“And bird, mosquito, bedbug, crab and snake high-fived each other, shouting in joy that they had done something they could never have done alone. Working together they defeated the horrible Odon the Giant!” With wide-eyed wonder, the young people in front of me clapped in excitement, for in their imaginations, they had become part of the defeat of the strong and powerful by the weak and small. Back to reality, I packed up my storytelling bag and was surrounded by smiling 7 year-olds with questions, comments, smiles, and hugs.
Thus ended another storytelling session with 2nd graders in Poudre School District. As a member of the Spellbinders Storytellers, I am immersed in bringing the ancient art of storytelling to today’s tech-savvy children. About 11 years ago, a retired friend told me of a group of storytellers just getting started. They were looking for people to join their ranks. So after my retirement from teaching, I embarked on a four-week training where we learned the techniques and skills necessary to be successful. We practiced learning and then telling stories to the other adult students. I summoned up all my courage to overcome my natural fear of performing in front of an audience. And then I was ready to give it a go in the real world. For me, the elementary classrooms were very familiar, but I was now wonderfully transformed from teacher to honored guest.
I learned as I went, taking notes on what worked and what didn’t. Remembering a half hour’s worth of stories without using notes is a bit of a challenge. Equally challenging is using voice, gestures, timing, etc. to keep my listeners engaged. They love the occasional “Knock Knock” joke or riddle I challenge them with between stories. I almost always use music in my program, often playing my ukelele as we sing silly songs or songs with gestures. One of the most-loved is a song that feels just a little bit naughty, called “Don’t’ Stick Your Finger Up Your Nose”.
From folk and fairy tales to real life stories, our goal is to pass on wisdom, values, humor, and a sense of community. The magic begins when I put on my storytelling beads and ask them to “click onto their imagination app” where they get to make their own videos while listening to my words. The children get quiet, eyes on me in anticipation. Then begins tales of adventures often related to the classroom curriculum, school values or holidays. Kids especially love Halloween stories, but are also delighted when I weave tales of tricky leprechauns, talking animals who overcome great obstacles, and heroes of all kinds. At the end I invite them to retell my stories to their families and friends.
One of my greatest joys has been telling stories in my grandchildren’s classrooms. Whenever possible we timed our trips to New York to coincide with our grandson’s school schedule so that I could be guest grandma and storyteller. Also once a year I would tell stories in the classes of my two grandchildren in Highlands Ranch. It was a great way to get to know their school environment, and hopefully give a meaningful and special gift to them and their classmates. In addition, the two grands from Highlands Ranch used to beg for stories before falling asleep at our house during their weekend visits. Now I have begun telling stories to my five-year old grandson. “The Belly Button Monster” and “Bark George” have him asking, “Is that real?” I’m anticipating being the storyteller in his classroom some day.
Over the years I have loved receiving cards and letters from students expressing their appreciation and favorite stories. Among the many memorable comments are: “I think you would be a pretty good teacher too, but I like you better when you tell us stories.” “You’re the nicest storyteller in the world.” “Your stories were gold. They made kids happy. You are speshl.”
The children look forward to my visit each month, and their teachers appreciate storytelling as an important part of literacy education. Storytelling is a gift given and a gift received, linking generations. As a retired person and grandmother, I get the opportunity to challenge my aging brain to learn stories, songs, riddles, jokes. I continue to grow and challenge myself to do a better job each time. The children get to see that older people can interact and bring fun and excitement to their day and their learning. We’re not just old fuddy- duddies!
Jean Christen is a retired elementary teacher who indulges her passion for children by telling stories to 2nd graders and babysitting her grandson. Originally from the Midwest, she put down roots in Fort Collins after a stint in the Peace Corps and graduate work at UNC in Greeley (CO). In retirement she has begun writing vignettes about her life to pass down to her children and grandchildren. She lives in Fort Collins with her husband, and together they enjoy family, volunteering, and traveling the world.