Introduction to the Science of Storytelling

by Ed Stivender

stivenderA question that is often asked of me is “How did you get started in Storytelling?”

I suppose it all began the day my sister and I decided to have a show in the basement

for the family. It meant that my Mom had to take the clothes down from the line. We hung a sheet on one of the rafters to serve as a curtain. I don’t remember what story we acted out that first time. I do have a clear memory of placing a towel over my shoulder to serve as my prince’s cloak. I was the prince, my sister was the heroine to be rescued. And I remember the applause at the end.

Not too much has changed since those days, except for the location of my shows. I am still working closely with my sister, Nancy Clancy. But she’s the one that does the rescuing now. Although she doesn’t take part in the shows anymore, she does oversee my touring schedule, setting up the arrangements with sponsors, pinning directions on my luggage as I head for the airport, making what I do as a professional storyteller possible. And I am very grateful to her.

As I write the words “Professional Storyteller”, I chuckle. It is a job that didn’t exist when I was growing up. There never was a visitor on Career Day in high school that told us about the skills and training needed to prepare ourselves for the profession. I never imagined that I would be able to apply my natural skills as a class clown to make a living doing what I love – developing versions of traditional, literary and classic stories, performing them all over the world, to varied audiences who bring their own insights to the venue to help me sculpt the material into final form.   Being able to do this is one of the Personal Miracles of Storytelling.   But it is only one of many miracles. However, I don’t think of it as Magic.

There is a lot of talk about the “Magic” of Storytelling. Sometimes the word appears in publicity documents as a way of bringing audiences to a festival or performance, or to entice them to join a group that participates in that magic. Sometimes the word appears in presentations or seminars as if it really described what happens in the Storytelling Event.

This talk about Magic makes me very uncomfortable. If taken literally, it implies a realm of power and the manipulation of that power by the storyteller who plays the role of sorcerer. This paradigm of the storyteller as magician has its basis in primal societies where certain individuals are given rigorous training to prepare them for the role of manipulator of Mana (power) for their tribe. Applying this model to Contemporary American Storytelling is less than helpful. For one thing, ours is a pluralistic, multi-cultural society, which lacks the unifying simplicity necessary for the world-view necessary for belief in shamanistic medicine.

For another, our society lacks the rigorous training for the shaman-candidate to take on the mantle of the shaman. The sorcerer’s apprentice can wreak havoc, as Disney so clearly showed us in Fantasia, when Mickey misread his master’s book.

And so, in my workshop, I will take another tack, apply another model – that of Science. It is my hope that applying the tools of Science to the Storytelling Event, we can reach a better understanding of what really goes on. Science can bring us to the edge of the Miracle, then, after which it falls silent.

The workshop is then about the Miracle of Storytelling. In a sense, it is an inquiry into the dynamics of the Miracle.

It is a Miracle, for instance, that, in our electronic age, when the television, video games and the home computer vie so strongly for our time and focus, that people choose to come together for the simple pleasure of attending to a story.

Come learn more from Ed’s workshop at the 2016 National Storytelling Conference, July 21-24, in Kansas City, Missouri.

About Ed

A self-described “full-time Daydreamer who moonlights as a Storyteller”, Ed Stivender has entertained audiences around the world since his debut at the Jonesborough Festival in 1980. Dubbed “the Robin Williams of Storytelling” by the Miami Herald and “the Catholic Garrison Keillor” by Kirkus Reviews, he is the author of two books and numerous recordings.

A popular workshop leader and MC, he is known for his delightful mixture of whimsy, wit and wisdom as he invites his audience to an interactive dance of the imagination. An award-winning Philadelphia Mummer, he was inducted into Storytelling’s Circle of Excellence in 1996.


Your Calling, Livelihood and Life

by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg & Laura Packer

packerandgoldbergTransform your love of stories into a more abundant career and life through Transformative Language Arts (TLA): storytelling, writing, drama, music, and other word-based arts for social and personal change.

