Deadly Dogs

How effective is storytelling as a health promotion and education tool? We were about to find out through our work on the Healthy Dogs, Healthy People Project at Lockhart River, a remote Aboriginal Community in Cape York, Australia.

Roman and I have used music, oral literature and visual art in education, health promotion and community strengthening projects, in Australia and overseas. However this project differed to previous ones because the health and welfare of animals was at the heart of it.

The project’s implementation was informed by the evidence-based work of the Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities (AMRRIC), a not-for-profit organisation that uses a One Health approach to coordinate veterinary and education programs in Indigenous communities in Australia. The Healthy Dogs, Healthy People Project  aimed to improve human health by improving care and management, and combat diseases relating to animal (particularly dog) health and welfare in Lockhart River.

The work by AMRRIC in the Northern Territory has shown that improving the health and welfare of the dogs in a community directly impacts on the human population. To this end the Lockhart River Council allows the free registration of four dogs per person. With registration, free veterinary care, including desexing and an Ivomec treatment programme for the elimination of ticks, fleas and parasites is available.

We worked with the Animal Management Team, a veterinarian and ‘Dog Champions’ to inform the community of the benefits of registration, desexing and the Ivomec treatment while simultaneously dispelling myths around the care of dogs. We did this in our usual mediums of songs, stories, art and talking. What emerged from our engagement with the community and animal advocates was the creation of a dog mural, the naming of the Kuu’aka Healing Centre and the production of a calendar for 2017 showing happy, healthy dogs and their owners.

We are looking at the next phase of the project, Pups and Bubs, that will take place later in 2017. Here is a selection of photographs of the project.

 

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Library Storytime: A Positive Literacy Experience

Recently I was asked to give a rationale for conducting an oral literature workshop for Children’s Librarians. The workshop I will be presenting is based on my latest storytelling handbook, Rhyme-a-saurus: treasured rhymes for storytimes, fifty-five fabulous rhymes, raps, songs and dances to liven up library storytimes and pre-school language programmes. Following is an excerpt from my address and further thoughts on what constitutes a positive literacy experience?

‘Children need to experience different forms of storytelling to become fully literate human beings in the twenty first century. Offering library storytimes that include multiple storytelling methods, not only showcases the myriad of ways that stories can be presented, it assists children in finding their own ways of expressing themselves, understanding the world and developing self esteem. Through participating in storytimes children learn that they too can share their stories, verbally, pictorially or dramatically. These mediums of expression are accessible to them before their ability to read and write, but continue beyond the acquisition of text literacy.

Library storytimes offer children and their carers the opportunity to engage in storytelling activities at their own level of comfort. Sharing stories bilingually and with accompanying Auslan shows that humans can speak both with their hands and their mouths. Children learn that there are many different languages that we can share with each other. Songs and rhymes incorporating words and phrases from languages other than English are not only fun for children to learn and say, but welcoming to children who speak languages other than English.

The most effective way of ensuring that children have positive literacy experiences is to provide them with high quality, multi-literacy activities, presented by professional literacy advocates. Library storytimes not only empower children but are also models for carers on the importance of reading and telling stories to children.’

‘The outcomes of the workshop are many and varied. Not only will participants extend their oral literature repertoire for Storytimes and Baby Bounce sessions by learning new rhymes, dances and songs, instructions on incorporating some Australian sign language, use of percussion and simple props will also be given. In addition some material shows how to include languages other than English in the content. There is an emphasis on creating inclusive storytimes that incorporate kinesthetic, visual and auditory learning styles, ensuring the provision of a quality literacy experience for young children and their carers.’

But what is a quality literacy experience? In a very broad sense it is an act that inculcates a sense of joy, achievement, competency, well-being or interest in a person who is receiving or expressing language. But I hear you say that could simply be talking. Yes it could. Verbal communication is our primary way of becoming multi-literate. I use this word because literacy is not only about reading and writing, it is about, as Professor John O’Toole says, ‘ all the symbol systems linguistic and otherwise, that mediate meaning, each with their own literacy demands.’ p.29.

