Making a Difference… or Not

There comes  a time, and it comes with increasing frequency, to reflect on the purpose of my work. According to Will Durant’s definition, We are what we repeatedly do. (Will Durant 1885-1981) I’m  a storyteller, a writer and a musician and if called for, I can elaborate on the genre, medium and style of my practice. However, the diversity and context  of my work has changed over the years and I find myself opting for a more general and inclusive term to describe my work – artist.

I am an artist. I am no more special than any other human being, and my work is no more important than anyone else’s, or less for that matter. Obviously if your house is burning down you want to have a firefighter on hand, not a storyteller, and if you have a brain tumour you want a neurosurgeon not a ukulele player.

Generally speaking, artists don’t ‘save’ lives, so we don’t fall into the ‘heroic’ category of workers. However many of us in the arts education and health and well-being field believe our work can improve the lives of others, and this is at the heart of what we do. We want to make a difference.

One of the first things many artists are told when working with marginalised people or undertaking community development or health education projects that address ‘big’ issues in communities or sections of them, is ‘don’t think you can make a difference,’ or words to that effect. We are reminded that we are ‘not the first to try and make changes here,’ and that we ‘shouldn’t expect too much.’ Health workers and educators may also be greeted with similar sentiments. Rest assured I have spent many hours reflecting on the impact of my work and whether I and other community artists make a difference.

Evaluating the work of artists in communities is problematic because evidence-based programmes and projects often expect the artist to also be the researcher. The fashion of having everyone do everything does not lead to excellence. It’s not the democratisation of skills (unless people want to learn them).  That, a reliance on quantitative rather than qualitative methodology, (numbers versus stories)  and a lack of sustainable funding has meant that many arts programmes are not ongoing or connected to each other.

So why do I continue to be an artist and not a (substitute what you like)? I have listed a few examples of why I believe my work makes a difference. It may not make a difference to a lot of people but to make a difference in one person’s life is enough for me.

The two year Storytelling for Literacy and Connectedness Programme had many outcomes, from picking up on children’s hearing problems to strengthening their relationships with their carers. However one outcome stood out for me.  A young mother told me she read a book. Seeing the joy her children experienced from being read to and told stories in the storytimes, we brought to the young mothers group, inspired her to want that for herself. She hadn’t read a book since being at school, and then she only read the prescribed texts because she had to. Now she chose to read a book for her own pleasure. Modelling storytelling and story reading is empowering and now she was modelling to her children.

Over my three decades of storytelling I have twice considered the impact of storytelling on people who found it difficult to communicate their responses. In the first instance I would visit a group of people with Alzheimer’s disease and conduct reminiscence sessions, telling stories set in Australia during the 1930’s and 40’s. A worker told me not to worry because half my group went to sleep. She reassured me that  the stories relaxed them and made them content. One woman was often in an anxious state and picking at her clothes, when the sessions began but by the end was showing much calmer behaviour. Another of the ‘awake’ participants told the worker that at the end of a session she felt very happy. She didn’t know why she was happy, she just was. I learnt from this, the power of being in the moment and that the emotions experienced listening to stories are more important than the stories themselves.

At the Support Unit at my local primary school I spent a number of years playing music and storytelling with children who had disabilities, some with severe and life threatening illnesses. While some children were active participants, others, because of their illnesses could listen but it was difficult for me to gauge their responses. Working closely with the teachers and aides helped me to interpret individual responses and interact accordingly.  A child who I mistakenly thought was happy because she was was smiling was in fact, fitting. As I got to know the children over the years and in consultation with the aids, I became familiar enough with their verbalisations and movements to be able to understand when they were engaged in the storytelling. They taught me about being in the present, spontaneity and communication, and I will be forever grateful for their teaching.

As an artist I have learnt the following and much more:

I am not an engineer who can build a bridge across treacherous terrain that will shorten the distance and make it safer for children to walk to school, but I can build a bridge of desire for knowledge, where a child can learn from and care for others.

I am not a surgeon who can restore a limb, remove a cancer or heal a broken body, but I can facilitate the telling of a story to demand justice, heal pain and ease sufffering.

I am not a farmer who grows food to nourish family, friends and community, but I can plant seeds into the minds of young people so that they will grow and mature into productive, resilient and beneficial human beings.

