No Fairytale

No Fairytale was shortlisted for the Scarlet Stiletto, Sisters in Crime competition in 2016. If I was to dedicate this story to anyone, it would be to the giant slayers; those that speak the truth, listen with their heart and seek justice for the abused, the violated and the forgotten.

Click on the link below to read this short story.

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Beyond Storytime

There is no substitute for live storytelling! Please give your children that experience. If you don’t tell stories yourself, or people in your family don’t, then take them to listen to professional storytellers! Where can you do that?  Depends on where you are in the world. Libraries, Schools and Festivals are a good start. The Beyond the Border Storytelling Festival in Wales is one of the World’s best storytelling festivals with a large contingent of Welsh storytellers and guest storytellers from every continent.

The festival will be celebrating its 25th anniversary July 7th – 9th in 2018, so treat yourself to over 100 performances of musicians and from storytellers from different cultures.  However, if you can’t make it to a live event then don’t despair, they have created an online storytelling site where your children can listen to stories in the comfort of their own homes for a yearly subscription of £11.95. You can subscribe for yourself or if you want to, give a subscription as a gift. Throughout the year, more storytellers will be adding their tales to the site, so your purchase will be an ever expanding one… neverending stories!

When I listened to the stories on Beyond Storytime I was transported back in time to  putting my youngest child to bed. After the requisite story I read to her most nights, she would listen to stories on CD’s. She had definite favourites that she played over and over again. They brought her comfort and helped her settle at night. I trusted those stories in the same way I trust the stories on Beyond Storytime.

Most of them are traditional tales or adaptations thereof, and the voices of the tellers are authentic and lyrical. Complete with talking animals, fairies and dragons, plus a generous helping of Welsh folklore, the collection is unique and diverse.

If you are looking for the perfect gift that expresses love and keeps our oral traditions alive, then subscribe today.

Beyond Storytime

Photo by Roman W. Schatz

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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

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.

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