Sometimes storytimes and early childhood language activities are referred to as pre-literacy activities, but I prefer to think of them as being on a literacy continuum. Children don’t stop saying rhymes, singing songs and drawing pictures when they learn how to read and write. As all human beings develop competencies and preferences at different times, then catering to a group of diverse young children and their carers can seem daunting to a storytime presenter. These are my hints for ensuring that you are providing the best literacy experiences possible.

1. Open your heart. The best literacy experiences happen with love and laughter.

2. Talk. Tell your audience what you will be doing, how long the session will go for, what you would like them to do (e.g. adults please sit with the children and turn off mobile phones). Tell them how you feel and ask how they are. An appropriate rhyme/song could follow.

3. Love what you present. Never read a book, say a rhyme or tell a story you don’t like. Practice your rhymes, reading and storytelling  out loud beforehand, so that you feel confident in your delivery.

4. Ask for help. This allows children to develop their self esteem, be the expert and participate freely.

5. Make mistakes. Again this allows children to correct you and feel competent and empowered. It also makes parents and carers feel OK about doing what you do.

6. Be yourself. You are not an entertainer, although storytime can be entertaining, you are not a therapist, although storytime can be therapeutic, you are not a teacher, although storytime can be educational.

7. You are a librarian and your raps, rhymes, songs and stories are nutritious soul food for each child’s journey through life.

Reference:

Education in the Arts – teaching and learning in the contemporary curriculum, Oxford University Press, Melbourne Australia

(O’Toole, J., Sinclair, C. and Jeanneret, N (eds.) (2008), p29

Photo by Roman Schatz

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Where would Storytellers be without Public Libraries?

 

Of course I’m biased when I answer this question. Not only are some of my best friends librarians and my favourite hangouts libraries, but Public Libraries also facilitate my favourite storytelling work in Australia – community storytelling. Pragmatic, professional and connected, I had the pleasure of working with two wonderful library managers from the Walcha and Narrabri Shires of North West NSW. 

 

They organised storytelling sessions for seniors, Aboriginal elders, pre-schools, primary schools, families and adults in various community venues throughout their respective shires. Not only did I gain an insight into the communities themselves, but felt that through the audiences shared storytelling experiences, that I was assisting in forging stronger community connections. Story begets story, and part of my work is to get everyone sharing stories. Whether the stories document social history, share cultural knowledge, promote understanding or simply act as an expression of happiness, oral storytelling is a medium that everyone can enjoy. Despite the dominance of information technology in the lives of children and adults alike, storytelling is still something that satisfies a deep hunger in the soul. However it is often not given its due because people have either forgotten or never known its power.

 

The stories that I share in different community settings are determined by the receptivity of my listeners. In one library I had kids from three small schools booked into the session and there were also a few high school kids truanting. The library was a safe place for them to go (a sanctuary with free computers and a librarian who was helpful and kind). They were there, regardless of whether they should be or not, so were part of my audience. They continued to play on their computers, with one ear on what I was doing and then one left the group and sat in on the session, listening attentively. If ever there was a kid hungry for stories it was him. 

 

 It was a highly satisfying storytelling tour, with librarians and storyteller pledging to have further collaborative storytelling projects in the future.

 

Photos: Elaine and Hope at Walcha Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HACC group  

              Students from Wee Waa Schools

              Men’s Group Walcha

              Walcha Preschool and Kindergarten

              Narrabri Preschools at Storytime in the Library

              Walcha Library Adults evening

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Storytellers Journey

The journey metaphor is a common one in storytelling discourse. Many storytellers view themselves as guides; expansive, informative, nurturing or laconic, each teller possessing their own unique presentation style, and the story itself is a journey that the listener embarks upon. A traveller may traverse the same track many times or a listener hear the same story told by different tellers, but this does not mean that their experience of the journey will be the same each time.  The Greek philosopher Heraclitus succinctly puts the view that ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’

Like the hiking guide, a storyteller has a duty of care to those who consent to be taken on the journey. This includes preparing their listeners for the story and then bringing them to the end of the tale. If, along the way, the listener chooses to leave the storyteller’s company, then that is their prerogative.  In the same way a hiker may turn back, reasoning that they cannot complete their trek, the story listener can also leave off listening, and if they want, leave the storytelling space altogether. But how far is the storyteller accountable for their listener’s departure?