We are honored to offer our workshop, “Your Calling, Livelihood and Life” at the NSN conference this July, allowing us to share with you stories and strategies, and creative potential and prompts for using your art to enhance your life and livelihood. Between the two of us, we have many decades of experience in crafting livelihoods that help us live our callings and follow our passions. Here’s a little interview we did with each other about this workshop:

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (CMG): Laura, what led you to aim yourself toward a livelihood in storytelling, consulting and coaching?

Laura Packer (LP):   I always wanted to be self-employed but for many years I wasn’t sure how to do so as an artist. I have always been creative, but I bought into the myth of the starving artist and was afraid. I had a variety of jobs that left me exhausted and burned out.

I was lucky, in that I had mentors and role-models around me who were making their living as writers, storytellers, consultants and other fields. All of these people were working very hard but clearly loved what they did. I wanted that. I began focusing more and more on transitioning from a day job to full time work. First I worked part time and eventually made the leap. It was terrifying but I knew this 2was my work in the world. I knew my role was to create and help others create. It felt, and feels, right in a deep and fundamental way.

I support myself now with a hodgepodge of creative work. I am a performing storyteller. I am a freelance writer. I blog. I coach other storytellers, writers and artists. I am an organizational storytelling consultant, helping both for- and non-profits use storytelling effectively. I lead workshops around the world at conferences, in homes and in other interesting places. I do contract training work that helps people live better lives. It’s a deeply fulfilling way to live and never dull.

And what about you, Caryn?

CMG: I knew from an early age I was born to create. First it was art and music, but in my teens, poetry took up residence, and it never left. I tried other careers, ones that seemed more likely to bring me some financial stability while writing, or that built on my writing abilities: I worked as a journalist, house cleaner, marketing consultant, political organizer, energy conservation educator, newsletter editor, freelance writer, odd-job do-er (and boy, were some of the jobs odd!), and much more. Ultimately, I found that while writing itself doesn’t pay the bills, I have more than one thing I’m supposed to do as my work, and actually, more than I can remember at times. I’m here to be a teacher, mentor, writer, consultant, facilitator, event planner, etc., and to continually dance toward my balance in it all. I made a choice about a decade ago not to apply for a full-time teaching job, but to teach a little more than half-time so that I can continue to lead writing workshops, collaborate with visual artists and musicians on community projects, give presentations and readings, and do other work that speaks to my soul. Sometimes in a week, I’ll give a presentation on the Holocaust (based on my book, Needle in the Bone), facilitate a writing retreat for people with serious illness, catch (and record) neighborhood stories in a run-down urban community from the people who live there, and do a presentation with weather chaser/photographer based on our book, Chasing Weather. In a sense, it’s all transformative language arts: using the power of words to help people find greater meaning, courage and joy. What’s a typical week like in your work life?

LP:   When I’m home I spend most mornings writing and following up on job leads. I make sure there is some kind of creative nourishment each day. My afternoons, when I have a natural dip in energy, I devote to moving around, so I exercise, run errands and do the other busy work of life. In the evenings I again spend time writing, reading and reaching out. I’m on the road a lot these days, so another kind of typical week has me travelling to a new place, teaching and performing for a few days and then coming home. I try to weave house concerts or coaching in there, too.

It’s exciting, figuring all of this out. It’s a puzzle with constantly shifting pieces: What kind of work schedule will help me be most productive? How do I reach potential clients and help them decide to hire me? When I have work, how do I prepare and give every client my best? What work is right for me to do and what should I pass on? I’m looking forward to our workshop, because we will pose these questions and help people think through answers that will make their livelihood more fulfilling and enriching while taking care of themselves and their communities.

