybridge Award from the National Storytelling Network which cited her “exemplary work promoting the art of storytelling within Ireland and between other countries.

Contact Liz

Website: /
Phone: + 44 7703 440558


Planning your First Storytelling Residency

By Katie Knutson

Katie KnutsonAre you ready to dive into the world of school residencies? If so, here are a few tips that will make the walk to the diving board and the plunge a little less shocking.

There are two major models for residencies that I use: the pre-packaged residency and the co-created residency. They each have benefits and drawbacks.

The pre-packaged residency has a set curriculum that you can bring from one classroom to another without changing it. You write the lesson plans and learning objectives and create any necessary handouts beforehand. Since you can focus on one specific strength of yours, it is often easier to start with this kind of residency. The range of topics could vary greatly, from Historical Fiction to Bullying. These residencies make life really easy for teachers and administrators because they don’t necessarily need to be involved in the planning process.

The co-created residency is one that you create directly with the teachers. It requires more planning time and will be customized for each classroom. One teacher might want to create a play based on Cinderella, while another wants to teach Science vocabulary. These residencies include embedded professional development for both the teachers and teaching artist. Co-created residencies also have a better chance of being repeated by the teacher in the future, as the teacher will be viewing herself as a learner and be personally invested in the residency and its success. This process requires a substantial knowledge of appropriate activities and stories to teach a variety of subjects.


Make sure to allow sufficient planning and evaluation time with the teachers. I prefer to have two meetings before the residency begins. In the pre-planning meeting, we iron out logistics, I share what I do, and we begin brainstorming. In the second, we set goals for the residency, scaffold what each session might look like, and create a detailed lesson plan for the first class. Ideally, I schedule one planning session for each class I teach. This is not always possible or necessary, but it is good to get it in the calendar early.

Evaluation includes the assessment of three things: each classroom session you have taught, the students’ learning, and your performance as a teaching artist. In each planning meeting, I spend the first few minutes getting feedback on the previous class and troubleshooting any problems before planning for the next session. In order to know what the students have learned, it is necessary to assess them before and after the residency. This does not necessarily mean a written test. You can look at work samples before and after, comparing growth in specific areas such as character development or the use of details. You could ask students to use their bodies to make things, like the main character of a story you just told or an organism you are about to study, and count how many can do it. Talk to the teachers about other creative ideas for assessments. Ideally, most residencies will end with some kind of a final performance or product.

Every residency is different, and no residency will go exactly as planned. Remember to have fun and love those kids, and you’ll do just fine. Please share your success stories and failures, as well as any tips you have for first-time residencies in the comment section below.

Here are some additional resources:

Artful Teaching and Learning Handbook: you can download it for free or order a printed copy for $30

Teaching Artist Handbook, Volume 1: Tools, Techniques, and Ideas to Help Any Artist Teach by Nick Jaffe, Becca Barniskis, & Barbara Hackett Cox

Books that include Stories and Lesson Plans or Discussion Ideas:

  • Beyond the Beanstalk: Interdisciplinary Learning Through Storytelling by Lynn Rubright
  • Literacy Development in the Storytelling Classroom by Sherry Norfolk, Jane Stenson, and Diane Williams.
  • The Moral of the Story: Folktales for Character Development by Bobby and Sherry Norfolk
  • Once Upon a Time: Storytelling to Teach Character and Prevent Bullying by Elisa Davy Pearmain
  • Social Studies in the Storytelling Classroom: Exploring Our Cultural Voices and Perspectives by Jane Stenson and Sherry Norfolk
  • Speaking Out: Storytelling and Creative Drama for Children by Jack Zipes
  • The Storytelling Classroom: Applications Across the Curriculum by Sherry Norfolk, Jane Stenson, and Diane Williams.
  • Storytelling and QAR Strategies by Phyllis Hostmeyer and Marilyn Adele Kinsella
  • Tales with Tails: Storytelling the Wonders of the Natural World by Kevin Strauss
  • Write Right!: Creative Writing Using Storytelling Techniques by Kendall Haven


About Katie

Katie Knutson is a Storyteller and Teaching Artist based in Minneapolis. In addition to writing or curating this column, she performs regularly, leads workshops for storytellers and teachers, and spends time with her kindergartner. She is the Storyteller-in-Residence/Arts Integration Specialist at Folwell K-8 School. More at


Creating Personal Stories: From Cloud to Lightning!

by Doug Lipman

lipmanIn January, 2013, I had a problem. My week as Teller-in-Residence at the International Storytelling Center was coming up soon, and the stories I wanted to tell there – an hour of stories about my parents – didn’t yet exist! How would I create and polish them in so short a time?