It is only the storyteller’s responsibility for a listener leaving a concert if the teller has not informed or has misinformed the audience as to the content or length of the performance. Generally speaking, the storyteller aims to create a moving experience for the listener. Storytelling may evoke an emotional response, an illumination of meaning or forge a connectivity in the listener. However for storytelling to occur, it is mandatory to have a listener!  Ensuring that the audience knows what to expect helps achieve satisfaction for both the teller and the audience. However the storyteller is not responsible for an informed listener’s interpretation or response to a story.

While it is not usual for a listener to run screaming from the room or a particular section of an audience to leave en masse in my storytelling concerts, I have experienced both of these responses. In the first, a child with special needs was frightened by a balloon I was using to tell a visual story and in the second, a private party with a request by the organisers for strong women stories proved to be a challenge for the anti-feminist men present, who left in protest. Both instances taught me a valuable lesson. It is not enough to know thyself, I also need to know thy audience! Not that this is always possible, but my experience of telling to a wide range of people has given me an insight into the power of storytelling to effect a strong response in a listener. This is one of the reasons I am a storyteller, and I want the power of story to be shared with everyone.

Photo by Roman W. Schatz

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Storytelling in Australia

I was prompted to write this blog after reading a facebook post by Jo Henwood, a storyteller from Sydney, Australia. Jo writes:

“Last Sunday I did storytelling for the Autumn Vibes festival at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney. It was African themed, I had 14 stories (most of them new) arranged in 3 different story safaris throughout the Garden (with all the challenges of time management, sun, seating, and performing to a background of drumming, jazz bands etc) . Only 18 children came through the day. And of them, although it was advertised for 5-12 year olds, 11 were aged 5 or under. What was also interesting, in a depressing sort of way, was how parents responded when given a choice of $5 activities: clay work, drumming workshop, self guided activity sheet, plant material sculptures, storytelling – the vast majority acted as if storytelling hadn’t been mentioned. – ??? Australian culture in 2014? Promotional lack of interest? If the Storyteller was someone from overseas, would that have made it attractive?”

Jo raised many interesting points on storytelling in Australia in particular, as did the subsequent thread, with suggestions on how to address them. Unfortunately, these issues are perennial in Australia, and my advice to storytellers is to keep doing what you do. Tell with passion and integrity and give time to reflection, but don’t waste time, energy and emotions on lamenting the composition and numbers of your audience. Why? Here’s a blanket statement; people don’t know what storytelling is in Australia. OK there’s a few heads popping out from under the blanket, but generally speaking, this is the case. As for understanding what sort of storytelling you do, for example: dramatic, bardic, trance, cultural, bi-lingual, raconteur, guided, musical, then even the most basic knowledge of storytelling is lacking in the Australian public. Yes, the notion that you are going to read aloud from a book that is aimed at children under eight years old, is still prevalent. Let’s start with the basics then; reading a story aloud is not storytelling and storytelling is for everyone, babies, children and adults. But  does the word ‘storytelling’ convey it’s meaning accurately?

I have always found the phrase ‘oral storytelling’ tautological, but I can understand it’s use when every novelist is referred to as, a ‘insert whatever adjective you desire’ storyteller. Ironically authors are described as storytellers and storytellers as readers. As an aside when my daughter was a toddler she asked me to tell her a story from my mouth, thereby identifying the difference between reading her a story from a book and telling her one; a mouth story.

As for ‘yarning’, this most commonly describes Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples’ communication of stories with each other. On the other hand, bush yarns and bush poetry are particular genres of spoken word performances, usually performed by non-Aboriginal people and dominated by men. They usually tell a story, often in rhyme, like many bardic tellers, so they are storytellers, although they usually promote themselves as  bush yarners, or bush poets rather than storytellers. The assumption that a storyteller living in Australia tells bush yarns or is a bush poet, again reflects the ignorance of the diversity of Australian storytellers. Add to that assumption the other one;  you sport a long, white beard, and gender asserts itself as an issue in Australian storytelling.

