"Notes about providing school residencies to students from a variety of cultures within the United States."
In January, during a two-week storytelling residency at an elementary school in Las Vegas, I was surprised to find several exchange students from Korea included in my “core group.” These students were hosted by families and teachers at the school, and were attending classes with the third, fourth and fifth grade rooms I visited on a daily basis. I was not expecting to have an international experience at this school, so I quickly adjusted my lesson plans in order to encourage participation by the exchange students. Like most youngsters in groups, some of the Korean students were more outgoing than others. Their level of participation seemed to be directly related to their ability to speak and understand English, but it was obvious to me that the storytelling sessions were appreciated and enjoyed even by those with limited English skills.
I was delighted when several Korean students had fun with the storytelling exercises I introduced. In one third grade class, two Korean boys offered to tell their favorite folk tale, “The Youngest Brother.” He and his friend agreed to tell the story in tandem, giving the entire class an opportunity to enjoy the sound and rhythm of Korean as the story unfolded in both languages.
I found their version of the sparrow and the two brothers - one kind and helpful, and the other mean and deceitful - to be absolutely wonderful! In their rendition, sweet, fresh water flowed from the pumpkin for the kind brother, and foul water (“pee-pee water“) was the mean brother’s reward. The exchange students seemed pleased the class was interested in hearing the tale in Korean, and they spent quite a bit of time in front of the class discussing the best words to use as they translated the tale for us. What a joy! This experience was a highlight of my two weeks at that school. I will always cherish the memory of this cultural moment, and treasure the feeling I had as I watched the faces of the American students and the Korean visitors during this wonderful and spontaneous telling.
I drove directly from Las Vegas to Page, Arizona to deliver a four-week residency program. The elementary school (K - 5) has about 620 students, most of whom are Navajo (official statistics: 91% Navajo, 8.5% Anglo, and .5% Hispanic, Asian and African American). The title of this project was “Celebrating Cultures and Traditions, Storytelling and Expressive Language.“ This was a “make good” residency, since the grant award given to another artist last year did not take place as planned. As you can imagine, this fill-in status put me at a disadvantage, since I had not been part of the initial planning for the grant. I am happy to report that once I arrived and got my bearings, things went quite well!
At the request of several teachers, I was asked to find a way to help the Navajo children become focused on something other than being aware that all eyes were on them when they participated. I quickly learned that “look at me while I do this,” is not an area of comfort for the Navajo child. After providing a few example stories, I introduced simple puppets for the children to use as they explored a story of their choice. For some, this was a perfect solution. These students asked the puppet questions about the story, and the class helped review the story by reminding the puppet about “what happened next.”
Several of the puppets I use come from other countries (France, Russia, Indonesia and China), so I used them as examples to explain how stories and puppets from around the world reflect details specific to each place. The students seemed to enjoy examining the globe, to identify the area where each story and puppet originated.
I found many of the students in Page to be quiet, watchful and respectful. They clearly enjoyed the fun of storytelling and puppets, yet they chose to be audience members instead of performers. I did not force the issue, but let each child work at his or her comfort level.
At the conclusion of my initial session with a group of first graders, the children quietly filed out of the room. One little boy hung back, and without looking at me, took my hand as he joined the rest of his classmates. I was sincerely touched by his gesture, and felt that he was thanking me in his own way.
During my second week, children began to stop by the room where I had my classes. Two sisters stopped by at the end of the day and spent time asking me questions and looking at the various games and props I use when I meet with classes. I found it interesting that during classroom meetings, these two girls were very quiet and observant. When they visited me after school, however, they were active, talkative and animated.
A few days later, one fourth grade girl stopped by to see me during her lunch hour. The next day, she brought three of her classmates. Before I knew it, the girls were planning to do an original story/play for a kindergarten class.
From Page, Arizona, I traveled to Yerington, Nevada, - a rural, farming community east of Reno. At this elementary school, I encountered a demographic mix of children from Anglo(67%), Hispanic (22%) and Native American (10%) heritage. A small number of Asian and African American students are also enrolled at the school (1%).
The interesting thing about this tiny town is the Jeanne Dini Performing Cultural Center. This lovely 1912, three-story structure was the area’s first school, and is centrally located on the campus along with the current elementary and middle schools. The building was about to be torn down, but was saved at the last minute, and has been beautifully restored as a cultural center for the community. This center brings touring performances of stellar quality into Yerington for people to enjoy. As a visiting artist, this lovely stage was made available to me as well. It is on this professional stage, ten classes of first and second-grade students performed group stories at the conclusion of the residency.
Although there were many high points during this project, the one I recall most took place when a Paiute boy in the second grade volunteered to be the storyteller for his class. His teacher was extremely pleased and surprised when the boy had volunteered, since this child usually does not participate at this level. He confidently delivered the class story using the microphone on the theatre stage. The delight and pride he, his classmates and his teacher exhibited when the story was over, was something special to behold.
After ten weeks on the road, it was good to finally be back home in Tucson. I’m tired, and there is a pile of work waiting for me. Yet, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. What a great time I had.!
Note: Pay for residency work is fair, but you won’t get rich from it. Since each state has a different rate scale, I won’t go into this subject here. I will say, however, that the money I receive from doing residencies makes it possible for me to pay my bills and have time to plan other storytelling venues without financial worry for a little while.