Always the optimist, I began talking to my principal storytelling coaching buddy, Jay O’Callahan, about what I wanted to communicate about my mother and father.

“Even though they’ve both been dead for years, their influence remains in everything I do,” I found myself saying. “For example, I was coming home last week in the snow. I saw how beautiful our front door looked, decorated with the snow-crowned Christmas wreath my wife Pam had chosen. Then I saw the Jewish mezuzah next to the wreath, on the doorpost; it had a crown of snow, too.” (A mezuzah, by the way, is a container for a small scroll from Deuteronomy, placed on the doorpost of many Jewish homes.)

“Suddenly, I saw the house I grew up in, near Chicago. Even though my father was Jewish, we always had a Christmas tree in one window – but this year my Christian mother had bought a tacky electric menorah and put it in the other front window. I never understood why she thought we should have a menorah. We never celebrated Hanukah.”

I paused a moment, as I remembered something. “You know,” I said, “the snow-covered mezuzah I noticed last week was a gift from my Christian minister wife. It was a significant gift, because it said to everyone who came to our house—including the members of her church—’A Jew lives here.'”

Suddenly, my eyes filled with tears. I told Jay, “I just got it! My mother couldn’t articulate it, but her menorah said, ‘A Jew lives here.’ What a thoughtful gesture toward my father—and I never understood it until now.'”

Jay made some very appreciative comments, then asked me to tell him more. I told him some of my unformed memories about growing up with one Jewish and one Christian parent. Before I knew it, my mind was combining those early memories with the moment of noticing the snow-covered wreath and mezuzah. In less than a week, I had a solid draft of a new half-hour story, “My Mother and the Menorah.”

Lightning Strikes Twice. And More.

Two weeks later, I began brainstorming more memories with Jay, including the time I convinced my 91-year-old father to have a biopsy, after his chest x-ray had shown what was almost certainly cancer. After Jay gave me some appreciations, I told him a new thought: “You know, the techniques I used, to get my Dad to stop being so anxious, were really techniques I had learned from him as a boy!”

Within minutes, I had outlined a new story composed of an episode about how my Dad had taught me when I was a child, the episode about the lung cancer, and additional episodes required to get from the childhood key moment to the adult key moment.

Soon, I found myself creating story after story from memories that had just been “things that happened” and were now becoming the core of some very meaningful and entertaining stories. I ended up with two and a half hours of material – and ideas for a half-dozen more stories that I didn’t have time to develop!

What Had I Discovered?

Although the stories came quickly, the understanding about my newly discovered story-creation technique came slowly. In the fall of 2013, when I was deciding what workshop to propose for the 2014 National Storytelling Conference in Phoenix, AZ, I asked myself, “Is there something new I can teach, based on how I created all those stories so quickly?”

After some thought, an image came to me: those raw memories (e.g., of my mother and the menorah and of my father and his biopsy) were a lot like clouds: shapeless yet filled with emotional charge. There was emotional energy in them for me, but that energy was static, unable to flow from the cloud to a listener.

Once I found that second episode, though (e.g., the moment of seeing the wreath and mezuzah in the snow, or the way my Dad had taught me to listen and praise) the energy began to flow. The second episode became like a lightning rod, conducting the emotional energy, focusing the story’s meaning, and producing a clear story line.

I’ve come to call this approach to creating personal stories “From Clouds to Lightning.” I’d be interested to know if anyone else has come up with a similar approach.