Like children’s librarians, early childhood literacy advocates and the members of the Children’s Book Council, most Australian storytellers are women, working primarily with children and communities. Their focus is on storytelling as an educational, health promoting and social development artform, rather than as a means of making a living as an entertainer, although these two fields don’t necessarily preclude each other.

However, to return to the subject of the spoken word, performance poetry has a popularity in some places that rivals stand-up comedy. These performance genres often have audiences in common, but are they storytellers? Some are and some aren’t. A joke teller or an esoteric poet may not be a storyteller, but a performer with a strong narrative in their content is. And these ‘storytellers’ often get good crowds of adults to their events.

Is that what Australian storytellers want?  A good attendance rate to adult storytelling gigs.

Any good storyteller will tell you how a new listener came up to them after a gig and said, ‘I was really surprised how much I enjoyed that… I thought storytelling was for kids.’ Or a teacher saying, ‘I really enjoyed the stories too.’ And we don’t say duh! because that’s rude. Most of us are very polite because we want everyone to have a moving experience of storytelling. But we know that good storytelling is good stuff. It moves us, and we want as many people as possible to be moved. We care. For many becoming a storyteller is akin to a ‘calling’. In many indigenous cultures storytellers are chosen and have an important role to play in the transmission and keeping of cultural stories and knowledge.  But there is little reverence in Australia for storytellers, aside from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who live in a storytelling culture.

In mainstream Australian culture, the interest in genealogy, while concerning itself with ancestry, rarely extends to the acknowledgement and sharing of elder stories in the broader community. More often than not they are separated from other sections of the community and their personal stories, often extraordinary sources of social history, are rarely integrated into mainstream culture. Some storytellers focus their energies on making sure these stories do not die with the tellers, so work in aged care facilities to ensure that people can share their stories.

The most listened to storyteller in Australia is the media; streaming non-stop on our computer and television screens. But whose stories are being told and why? The stories that are not told are as important as those that are. Story selection as any storyteller will tell you, is paramount in communicating with your audience. Additionally it is imperative to regard the Chinese proverb, ‘when drinking water remember the source.’ What are the sources of these stories?

Inevitably this brings me to the ‘cultural cringe,’ the phrase that was coined in Australia after the Second World War, by the Melbourne critic and social commentator A. A. Phillips, to describe the idea that everything Australian was inferior. Are overseas tellers ‘better’ than Australian ones? This is a rhetorical question, or it should be. Unfortunately the cultural cringe still exists in many aspects of Australian life, so if you suffer as a result of it, simply shake off that shawl of humility and don a diva attitude and say loudly  ‘A prophet is not without honour except in her own country and among her own people,’ or if you prefer something more pithy, ‘bloody Philistines’ should suffice.

It doesn’t matter that you have worked professionally for twenty five years, performed in twenty countries and that you have a flexible and exciting repertoire that can cater to all types of audiences; in Australia you will be expected to work the children’s tent with the under 5’s, volunteer for the elders storytelling project and compete with drummers, jugglers and clowns for an audience, and many people, with the exception of librarians and other storytellers, won’t know what you do until they see you in action. Luckily Australia’s troop of mainly unbearded storytellers can manage these acts without too much difficulty.

If you are interested in storytelling you can attend Weaving Stories Together – Sydney International Storytelling Conference’

Photograph by Roman Schatz of Morgan in action 

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Storyteller’s Story

At the conclusion of the school’s activities celebrating oral culture, we sat in the staffroom enjoying the elation a successful day of creativity elicits.  A teacher sat beside me and told me she had read the story of the Mermaid of Zennor eight times that day, once for each of the groups who visited her. A tale from her own cultural tradition and home country, it brought her great joy to be able to share it with the International school community. She confided in me that even though she knew the story well, she read it rather than told it, because the text gave her security. This was not the first time I had heard a teacher say this. The transition between reading a story and telling it can be a difficult one for many people to manage, and the reason for this is Fear. I said to her that if she told the story she would attain freedom. As we didn’t have a lot of time to discuss what this means in depth, I will explain it now. 