CMG: When we think of right livelihood, we often focus on the nuts and bolts of making a living, and there’s a lifetime learning curve when it comes to picking up and honing necessary skills in everything from bookkeeping to marketing to arranging logistics. But our livelihoods are meant to be entwined with the core of our lives. I believe we’re here to do our real work, whatever that work is, but in a way that lifts up our spirit, health, and community, and feeling out what that work is and how it unfolds is as creative a process as the stories you tell or poems I write. At this workshop, we will definitely discuss ways to follow our love of stories into enhanced livelihoods, but we’ll also talk about the story behind the story: what it means to be in continual conversation with your calling, to search for and learn from what signs and wonders come your way, and engage in long-term understandings of your deepest values so that you can do your work ethically and sustainably.

Come learn more about this topic at Caryn & Laura’s workshop at the 2016 National Storytelling Conference, July 21-24, in Kansas City, Missouri.

About Laura and Caryn

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Ph.D., the 2009-13 Kansas Poet Laureate is the author of 19 books, including The Divorce Girl, a novel; Needle in the Bone, a non-fiction book on the Holocaust; The Sky Begins At Your Feet, a bioregional memoir on cancer and community; and five poetry collections, including the award-winning Chasing Weather: Tornadoes, Tempests, and Thunderous Skies in Word and Image with weather chaser/photographer Stephen Locke. Founder of Transformative Language Arts at Goddard College where she teaches, Mirriam-Goldberg also leads writing workshops widely, particularly for people living with serious illness and their caregivers. With singer Kelley Hunt, she co-leads writing and singing retreats.

Laura Packer knows that the best way to the truth is through a good story. Whether folktale or true, epic or flash, her stories captivate and amuse audiences around the world. Laura has told, taught, ranted, raved, consulted and considered storytelling around the world. When she isn’t telling, she runs venues, coaches, writes, and helps people and organizations find their stories, hone their vision and use their voices to make the world a better place. For her story and more, go to For her blog go to And to learn more about her organizational storytelling work go to



Storytelling and Language Learning

by Regina Ress

ressBy the age of three or so, most of us can speak our native language. We’ve learned its basic structure, a lot of the vocabulary, and, remarkably, how to play with it to create fluid sentences. It is not memorized: it is “acquired.” How do we do that? The great linguist, Noam Chomsky, has suggested a kind of built in “Black Box”….something inherent in all human beings that fosters this fundamental and oh-so necessary skill. What triggers that first learning? Listening to language. That is why is it so important for babies to be talked to, to be read to, to be told stories!

Because language learning begins with listening and speaking, storytelling is a fabulous tool for teaching language, whether one’s first or tenth. Along with telling and listening to the basic narrative, traditional storytelling often has repetition and rhythm, audience participation such as “call and response,” audience involvement through making predictions or suggestions during the telling, and often some opportunity for role play. From the original text come fluid telling, extemporaneous responses, and opportunities for linguistic improvisation. Reading and writing can be brought in as extensions, of course; however it is the oral-aural-oral experience which so directly opens the way for linguistic learning.

Besides enhancing the practice of the “four skills” (listening, speaking, reading and writing), storytelling teaches vocabulary, functions (making requests, asking questions, etc), and grammar.

It engages the “whole learner” and the “multiple intelligences.” And it is a great way to create community, encourage cross cultural awareness and provide a safe space for personal expression.

I am a big advocate of the use of folk tales. Because they are simple in form while not being simplistic in theme and can be told with simple to complex vocabulary and grammatical structures, they are readily accessible and engaging to all ages and all learning levels. As they come from all cultures and often address shared problems such as dealing with the wily foxes and dangerous crocodiles of life, they are inclusive and can address the students experiences and challenges. The stories and the activities spun from them (including personal stories based on them) definitely help to promote a communicative classroom. And it makes teaching and learning enjoyable.

Join me at the NSN National Storytelling Conference in Kansas City for some language learning pedagogy wrapped in the form of storytelling fun.

Come learn more about this topic at Regina’s workshop at the 2016 National Storytelling Conference, July 21-24, in Kansas City, Missouri.

