Telling Stories to Little Ones

by Mij Byram

byramIt was the second day of torrential Florida rains. At the Florence Fuller Child Development Center, first and second graders came into the lunch/story room all herky-jerky and bouncy-flouncy after their milk and cookies snack. They were unable to sit or even stand still for more than 3 seconds. The energy was palpable and frenzied. What to do? Let them move. Move in unison. From an array of choices I chose a few yoga moves and a little Qi Gong with some imagery.

I told them I had a scary story for them. They liked that idea. I turned off half the florescent lights and told them the “Twinkies” story. A story about a time when I was 7 and felt invisible and scared and how I used feeling invisible to my advantage, how I overcame fear by facing fear and about how things have changed now that I can look back years later.

The kids of course wanted to know if it was a true story, (it was) and how I could turn invisible. I told them what it felt like. Many kids acknowledged feeling that way themselves. Others wanted to try it.

We all stood, each child directed their eyes to the floor, hands at their side, we slowed our breath, put our focus inward and floated out of the room through the busy office past receptionist and office workers, past administrators and clients and for those few minutes on a rainy day those children knew what it felt like to be invisible. It was not a feeling of helplessness or vulnerability. It was the feeling of a new power, power over ourselves and our environment.

Children need to hear stories not just because storytelling promotes literacy or builds character. Those are indeed benefits, but not the only reason for telling stories to children. The pure pleasure and joy of listening to stories is reason enough.

If story is a seed of creativity and if growing storytellers is what we do, then we need to plant the seed in fresh and fertile soil. Our future healers and heroes, politicians and peddles, warriors and woodcutters, teachers and tricksters, all need stories told eye to eye and heart to heart. And they need them today.

Telling stories to children is no less important, no less challenging or serious, than telling to adults. It is just the opposite. Telling stories to young children is not for the weak or weary, the unskilled, inflexible or undeveloped. Children deserve all the best there is. The same rules apply. Know and respect your audience. Treat them honestly and with integrity, be present, give the best you have to give.

About Mij

Children now in their teens are telling the stories they learned from Miss Mij. She connects with the young listener because she remembers what it’s like. If you have ever been young or short, you’ll appreciate her point of view. She believes in serious play.

Mij offers workshops, playshops and storytelling programs for children and adults and has published a monthly online newsletter, South Florida Storytelling News, since 2005.

TELLING LITTLE ONES AND I DON’T MEAN LIES is a workshop about knowing and respecting the youngest audiences and connecting with them through play. This workshop will be presented at the NSN National Storytelling Conference, Richmond VA., August 1-4, 2013

Contact Mij



Sparks and Brush Strokes: What Storytellers Can Learn from Emily Dickinson

by Jay O’Callahan

ocallahanEmily Dickinson was an artist who worked at her craft as we storytellers do. She worked with metaphor, cadence, rhythm, rhyme, character and shape. One critic called her a primitive in that she saw everything as if it was there for the first time. She can teach us about surprise and about the importance of searching for a brief phrase, a brush stroke that brings a moment alive.

In one poem she writes, “The moon was but a chin of gold.” A chin of gold is so much more interesting than a sliver of gold. She writes again about the moon saying,

Her Bonnet is the Firmament
The universe her shoe.

I can imagine when Emily wrote that line, “the universe her shoe” she might have jumped up, clapped her hands. She thought deeply and originally about life and yet she kept something of the joy of girlhood always with her. She searches for the word. She writes, “Night keeps fetching stars.” It’s that word “fetching” that is unusual and we’re glad she found it. Or “The wind tapped like a tired man.” Again we are surprised.

What I hope to do in the workshop is to work with “sparks”, simple words that evoke memories that are simply waiting to emerge. Those memories are often fresh and in them we find a brush stroke or a word or a metaphor that’s new.

Emily Dickinson’s flood subject was living and dying. She’s interested in all of life. Some of her verses are full of hard questions. Are her prayers heard? Is there life beyond the grave? “God’s Right Hand . . . / is amputated now / and God cannot be found –” She’s often frustrated, sad, hurt, yet writes a letter to Elizabeth Holland in October of 1870 that,

Life is the finest secret.
So long as that remains, we must all whisper.