© Doug Lipman – Adapted from Doug’s free email newsletters

About Doug:

Storytelling coach Doug Lipman is the creator of the acclaimed Storytelling Workshop in a Box – the one-of-a-kind, 37-lesson, comprehensive, audio-plus-print storytelling workshop that comes to you. Doug also offers free articles and other resources, listed at, to help you become a transformative artist and integrate storytelling into your work life – including how to market your teller by creating a supportive community around you. His monthly “eTips from the Storytelling Coach” has subscribers in over 60 countries. Don’t miss working with Doug live at the 2014 National Storytelling Conference, July 24-27, Phoenix/Mesa, AZ –

Contact Doug:

Phone: 1-855-LIPMAN-1 (1-855-547-6261)


Remembering Marilyn Monroe

© 2014  Kate Dudding

duddingYou remember Marilyn Monroe, right? It seemed to me that there had been so much publicity about her, that I had to know everything there is to know about her. However recently I was very surprised to read that Marilyn Monroe had changed Ella Fitzgerald’s life by making a phone call. Did any of you know that? OK – so I’ll tell you the story.

It started in 1953, as Marilyn was preparing for the film “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” a musical. She was advised by her vocal coach: “Buy Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of Gershwin songs and listen to it a 100 times.”

Marilyn wasn’t really into jazz at that time. But she became a fan of Ella Fitzgerald’s by listening to her record, over and over.

marilynmonroeMarilyn went on to star in several other smash hits including“ The Seven Year Itch” you remember, where she wore that white halter dress and stood on top of a subway grate to get cool one hot summer night. AND Marilyn continued to buy and listen to records by Ella Fitzgerald.

Finally after two years of listening, in 1955, Marilyn just had to make that phone call. Marilyn was now 29 years old and a Hollywood superstar. Ella was 38 and, after 20 years of performing, was still singing in small, second rate jazz clubs – you know, dingy places with sticky floors where the air reeks of smoke and spilled beer at the beginning of the evening.

It was 1955 when African Americans rarely sang in the first rate jazz clubs. In fact, when traveling they had difficulties finding hotels where they could stay and restaurants where they could eat. It was 1955 when Rosa Parks sat down in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. It was 1955 when 14 year old Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi for speaking to and, perhaps, whistling at, a white woman.

It was 1955 when Marilyn changed Ella’s life.

Marilyn called the owner of a Hollywood nightclub, the club that Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall frequented, the one where Frank Sinatra had made his Los Angeles debut in the 1940s.

It was 1955 when Marilyn told the nightclub’s owner:

“I’ve never seen Ella Fitzgerald perform. I want you to book her for a week immediately.”        

“You know I can’t. She’s black.”

“If you do, I will take a front table every night. The press will go wild.”

“I’ll do it.”

marilynmonroe2Marilyn kept her word – she was there, at a front table, every night. The press did go wild.

Ella later said, I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her time.

As you probably know, Ella went on to have a long career – singing in all the first class venues – thanks to Marilyn.

As you probably also know, Marilyn did NOT have a long career. After 1955, she made the movies “Bus Stop”, “Some Like It Hot” in addition to several others.

In 1962, Marilyn gave her last interview, just several weeks before her death at age 36. Marilyn pleaded with the Life Magazine reporter: “End the interview with what I believe.”

He, or his editor, didn’t. Instead, the article ended with Marilyn talking about fame: “If fame goes by, I’ve always known it was fickle. So at least it’s something I experienced. But that’s not where I live.”

Here’s how Marilyn wanted that article to end – here’s what she believed:

“What the world needs is a real feeling of kinship. Everybody: stars, laborers, Negroes, Jews, Arabs. We are all brothers.”

Did you know that was what Marilyn believed??? Me neither.

Now I wonder what else we don’t know about Marilyn Monroe.

About Kate

A storyteller and a producer of storytelling events, Kate specializes in true stories about people who made a difference. She firmly believes in this Norwegian saying:  “It is the duty of the present to convey the voices of the past to the ears of the future.” Don’t miss Kate’s workshop at the 2014 National Storytelling Conference, July 24-27 in Phoenix/Mesa, AZ: “People Who Made a Difference: Stories of Fire and Light.” This workshop will focus on how to find inspiring historical people, research their lives, and create memorable stories about them.

Contact Kate