About Regina

Regina has performed and taught from Brazil to Broadway, from homeless shelters and prisons to Lincoln Center and the White House. She’s appeared in national and international storytelling festivals and August 6th will mark her 24th year telling stories in NYC’s Central Park.   She teaches storytelling for NYU’s Educational Theatre and Multilingual/Multicultural Studies Programs and ESL/Presentation Skills for foreign students at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. Regina produces the long running series Storytelling at the Provincetown Playhouse (NYC) and is the recipient of the 2015 NSN ORACLE Award for Regional Excellence – Mid-Atlantic. Her CD of New York stories won a 2014 Storytelling World Honor award.

Contact Regina


The Hero’s Journey: Storytelling in the Language Arts Classroom

By Jennifer Munro

munroFor many years, I had the privilege of teaching eighth grade English in a school in Connecticut where the curriculum was based on Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth – and it was stirring, important stuff. We were teaching kids about life, the realities of the human condition, and the need to discover the person we were truly meant to be. Sounds grandiose, I know, but the kids loved it – because it resonated with a truth for which they were hungry.

What is the monomyth? What is the hero’s journey? And why does it matter? Campbell studied the world’s myths, many of which have survived for thousands of years, and discovered a specific type of myth whose structure is common to all cultures and all times. He called it the “monomyth.” His exhaustive study is detailed in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Campbell explains that although the heroes of these myths have different faces and come from different cultures and time periods, they all follow a similar path, which he called the heroic journey. The heroes in these stories receive a call to adventure that forces them to set forth in search of an object or a spiritual truth which has the power to transform the hero and heal his world. Filled with perilous obstacles, the journey tests the hero repeatedly, but he returns triumphant.

The important point for teachers is the pattern can be found in many different forms of story. Most notably, it exists in fairy tale, folk tale, wonder tales, myths, and legends. However, it can also be found in other media such as biographies, news stories, and especially movies. It is a rich treasure trove which has great appeal for students of all ages, but most importantly, it provides important opportunities for them to become storytelling practitioners in a deep and meaningful way.

Our eighth grade curriculum began with a study of ten classic virtues and vices, which evolved into a storytelling unit in which both teachers and students became storytellers. The unit also contained a technological component and authentic ways to differentiate the curriculum. Students then went on to explore heroes in their own lives in the form of personal narratives, which they also shared orally. Telling stories increased their self confidence enormously, and hearing one another’s stories forged the strong bonds of a supportive community. They continued with an examination of the hero journey motif in various genres: literature, myths, legends, and movies (think Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, The Lion King, and even Step Up – the first one with Channing Tatum, among others!) The year concluded with the study of non-fiction heroes, which also contained a vital oral component.

The arts of speaking and listening as stated educational goals have largely been neglected by the educational establishment, which is a tragedy. Great value exists in having students of all ages listen to and retell fables, folk tales, fairy tales, and myths. In doing so, they absorb the moral compass of a shared cultural heritage. As they grow older, they will also recognize that the themes, character types, and patterns of traditional stories resurface repeatedly in all forms of literature, thus deepening their appreciation of the importance of oral tradition.

Our sweeping curriculum awakened young people to the truth that they have powerful voices and important stories to tell – that they, too, will receive the call to adventure again and again during the course of their lives and, because they know that the heroes of all time have gone before, they will know the path well and will venture unafraid.

If you choose to teach the hero’s journey and incorporate storytelling into your curriculum, you will find yourself embarking on a magical journey where you will connect with your students in deeper ways than you can possibly imagine.

Come learn more about this topic at Jennifer’s workshop at the 2016 National Storytelling Conference, July 21-24, in Kansas City, Missouri.

About Jennifer

A dynamic storyteller, Jennifer’s original stories are populated with memorable characters that spring vividly to life. Her repertoire also includes myths, legends, fairy and folk tales. She has performed at major festivals across the nation, most notably the National Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, and the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival in Utah. She has produced two award-winning CDs, and her first collection of short stories, Aunty Lily and Other Delightfully Perverse Stories, will be available from Parkhurst Brothers in 2016. Also a gifted educator, Jennifer has taught middle school English and now teaches Storytelling in Education at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.