Dickinson reminds us that ordinary life is quite amazing. And that is her subject. Again she writes, “Drama’s Vitallest expression is the Common Day.” What can be more common than news? There is always news. So a poem begins,

The Only News I know
Is Bulletins all Day
From Immortality.

That last line, “From Immortality”, is unexpected and not only surprises us, it enlarges us. It reminds us that there is something vast about this business of living.

In the workshop in addition to working with “sparks” and brush strokes, we’ll explore telling things at a slant. She writes,

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies

And she finishes the poem

The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

Dickinson challenges us to find the right word, to see life freshly, and to explore all of life through our art – storytelling.

About Jay

Jay O’Callahan takes a bare stage and single-handedly transforms it into a dynamic and sensitive world filled with compelling characters.  He has performed at festivals and theaters throughout the world, including at the Olympics, and been applauded by the media, including The Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly. The Associated Press trumpeted him as “a theater troupe inside one body.” Time Magazine dubbed Jay “a genius.”

Jay has received numerous awards for his performances, books, and media and also is a regular contributor to National Public Radio.  Don’t miss your chance to learn from him on this blog topic at the 2013 National Storytelling Conference, August 1-4, in Richmond, Virginia:

Contact Jay



Accessing the Creative Spirit through Professional Improv Techniques

by Karla Huntsman

huntsmanWhen I was growing up, and even in my college years, before I answered a question in a classroom, I pre-planned exactly what I was going to say and when I answered,  carefully followed the script in my head, little noting reactions of fellow class members.  There was a great deal of tension in the whole process. I admired deeply those people who could seemingly formulate words and meaning as they spoke– those who seemed thoroughly at ease and comfortable in the present moment.

“How do they do that? “ I wondered.

When I discovered the world of theatre improvisation, I began to find answers. In improv, there is no time to be worried about what to say next, no time to be focused on personal issues,  and no time to be lost in past or future events.  Words and actions flow freely as a result of being thoroughly engaged in the present moment.  As a result,  a “flow state” is created.

Csikszentmihalyi (1990) describes this “flow state” as:
–a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter — a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

We know as storytellers that being in the present moment during performance is essential to the craft.   It is also indispensable in the creation process.  Improvisation is a terrific tool for  creating  the “flow state” necessary for both performance and  as a prelude to originating creative, inspired work.

Many people think improvisation can only be done in a group setting, but this is not so.

Before a performance or before originating a story piece, the following are a few improvisation techniques done alone which will create the “flow” state.

  1. Lay a stack of 20 pictures of characters (animals, unusual characters) on a table near you Begin to speak, using dialogue and voice of one of the characters. After a few seconds, switch to the next picture. Switch again.   Keep switching, with no pre-planning of character dialogue and voice.
  2. Look at an object in the room. Begin talking about the object.  Describe the object, talk about an experience you have had with the object,  talk of the feelings you have for the object or simply talk of anything that randomly comes to mind when looking at the object.  Keep talking for about 20 or 30 seconds, then move on to another object, and another and another. Keep talking. Don’t pre-plan. Let the “flow state” happen.
  3. Turn on the music and dance. Let your arms go, let your feet go. Don’t pre-plan moves. Just dance!
  4. Pick two characters and begin writing dialogue. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Do not stop for any reason. Keep going. Don’t censor.
  5. Sit in a chair in a room. You will be doing a scene between two characters.  Shift in the chair or stand to denote different characters. Begin a conversation as one of the characters. Respond as the other. Continue the conversation for 20-30 seconds or longer. Choose two new characters and begin again. Make as great a difference in the two characters as possible:

one high voice, one low
one fast voice, one slow
one angry, one scared
one authoritative, one meek

(These exercises are adapted from Mick Napier’s wonderful book: Improvise. Scene from the Inside Out, 2004).

Just as story is the SEED OF CREATIVITY, so is the CREATIVE SPIRIT the seed of story. Improvisation is a wonderful way to access the inventive, present moment sensibilities essential for both performing and producing creative work.