Artists Can Make a Difference

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Photo by Roman W Schatz

The Story of Philosophy: the Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers by Will Durant,(1924) New York: Simon & Schuster

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At the age of 57 she realised all she wanted was a living wage

How do you survive? Not by selling crocheted hats at markets that’s for sure! I admire any artisan who can make a living as a market seller, but most I’ve spoken with supplement their income from markets through selling online and they usually have another ‘proper’ job or income support. For the first time in my life I have no income from any source but my music and storytelling. I am too young for the pension and too old to be on the checkout at the reject shop. I am not going to centrelink to be taught how to write a job resume and then spend my precious time applying for inapproriate positions in marketing and sales. So before anyone takes it upon themselves to see me gainfully employed there are a few points to consider. I am a feminist, a socialist, and a humanitarian. I have a strong sense of ethics, will speak out against injustice and advocate for the disempowered. Too late to be a candidate for the United Nations new Secretary General, but even that position is not up my alley because I’m a storyteller and musician. These are the mediums I work in.

How about volunteer work? Often seen as a way into paid work I believe all artists volunteer in their communities, or all the artists I know do, to varying degrees. For the past sixteen years I presented weekly storytime sessions to the kids at my local school, the last ten years working with children with learning difficulties through to children with severe diabilities in the school’s support unit. This was my heart work, because the children in the support unit taught me how to be a better human being, and I am eternally grateful to them for the privilege of sharing songs and stories with them. However having an income also meant that I could commit to voluntary work. As to ways into paid work, there was never any interest expressed by the leadership in the school to have me conduct storyarts programmes or be an artist in residence. I suspect an attitude typical of many schools in Australia.

So maybe you just aren’t good enough? I have worked in some of the world’s elete international schools and given papers and workshops at international teaching and librarian conferences. I travel to urban and rural areas in Australia to provide professional development training in oral literature and storytelling to early childhood educators. I still do and tomorrow I may receive a reply from one of the hundreds of organisations I email each month saying ‘we want you’ for whatever project/professional development/concert/programme they are organising. Then again, I may not. Much is dependent on funding and getting to the right person. My degree is in performing arts, not librarianship or teaching so those two traditional employers of women are not a haven for me.

So what is the solution? A living wage for every person, regardless of what they do. I hear the haters harking back to that old eighties term of abuse, ‘dole bludger.’  What about the capitalists who make money out of money? No one ever calls them investment bludgers and demand they pay tax! (Actually some of us do but they are more likely to be revered as heroes or larrikins and put on congratulatory rich lists than be made accountable as white collar criminals).

Still, having a living wage is a human right. A more equitable society is not only more just and compassionate , it is more productive. It means that my friends in their 50’s and 60’s who are not working full-time can continue to look after their grandchildren, make art and carry out the tasks associated with their role as community  elders.

Pictured is Artist Joy Serwylo and granddaughter

Cause They Are Wild

The Early Years Conference in Cairns offered me my first experience of being in Far North Queensland. For a number of years I have been interested in Australian flora and fauna, so I was very excited to be visiting Crocodile, Cassowary and Tree Kangaroo country. I wanted to see some of the wildlife without going to Crocodile farms or ‘zoos.’ I did however go to the Cairns Botanic Gardens, which I highly recommend.

On my walks I encountered a scorpion, an eel, butterflies, turtles and birds, both familiar and new, but no tree kangaroos, cassowaries or crocodiles. I consoled myself with the knowledge that just because I can’t see them doesn’t mean they can’t see me (These comforting thoughts do not apply to crocodiles!)

However I did hear stories about them, especially the destruction of cassowary habitat. Not only does their displacement causes them to be on the roads and subsequently run over, but they have more contact with humans, (benefitting neither humans or cassowaries.)  Their population is seriously under threat! Meanwhile the crocodile population is increasing and there are numerous warning signs alerting the public to their presence.

When I went back down south I read about a recent wombat attack of a woman walking two dogs, in Canberra. It didn’t surprise me because the wombat would have been frightened by her dogs and responded as any wild animal under threat does. I’ve known of many kangaroo attacks, especially when they have been fed by humans and therefore expect all humans to feed them, becoming aggressive when they’re not. It got me thinking about why some people believe Australian animals all want to kill you! (They don’t. They are simply wild animals.) So I wrote a song called Cause They Are Wild.

Understanding that Australian native animals are wild is important. Children need to be taught about safe distances to approach wild animals, how to identify animals who feel threatened and how human behaviour can effect an animal’s behaviour. Hopefully this song will help embed some useful safety knowledge into listener’s brains.