Contact Jennifer

Phone: 203-421-0625 or 203-376-7220


Finding The Sweet Spot For Relevant Curricula

by Sue O’Halloran

ohalloranIn order to make curricula more relevant to the vast array of cultures represented in our classrooms, teachers and artists need to look for the “sweet spot” where four areas of learning can overlap:

  1. The core curricula for a subject
  2. The individual interests, motivations, personality, learning styles and communication styles of each student
  3. The family and community context in which the student lives – what students already know and learn outside of school and bring to the classroom with them as a way they understand and experience their lives
  4. The sociopolitical, economic and historical context in which students and their families and communities live

The more time teachers can spend in the sweet spot, students are more engaged because they feel seen, valued and respected. Put simply, students do not learn if they don’t feel they belong Lucky for us, storytelling plays a huge role in bringing a sense of belonging and being cared for into each of these four areas.


For this short article, let me give a few examples of bringing stories into junior and high school subject areas, that, unlike English or social studies class, we might not think to use storytelling:

In math class for family and community context, students can investigate:

  • What did things cost when your parents and grandparents were growing up?
  • If your family lived in a country outside of the U.S., what form of money did they use?
  • Compare inflation rates and conversion rates when your parents were children to today’s rates.

For physical education and health:

  • What games and sports did/does your family play?
  • When you get sick how are you taken care of?
  • What health remedies does your family use? How have they changed over time or when moving to another country?

These real world applications are essential for involving students because they value the students’ current knowledge base and recognize the immediate world the students inhabit.

Science, math and any other subject need not only be strict transfers of knowledge about proven theories and principles. They can also be an integrated reflection of how people view and function in the world. We always want to give our students mirrors -where they see themselves and their families reflected in respectful ways – and windows -where they come to understand all the different ways people live, make sense of their lives and survive and thrive. To investigate the larger sociopolitical, economic and historical context for math and science, for example, a class might explore:

  • Tell the story of one day in the life of a family of four in our town who are living on two minimum wage salaries and what they do to make ends meet. Include their budget for shelter, food, utilities and day care.
  • Tell about a moment of decision from the point of view of a child living in a dwelling other than a “house”. Include the home’s shape, size, floor space, amount of private and communal space.
  • Tell the story of a community leader who takes a stand for the air and water quality in her neighborhood. Include how the decision was made to locate a toxic dump near her home.

This is just a small snippet of ways teachers and artists can make their teaching more relevant and engaging. Some of the most challenging work, however, is the introspection educators must do on themselves. Cultural relevancy isn’t just about adding other cultural references but also understanding our cultural lens and our subject matter from new perspectives: For instance,

  • What was I taught about other group’s families, communities, history and ability to achieve? How much connection do I have now with the communities in which my students live?
  • How has literacy in your subject been a gatekeeper to educational and personal success?
  • How do issues of race and class affect the teaching and learning of your subject?

It is not easy to teach what we may have never learned or to examine the ways our beloved subject matter may have added to our country’s exclusion, but the effort is well worth it when you see the look in students’ eyes that says, “Yes, this subject is about me, my family and my world! I love learning!”

Come learn more about this topic at Sue’s workshop at the 2016 National Storytelling Conference, July 21-24, in Kansas City, Missouri.

About Sue

Susan O’Halloran has been seen on PBSABC Nightline and in the New York Times, Boston Glove and Chicago Tribune. Sue has presented over a dozen times at NSN conferences and is a recipient of NSN ORACLE Leadership and Service and Circle of Excellence Awards. She brings a comprehensive 7 Step Program to organizations who are serious about avoiding strained relationships plus PR nightmares from “incidents” and the possibility of harassment and discrimination suits.

Sue has videotaped over 170 social justice stories by professional storytellers and produced the first online storytelling festivals that had a Facebook reach of over 112,000 and where people in over 50 different countries participated.

Contact Sue