About Karla

“If you don’t know the trees, you may be lost in the forest, but if you don’t know the stories you may be lost in life.”–Siberian Elder

Making meaning through story and theatre activities has been Karla’s life work. Before turning to freelance storytelling and drama specialist work, Karla spent over 25 years on the faculties of four universities teaching storytelling, drama education, public speaking and interpersonal communication. She has provided residencies, workshops, teacher in-services  and conference presentations at state, national, and international venues.

Currently, Karla works as a professional teller, drama specialist and performer for the Las Vegas Improvisation Players. She sings, plays guitar, autoharp, washboard, and djembe drum as part of storytelling performances and uses puppetry for younger children.

Contact Karla



Storytelling and Critical Thinking

by Charles Temple

templeStorytelling can teach by imparting truths. But storytelling can also teach by inviting people to think for themselves and create their own truths.  When people come up with interpretations and support them with reasons, they are doing what is called critical thinking. And when different people work together to create responses to stories, they develop something more—like problem-solving, and respect for diversity, and the habit of cooperation—skills and habits that people who don’t live in civil societies too often don’t have and wish they did.

Years ago while working in Eastern Europe and Central Asia as a trainer for the Open Society Institute I stumbled the value of storytelling as a tool for sparking discussions and helping people think critically. Our task was to work with teachers who, shortly after the cataclysmic political changes of 1989, wanted to know how to teach students to think in diverse ways and come up with their own answers to questions. I wanted to demonstrate ways of doing that; and soon found that the quickest way to engage listeners in a pithy subject for a discussion was to tell them a story, usually through a translator who would retell the words in the local language, sentence by sentence.  And then everybody would jump in and say what they thought about it.

Fifteen years and forty countries later it has become clear that storytelling is just a wonderful way to provoke discussions that get everybody thinking together—and you don’t have to go six thousand miles from home to do that. Here in the US, teachers in 45 states and the District of Columbia are now required by the Common Core Standards to teach the way those Eastern European teachers wanted to: so that students will learn to think deeply about issues they care about, stake out positions on those issues and support them with reasons, often in friendly debates with others. Storytelling is humanity’s oldest and most engaging way of putting issues out there for debate. To provoke rich discussions, all you need is to present them in a way that invites questions rather than asserts answers. That, and a few strategies for inviting and hosting discussions.

Some stories pose their own questions. They have questions built right into them. “The Cow Tail Switch,” from West Africa, and “The Theft of a Smell,” from Peru, are examples. You can have a good discussion of each by asking for predictions about the end, or you can use a fancier strategy such as “Corners” that gives people group support as they think of reasons to back their answers.

Some stories contain moral dilemmas that invite exploration. These stories may not come right out and ask a question, but the questions aren’t hard to find. “The Woman of the Sea,” from Scotland, and “The King and the Shirt,” from Russia, are stories that can invite listeners to voice their own questions. But there are strategies that can deepen the discussion and lead to debate. Some of those strategies are “Shared Inquiry,” “Discussion Web,” “Academic Controversy,” and “Value Line.”

And some stories seem straightforward, but can still yield up engaging issues with a little work. “Jack and the Beanstalk,” from England; “Hansel and Gretel,” from Germany; “The Boy Who Lived With the Bears,” from the Seneca Indians of Upstate New York; “The Orphan Boy and the Elk Dogs,” from the Blackfoot people of the Northern Plains; and “A Gift of Laurel Blooms,” from the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky, can all inspire interesting thoughts. But sometimes to get at the heart of these stories you need to to twist them around. And sometimes you need to climb inside the skin of the characters and see what they are going through.  Strategies like retelling them by casting people in different roles, or comparing them to other stories, or relating them to life, or dramatizing them can all lead to good discussions.

I look forward to seeing you in Richmond at the National Storytelling Conference this August.

About Charles

As a teacher, author of children’s books and textbooks, and leader of workshops for teachers and writers, my work has taken me to more than 30 countries in North America, Central and South America, Europe, the Caucasus, Central and Southeast Asia, and East and West Africa–with support from USAID, the World Bank, UNESCO, CIDA of Canada, the Dutch government, the Open Society Institute, and the International Reading Association. I was born in North Carolina, and lived in South Carolina, Virginia, and Texas before moving to Upstate New York, where I chair the education department at Hobart & William Smith Colleges and have happily taught for thirty years.