 

 

Early Years Conference Cairns 2016

There is nothing like having your work scientifically validated! At the Early Years Conference in Cairns, Australia, I attended the keynote address by Dr Lane Strathearn, a neuroscientist and Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Iowa, and experienced this. He spoke on his research into mother-infant attachment, brain function and neuroendocrine systems and how they relate.

‘Infancy is a time of rapid neural development, in which repetitive, attuned social experiences – most often involving facial expressions- are transformed into neural connections, and pathways that become the foundation for social behaviour… Our research has demonstrated that mothers with secure patterns of attachment show greater brain reward response when viewing their own infant’s faces, and increased release of the hormone oxytocin during mother infant interaction. This is accompanied by more attuned maternal behaviour, including verbalization regarding the infant’s internal state, and mother-to-infant gaze during infant distress.’

Neuroscience supports Baby Bounce/RhymeTime/0-5 groups because they strengthen baby’s brain development as well as mother/carer bonding with their baby. Further neuroscience research into the impact of depression, addiction and unresolved trauma on mother-baby attachment shows that there may also be effective treatments.

For many years I have maintained, as I am sure many other early childhood educators also believe, that the more we put into resourcing and supporting mothers and babies, early childhood education and arts and health programmes for young children and their families, the better the outcomes will be not only for the participants i.e. children and families, but all levels of our society. Specific early literacy/live language programmes for babies and their carers have been offered by numerous public libraries in Australia over the last decade. But we need more. In previous blogs I have spoken about the myriad of outcomes gleaned from them.

My workshop at the conference, Humble Offerings: The application of oral literature in family support and early childhood education settings gave an overview of 3 projects which I have referred to in previous blogs. Each had oral literature; storytelling, rhymes and songs as their foundation. They were conducted to provide positive literacy experiences to parents, carers and teachers, and the children themselves. Additionally the first project also had a specific health objective.

The Tales for Terrific Talkers project was a year long project in collaboration with Port Macquarie Speech Therapists, to trial storytelling as a speech therapy technique for the treatment of speech and language delays in children aged 2-8.

Storytelling for Literacy and Connectedness was a two year programme conceived by Kempsey Library to provide outreach storytimes to families with young children in need of supported literacy programmes, such as young mothers groups, supported playgroups and Aboriginal Preschools.

Everyone has a place: Positioning Aboriginal kids in the World Through Storytelling was a 6 week storytime programme to follow on from the Storytelling for Literacy and Connectedness Programme based at two Aboriginal preschools in Kempsey.

In each programme the presentations had a twofold purpose; to create a positive shared storytelling experience and to mentor the adults to recreate this experience in the home or early childhood setting. The beauty of oral literature is its accessibility and myriad of applications. In each of these programmes the following outcomes were observed: family bonding strengthened, cultural identity affirmed, listening protocols learnt as well as hearing problems identified.
Thanks to The Early Years Conference Committee for providing a forum where scientists, social workers and educators could meet and discuss how their work intersects and supports each other.

Pictured are  Balaclava Children’s Centre Workers after a Storytime workshop. 

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Baby Bounce

It has been my privilege and pleasure to present a four week Baby Bounce Programme through the Clarence Valley Libraries in NSW in June 2016. Most people who work in Public Libraries are aware of, if not already delivering these library-based family literacy programmes (Baby Bounce, Rhyme Time and similarly named programmes for the 0-2 age group).

Professor Susan Hill has been an advocate and researcher into the outcomes of these programmes over the past decade.  You can read her paper here on the studies she has conducted and the myriad of literacy outcomes achieved through these ‘live language’ programmes.

http://www.unisanet.unisa.edu.au/staff/SueHill/Babybounce.pdf

Here are some photographs from the sessions I have presented, with an accompanying commentary.

  1. Mentoring: Here we are in a photo shoot with our babies. A key component in teaching rhymes and songs is demonstrating positive actions and interactions that can be easily learnt and applied in a home setting, and offering parents and carers accompanying written resources to enhance their skills.

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2. Modelling: “Clap hands, clap hand till Daddy comes home.” Parents and carers are children’s first teachers, and what better way to learn than through songs and rhymes.

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3. Active Listening: “All fall down!” As well as learning concepts such as up, down, high, low, fast and slow, babies extend their vocabulary, learn how to identify rhyming patterns and experience the thrill of anticipating a rhyme’s climax.

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4. Integration: ‘But let the little brumby go bare, bare, bare.” Sharing examples of how we can integrate rhymes and songs into baby’s daily life, such as bath time, change time, sleep time and food time .

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5. Co-operation: “Here is baby’s belly-button, round and round it goes.” When older children are familiar with the rhyme they actively participate in discovering the body parts mentioned in the rhyme for themselves.

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6. Body Awareness: “The Moon is round as round can be.” Skin to skin contact in a gentle rhyme that that teaches about facial features, the senses and shapes.

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7. Trust, Intimacy and Love: Through repeated performance of rhymes and songs by the parent or carer, babies learn to forge bonds of trust, develop intimacy and experience the joy of loving and being loved.

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8. Music-Making and Movement: Babies learn that holding something and shaking or striking it can create a sound. Repeating that movement creates music. Rhymes also have a beat that they can clap their hands and kick their feet too.

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9.  Engagement: Babies are active learners and active listeners. They learn through their senses and from the moment they are born they are interpreting their environment and who is in it. They form strong bonds with their carers and long before they can talk are actively communicating with those around them. The rhythm of walking and talking is a natural one for babies.

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10. Community: Babies are part of our community and enjoy listening to music, experiencing rhymes and expressing joy through active participation like older children and adults do.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhotos by Roman W. Schatz

With Thanks to Katrina Shillam from Clarence Valley Libraries, NSW Australia.

Storyteller: Best Job in the World!

I have the best job in the world! A contentious statement I admit, but I will stand by my words. There are so many reasons why I believe this and chief among them is the people that I work with, primarily children and librarians. Of course there’s also parents, teachers, artists, musicians, healers and advocates for social justice who enhance the mix.
During the past month I have had the pleasure of conducting storytelling and oral literature workshops to staff at an early childhood centre in South Korea and two groups of public librarians in Australia. In each instance I parted with a feeling that the material I shared would in turn be be passed on to the children in their care. And that is my intention; I want to be a conduit for quality stories and rhymes.
There are easily accessible written sources, including my own, for presenting oral literature, however, there is nothing like a live language experience to feel the power of oral storytelling. This is why everyone, babies through to elders enjoy storytelling and oral literature in its many forms. The best evidence for this assertion is on a child’s face when they are experiencing storytelling. Even before children can talk, they can enjoy songs, rhymes, stories and being read to. Here are some pictures from the Baby Bounce sessions I am presenting in June through the Clarence Valley Libraries in NSW.

 

Shared Reading Experiences

In my first year working in public libraries I was asked by an elderly patron the inevitable. Have you got any Enid Blyton books? Naturally being a young and enthusiastic promoter of quality children’s literature I made alternative suggestions, because ‘nowadays there are so many ‘good’ picture books and chapter books for kids.’ All true, with the exception of the patron being elderly, she was probably only a few years older than I am now, but I was young and thought anyone over 50 was old, let alone 60!!! This grandmother had requested the books for her grandchildren; the same books she’d read as a child. While my thoughts were about expanding reading repertoires, she was attempting to create a shared reading experience.

As a storyteller I have learnt the importance of shared storytelling experiences; it’s not about the story it’s about the listener. This adage also translates to reading books together. It’s not about the literary quality of a story, it’s about the effect of the story on the reader/listener. There are many things that a shared reading or storytelling experience does for the participants: it brings them closer together, it connects them, it forges understanding, it opens hearts as well as eyes and ears.

As a young woman I was a self righteous advocate. I think that a few decades on I have tempered the self righteousness in my advocacy and am more open to the perspectives of others. This leads me to the choices I make for shared reading experiences with the children in my life. I have not scoured libraries for copies of The Magic Faraway Tree, even though Enid Blyton figured large in my childhood. (Aside from Milly Molly Mandy author, Joyce Lankester Brisley and in later years Mary Grant Bruce and her Little Bush Maid series and Elyne Mitchell of Silver Brumby fame) books were not endemic in my household. I have kept most of the books from my childhood, but the majority of children’s book in my personal library are those read with my children, usually discovered in a public library and loved so much they were bought for keeping.

Public Libraries have been the equivalent of a dating site for me; one where I don’t have to pay, I can have as many or as few as I want, where I am safe and in control and where I invariably leave satisfied. Further to this I can join a group and discuss my ‘date!’ The difference between a public library and a dating site is that children too can meet books and find passion, comfort and love in their local library.
With the announcement of the 2016 Notable Children’s Books I hope that many new shared reading experiences can be born.

http://cbca.org.au/notables-2016

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Pictured are some of my ‘old flames.’