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


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

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.

Click to access 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.


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.


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.


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 .


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Everyone Has a Place: Positioning Aboriginal Kids in the World Through Storytelling

 ‘Don’t panic. I’m with the Library!’

(Sighs of relief, smiles, even the odd cheer. Everything is going to be all right!)

 I am not a social worker, a missionary, or a parole officer; I am employed by Kempsey Library to present an outreach storytime programme. The approach of the public library to improving the lives of Aboriginal children is one of service and empowerment, without authority. We are ‘agents inspirateur’ modeling, mentoring, resourcing and facilitating the needs of our patrons. Who are our patrons? All those who access our service, whether they walk through the door, are visited in their homes and centres or communicate through phone or internet. Across the country public libraries consistently come up as being the most used of all council services.

There are no hidden (or not so hidden) agendas with public libraries. The only thing we check out are items from our collection (i.e. books, CDs, DVDs etc.) and the only thing we change are what items are on display or available to the public. Librarians aren’t there to proselytize, assess or intervene in peoples lives. We are, on the whole, benign beings, and yet the work we do, particularly with children can be life changing.

For all of the above reasons, public libraries are the perfect organisation to deliver storytimes. 

For the past six weeks Roman and I have been visiting two Aboriginal preschools, once a week to present storytimes for 3-5 year olds. My focus has been on the concept that everyone has a place. The children are very aware of their Aboriginality, being at Aboriginal preschool, and what I wanted to do was build on their knowledge of where they are in the world in relation to everyone and everything else. To do this the storytimes included a globe, props, especially dolls from different cultures, storyboards, picture books, oral stories, rhymes and songs exploring different ecosystems, countries and languages. 

The pictures show not only the media used in the programmes, but the engagement of the children. There are numerous learning outcomes that can be attributed to regular attendance of a multi-literacy activity like a library storytime, from developing listening protocols to an expansion of general knowledge. While every young child has different educational needs, storytime is a flexible and effective medium for addressing many of them. 

There is a higher incidence of hearing loss and associated health and learning issues in the Aboriginal population, than in the broader Australian community. Therefore a focus on language acquisition and development, listening protocols and verbal and gestural communication, is essential to create an inclusive storytime. Working primarily with oral literature enabled me to address these issues while simultaneously presenting a positive literacy experience.

Public Libraries are inundated with families attending their early childhood activities, (Storytimes and Baby Bounce sessions), reflecting both the need in the community for these services and the quality of the providers.

I implore all childcare training providers to teach their students the importance of integrating multi-literacy storytimes into their programmes. A society that nourishes their youngest members with the best food and best learning experiences will enjoy the benefits long after the children have grown up.

Everyone has a home: children looking at a birds nest.

The Matryoshka dolls from Russia.

Learning about where fruit and vegetables grow.

Staff and children made their own garden based on the activity in storytime.

Learning about different houses throughout the world.

Abdullah the marionette, operated by Roman, talks about camels in central Australia. 

Guatemalan worry dolls for children to tell their worries too.

Finding the right home for each animal.

The blue Planet Earth, our home in the Universe

Doing the popular ‘Go Bananas’ rhyme.

Learning the Auslan sign for turtle.

Doing the animal hokey pokey dance.

All photos by Roman Schatz.