Contact Charles

Charles Temple
Education Department
Hobart & William Smith Colleges
Geneva, New York 14456


Bay Area Storytelling Festival Study Trip-2013

by Gini Cunningham-Baefsky

Recipient NSN Spotlight Grant

bayareaIf you ask any De Anza, Pinole Valley or Hercules High School Interact Service Club student what their most important educational experience has been to date, they are likely to tell you (in unison), ‘the Bay Area Storytelling Festival Study Trip’. Not only is it the best field trip ever, but the students agree that they spent years in anticipation of the day when they could join the ranks of teen helpers and run the Study Trip itself. And they have, under the thoughtful tutelage of Robin Yee Wilson, Study Trip Coordinator.

During her fifteen years as event chair, Robin and the Bay Area Storytelling Festival Study Trip brought storytellers to over 8500 elementary age school children, accompanied by teachers, aides and supervising parents. Many high school students who attended the study trip when they were in elementary school joined an Interact Service Club in high school to give back, and to help with their local storytelling festival.

Providing young students with an opportunity to fall in love with storytelling, seeing children transformed by the magic of stories, and then watching those teens insist on helping the next generation experience `festival magic’ has been extremely satisfying for Robin and her group of dedicated volunteers. Robin reports that after attending the Study Trip in 2012, one third grade class when asked to make oral reports remarked unanimously that they wanted to give their presentations like “storytellers”, standing tall, with chests out, and dramatic deliveries.

This year marks the 16th annual Bay Area Storytelling Festival Study Trip. Robin Yee Wilson recently retired from her leadership position with the Study Trip and has passed the torch to three new chair-persons; Michael Baefsky, Gini Cunningham-Baefsky and Jean Ellisen. They are busy at work, excited for the day this year (May 17) when 500 students will have an opportunity to hear Len Cabral, Yvette Brandy and Will Hornyak.

The Study Trip and Bay Area Storytelling Festival will take place at the Craneway Pavilion and Conference Center, and at the Richmond Library, in Richmond, California May 17- May 19, 2013. The Craneway is an old Ford automobile factory, converted to war production during World War II, and staffed primarily by women who are known proudly as `Rosies’, derived from the cultural icon “Rosie the Riveter.”

Children attending the Study Trip will have an opportunity to learn about the Rosies through interactive games organized with park rangers and volunteers from Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, which is located next door to the Craneway.

This year the Storytelling Association of California’s (SAC) received an NSN Regional Spotlight Grant (Pacific Region), on behalf of the Bay Area Storytelling Festival Study Trip. This was one of seven grants given to producers of storytelling events for their dedication to connecting people to and through storytelling. SAC and the Bay Area Storytelling Festival (BASF) committee are grateful for this endorsement of the Study Trip and acknowledge Robin Wilson, Erica Lann-Clark (Northern California NSN State Liaison) and Kirk Waller (President of SAC) who wrote and submitted the grant proposal.

Gratitude is also extended to the BASF outreach sub-committee, Jean Ellisen and Liz Nichols, who have with the help of Karin Werner, organized Free Family Story Concerts at libraries to build awareness of the Study Trip and the festival. In addition, friend-raising activities with a variety of community organizations have yielded new friendships and financial support to help defray expenses. Kudos to private friends and donors who are sponsoring a class from a low income school, and directly donating funds to SAC that are earmarked for use at the Study Trip.


The Storytelling Association of California (SAC) is a regional voice for story listeners and storytellers in California, reminding the local and national community of the power and the joy of storytelling. SAC presents the Bay Area Storytelling Festival, an annual multicultural weekend of storytelling produced entirely by volunteers.  As part of the festival, they put on the School Study Trip, which NSN is proud to sponsor as our 2013 Pacific Regional Spotlight Event.  This year May 17th-19th marks the 27th Bay Area Storytelling Festival and 16th School Study Trip.


Bay Area Storytelling Festival:
Storytelling Association of California: