Partnering provides depth to your craft as a storyteller

by Kevin Cordi, Ph.D.

cordiAs a storyteller and story crafter, how often have you been working on a story and been blocked in your thinking? When you were stuck, were you alone? This is often the standard practice of the storyteller. We reside in empty rooms, cradled at a desk, writing our ideas to create a tellable story. Even though this can create effective results, it is not the only way to craft a story.

I informally interviewed many storytellers and discovered that they work alone. As they work alone, a number said they first work with printed text before speaking aloud.

I strongly encourage a person to play with a partner and engage in a practice I call “word dancing” or living in the world using playful exercises before cementing a story on paper.   Too often the writing becomes a script before one “dances” with ideas. People become handcuffed to script. Instead of being strapped to the words, consider adding a partner when creating your story.

Noted storyteller Jay O’Callahan once said to me, “storytelling is a lonely business.” It doesn’t have to be. Working with story for over 27 years, 14 of those years touring with teens, I have discovered we learn more about the craft of story when we tell together. This even truer when we build a “not ready” story with a partner.

With my teenagers, we shared finished stories, but more importantly, we played with story ideas and out loud experimented with new ways of creating them. We created “deep listening partners” and eventually those partners engaged in exercises to practice ideas within the story.

In order to become a deep listener, one must continually place the focus on the teller. This is a practiced art. It improves over time and reflection. One builds trust so the play can begin.

I recently taught a workshop in Utah at Weber State University with teachers as we told the story of The Three Little Pigs. However, we told it as homicide and as CSI investigators. With the suggestion of a partner, one teacher concentrated on the smells of the story and in the role detective, she started,

When I arrived, the room smelled musty, almost like deep woods. Upon further investigation, I sniffed and discovered the strong scent of hay…”

The teachers were engaging in role to accentuate the investment in the story and coupling this with showing how using a sense, in this case smell, made the story more significant. With the partner, a frame was created for play with this “not ready” story.

This cannot be easily done writing a story alone.

I was working with adult storytellers on a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk. One adult asked a listening partner to tell the story from the end point first. He breathed deeply and said,

“The giant was buried here. Jack’s mother looked at Jack and said, “What did this giant do to you anyway?” It was then that Jack felt guilty for what we had done. He took a breath and began to reveal to his mother his part in the murder.”

In play, we grow. Lev Vygotsky, a social psychologist (1978) said in problem-based play, we are a “head taller” when working with others. We need to work with others as we craft our stories. We will be taller in our work.

Play brings people together. It builds new awareness. It shows that story crafting can be a co-creative art.   With a partner, two minds work for the same cause—to better or explore your story development.

I was invited by Pennsylvania Storyteller Stas Ziolkowski to work with his guild using play. He remembers that this work was not common in the guild.

He shares: “Typically when stories are shared at guild meetings, the teller receives comments and suggestions that are almost like a teacher offering corrections on an essay.  The word play approach is not this.  During the workshop the excitement in the room among the twelve storytellers was invigorating.  My own story repeated to me by my partner immediately became more involved.  In one exercise, she ‘repeated’ my story as she ‘heard’ it and new scenes were envisioned. When she finished, we discussed what had taken place and I gained a renewed interest in making the story even better because of the insight offered by my partner.  I could see many sides to the story because my partner shared this with me. As a result I left the workshop with a clearer understanding of the story and with a need for more partner work.”

I am hoping that more guilds, groups, and partners form from combining play and stories. After all, sometimes the play we engage in as a child is as rewarding as the decisions we make as adults. And as Psychologist Jean Piaget reminds us, “If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society.”

I invite you to find that partner and do the serious work of play. You and your story will grow because of it.


Kevin D. Cordi, Ph.D. is a practitioner of play. For over 27 years he has shared his playful storytelling and teaching in over 40 states, England, Japan, Singapore, Scotland, and most recently, in the Middle East, in Qatar. He is a Co-Director of the Columbus Area Writing Project at The Ohio State University, most recently served as Assistant Professor teaching Applied Storytelling at Ohio Dominican University, and the author of Playing with Stories: Story Crafting for writers, teachers, and other imaginative thinkers with Parkhurst Publishers. You can find out more about his playful approach at and about him at

Stas Ziolkowski is a storyteller who now resides in Pennsylvania. He has been telling stories for more than forty years as a schoolteacher of science, mathematics, and as a planetarium director. You can reach him at

*Be sure to catch Kevin at the National Storytelling Conference in July where he will further share, demonstrate, and model the combination of partnering and play.


Pathways between Science and Story: Deeper Understanding

by Jane Stenson

stensonHow often we tell ourselves that the stories we live by and tell, define who we are…I believe that! I also believe that the tools we use or avoid, embrace or discard define who we are as much as those stories. If I tell a folktale, the accumulated wisdom of the culture shines through…if I see/hold an object/tool – an artifact – the accumulated thoughts and courage of thousands of people shines through. Our tools and our art are our humanity…and our tools are stories of triumph, courage and creation, of optimism, adaptation, and hope.

SO, I began looking at folktales with a new understanding that the science is embedded in the tale – it’s there – and it can be brought forward to show the tale’s relevance in today’s world, a seemingly more technological world, without losing any of the tale’s meaning…and without the linear use of the scientific method or the engineering process. The world is AWESOME! Scientific advances are AWESOME! I mean, you can’t make these things up!

AND then I decided to write another book with my pals Sherry Norfolk and Lyn Ford plus teachers and storytellers titled SCIENCE and STORYTELLING: Strategies for Integrating Science and Language Arts for Grades K – 6. We looked at folktales that emphasized Life Science and Physical Science and Earth & Space Science and created lesson plans that bring out the story and the science that kids are working on in school. The manuscript was mailed to McFarland Publishing a couple of weeks ago and in nine months, well…

Suddenly, I’m paying attention to the science as science! It’s all around me and truth be told, for years I have dismissed the working of my eyes, the dormant plant, the whirring of a motor, the night sky, the light that clicks on with the flick of a switch, the potter’s wheel – what Kevin Ashton calls “the everlasting legacy of our ancestors” in his wonderful book How to Fly a Horse. Why? Because I prefer to tell stories – specifically, how to teach via stories. Aha! science is a story. Stories are all about the technology or science of a culture. And, if I spent more effort thinking like a scientist – observing and experimenting and synthesizing – instead of trying to sneak science into a story OR deny that the story IS about science, I might teach with more forthright accuracy and fewer assumptions. And, the story would be more interesting and informative; the science would show.

There’s more! More thinking! More experiments with trial and error! More integration of story and science – science that I do understand if only I would pay attention. At 10:45 on Friday, July 31st in Kansas City at the NSN conference, we’ll take some of those glorious folktales and pull up the science…making the stories relevant in a new dimension, expanding the tale’s meaning and having a lot of science fun.

Pathways between Science and Story: Deeper Understanding

How can storytelling and science intersect in meaningful ways to foster deeper understanding? In this “working” workshop, we will examine what society/teachers seek in terms of science learning; identify stories that can facilitate science understanding; and explore a variety of ways to use stories to engage in scientific investigation. THAT’S NOT ALL!  The pathway to keeping knowledge whole through story, completes the understanding of science/narrative concepts…which is what we find in the greatest stories!

About JaneA former classroom teacher and university teacher educator (35 years!), Jane is now a storytelling teaching artist, providing project-based residencies and performances in schools. Co-author and co-editor of three books on the relationship of storytelling and education, (and a fourth forth-coming, Jane also serves as chairperson of YES! (Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance) a SIG of NSN. /



Un Pacto Con Mis Miedos—A Pact With My Fears

By Celine O’Malley

OMalley“Ay Dios! Mira el pajaro!” (My God! Look at the bird!) The words flew out of my mouth as I stared out into the audience of the Delfus Bar in Lima, Peru. I was performing, in front of strangers, in Spanish! The moment that thought flew through my mind, my Spanish vocabulary disappeared. I stood there, my arms outstretched, What was the next word?! Oh! I was in my story, but without the right words I was forced to adopt some other modality of expression—I began to sing and twirl around. This impulse turned my story into a new experience. The story was about a grumpy old man whose hip ached, who learned to laugh (and sing!) from a little bird. In that moment of lost words, the song inside my grumpy old man was exposed, and in turn exposed the true essence of the story. The song was a mish mash of Spanish and English words, but mostly just sounds of joy and elation at becoming free of confines—the old man’s aching bones, and my own limitations with language.

The performance was a showcase of women storytellers who had participated in a workshop through La Escuela de Las Palabras (the School of Words), a Lima based group under La Asociación Cultural Wasi, a Peruvian non-profit. My first two weeks in Peru I attended workshops with the director of La Escuela, Peruvian storyteller Wayqui Cesar Villegas. At the time, my Spanish was still warming itself back up after years of non-use. I listened to stories, played theatre games, and was pushed to do things in Spanish that I am normally comfortable doing in English—such as perform for an audience and rehearse new stories with partners. What initially felt like a limitation became a unique tool for exploration and creativity in my storytelling. I had to find other ways to get across what I wished to convey to the audience, and in so doing, I found in myself and in my stories new and untapped potential.

Performing in Spanish also uncovered the deepest, most gut wrenching stage fright I have ever experienced in my life. I had sought out storytelling professionals who could teach and train me. One such individual, Edwin Eduardo Ortiz Espiritu, a storyteller of the Yanesha, a Pre-Incan indigenous group of the native community of Tsachopen, reminded me that even professionals experience fear and uncertainty. He told me that when he first began on his storytelling path, he was afraid. He woke up to the tiger that was his fears each morning, but he made un pacto con sus miedos, a pact with his fears. He recognized the necessary lessons fear had to teach, and in return his fear agreed to let him go forward towards joy and success.

I faced my tiger of fears by performing in front of audiences in a language not my own. What I learned was that by just doing it, by performing despite my fear of failure, or lack of language, I had found my storytelling path. The path of bilingual exploration and creation gave me the strength, confidence, and courage to try and to fail, and to make a pact with my fears, to push forward and succeed. There is not one storytelling guru, or person who knows all, there is just me, my tiger of fears, and my choice to stand up, look that tiger in the eye, and shake hands.

Have you ever told a story in a new language? Share your story below.

About Celine

Celine O’Malley is a storyteller, poet, comedian and educator in Chico, CA. Founder of Chico Story Slam!, producer of the first Chico Tellabration!, and founder of the newly forming Chico Story Guild, Celine is passionate about bringing young and old together through story and using the art of storytelling to further social justice work around the world. Search Facebook for Celine O’Malley.


“Había una vez… Once upon a time…”

by Carrie Sue Ayvar


Magical words. Each summer at my grandparents’ house, my Grandma Selma would ask us, “Where would you like to go today?” Then she would utter those magical words and we would be off – to Europe, Africa, South America and beyond! She taught us that we could travel around the world, visit other places, times and peoples, all through a story… and still make it home for supper!

She would often add flavor and color to her folktales by incorporating words in the language of the home culture of the story. A bissel of Yiddish in her Shtetl stories or a little Russian in her tales of Baba Yaga made me feel that I was truly transported to those times and places without any need to pack.

My grandparents often told me that “it is harder to hate someone when you know their story.” Incorporating another language into one’s stories provides new perspectives and creates a warm and welcoming way to connect our divergent paths and illuminate the road home. As one young lady put it, “Gracias, I can listen with both my ears – Spanish and English!”

What a fun way to foster a sense of understanding and appreciation of our multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-faceted communities!

Are you interested in adding a second language to your tales? Wondering how? Join me this summer at the 2015 NSN Conference in Kansas City, MO. (July 30 – Aug 2) Celebrate and connect our diverse communities by learning strategies and techniques to incorporate a second language into your stories. Fluency in a second language is NOT required.

About Carrie Sue

Carrie Sue Ayvar, Bilingual (Spanish/English) Storyteller and Teaching Artist, grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, spent summers in South Florida and came of age in Mexico. She now lives in her grandparents’ house where she first learned the art of storytelling!


What is a Storytelling Residency?

By Katie Knutson

Many Storytellers, especially those who work with children, talk about doing residencies. Often we forget that newer tellers might not know what we are talking about. This is especially confusing when the term “Artist Residency” means two very different things.


Photo credit – Scott Pakudaitis

A School or Arts Learning Residency

In my experience, when most storytellers talk about residencies they are referring to extended, arts-learning experiences, often offered in schools. These are classes, or sessions, delivered to students one classroom at a time, as opposed to assembly performances, where many classrooms come together to listen.

School residencies are often centered around a theme (e.g., bullying prevention, Italian folklore, life cycles of insects) and align with the school’s curriculum, goals, and/or state (or Common Core) educational standards. The length can vary from a single session to multiple sessions over many months. The goals of residencies vary greatly; sometimes teachers and administrators want a finished product, like a performance or piece of writing, and other times the goals are more skill or process-based, like critical thinking, observation, empathy, or teacher arts integration. There is usually at least one “core group” of students who participate in multiple sessions throughout the residency to work extensively on a particular skill, product, or goal.

A residency should allow students to learn through an art form, teaching fundamentals of both the art and the subject matter. For example, when doing an extended residency on the Civil War, in addition to telling stories about the war and its impact on a variety of people, you may cover research strategies, story arc, civil rights, vocal projection, characterization, and the Battle of Gettysburg, among other things. Before this kind of residency, the teaching artist, either singly or with the classroom teacher, creates lesson plans spelling out the goals and specific activities of each session. Additionally, all arts learning residencies should have built-in evaluations and embedded professional development for the teacher.

Alternately, this kind of residency can take place in Senior Centers, after-school programming sites, museums, daycare centers, adult day centers, libraries, and any other gathering places where people might want to learn in or through an art form.

The Artist Colony, Retreat, Studio Collective, Workspace, or Community

Most often called simply an Artist Residency, these programs open their doors to artists to give them focused time and space to practice their art and create new work. Approximately 500 programs exist in the U.S., with three times that number happening in at least 42 other countries, in both rural and urban settings. These residencies usually provide food and housing, almost unlimited studio time, and support for artists. Some charge a small fee, while others provide stipends. Either way, there is a selective application process.

Lasting from two weeks to a year, these programs usually involve some kind of community involvement, such as a concert, workshop, or artist meet-and-greet, but may also involve more extensive, hands-on, community-based work. Some of these programs host one artist at a time, while others invite up to 50 artists to live, explore, and create together.

For more information on these two types of residencies, see “Planning Your First Storytelling Residency,” earlier on the NSN blog (, which includes a list of resources for school residencies, or check out the Alliance of Artists Communities (, with loads of information about artist retreats.

Have you participated in or taught either kind of residency? Please share your most memorable moments below!

About Katie

Katie Knutson is a Storyteller and Teaching Artist based in Minneapolis. In addition to writing or curating this column (New Voices), 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