Firstly it is important to differentiate between literary stories and oral stories. The former is meant to be read, the latter told. Folktales are essentially tales passed on from mouth to ear over many years. Because of war, disease, famine and displacement, many stories have died with the tellers. However, the advent and pervasiveness of the printing press and an interest in the collecting of folklore has enabled many stories to be recorded and printed, thereby available to the world to be read. Audio-visual technology plays an important role in continuing the documentation of folktales, particularly by members of the culture whose stories are being recorded.
Storytellers source their repertoire through either listening to other storytellers (both professional and those within their own communities) or reading folktales in books. A storyteller must consider both the prejudices and preferences of folklore collectors in written versions of folktales, especially those that were collected in previous centuries, and also their own relationship to the story. By relationship I mean that the storyteller may be intimate with the setting of the tale, familiar with the events described or know the traditions associated with its telling. What is often called ‘owning the story’ does not mean that the story is from your cultural tradition, although it could be, it means that you tell the story in your words, in your way and from your heart. This doesn’t mean that you don’t borrow some of the words from a written text or storyteller you love, because they best create the image you want to convey to your audience; all storytellers are guilty of some word or phrase appropriation. But the most authentic tellings are in your words. 

Now to forsaking the security of the written word in the pursuit of freedom. You can begin telling your tale with an acknowledgement of the written source as a version of the tale you know, and if listeners want to read the story, you can give them a reference. But follow on with an assertion like, ‘this is the way I tell the tale.’  Or you can frame the story by explaining to your listeners your relationship to it.  For example, ‘this tale was told to me by my mother, who was told it by her mother and her mother before that, and now I am telling it to you.’ Or, ‘this is a traditional tale from the first people to live in this country and if you live here then its important you know this story.’ 
When I first started storytelling I thought that meant finding a written tale and memorising that version. Other people’s words are easy to read but not to tell. No matter how many times I tried to remember the exact words of a story I was learning, I failed. Very few people learn a folktale word for word because this is not the natural way to pass a tale on to others. It is good to learn by heart any repeated rhymes and know the phrases you will use to begin and end a story, but the substance of the tale is easiest learnt by imaging, or making pictures of the story in a sequence in your mind, much like a film. The words which you use in your telling may not be as descriptive as those in a written version, but you won’t have to wrestle with trying to retrieve those words from your memory, because they’re your own words, describing simply and accurately what is happening in your pictures. The immediacy and directness of your account to your listeners will more than make up for literary devices used in a written work you are reading.  
Direct communication between storyteller and listener is the essence of storytelling, because it is an interactive process. The teller is guided by the listener’s engagement with the telling. Not having a book as an intermediary liberates the teller to use their whole being to tell the story.  They can modify their telling to suit the preferences of their listener rather than be restricted by the words on the page. Even the most expressive reader has to look at the text every few sentences, and therefore their eyes cannot always be looking at their listeners. Their hands are generally involved with book holding and page turning and therefore cannot be used to gesticulate. Reading done sitting or standing takes place in the one spot, so dramatic expression is limited to that area. However the most important difference between reading a story and telling it in your own words is that the tale’s presentation, progression and resolution are in the hands of the teller. Therefore, the story becomes their story; shared with their listeners. This doesn’t negate any acknowledgement of story sources, but defines the storyteller as the giver of the tale. 
Initially I said that Fear is what prevents people storytelling. What are people afraid of? I have heard many teachers say that they can tell a story to young children but not in front of colleagues or parents. Fear of criticism, judgement and ridicule by peers begins in childhood and often continues through into adulthood. We live in a world where humiliation is served up to us in the guise of entertainment. One has to be brave or desperate to volunteer any public performance, so choosing an empathetic audience is important. It is worth noting that in an educational environment the majority of parents and work colleagues are going to be supportive rather than antagonistic to your storytelling endeavours.  Fear of failure is another barrier to beginning storytellers. ‘What if I forget what comes next in the story, what if I trip over my tongue, what if nobody listens? All of these fears can be addressed through good preparation and compassion. Generally your listeners will be understanding and forgiving if you make a ‘mistake’. I have found children as a class, to be the most forgiving and generously spirited souls. The compassion you need to develop is towards yourself. If you find this difficult then imagine that you are a friend who is beginning storytelling. Are you going to demean or applaud her attempts as a storyteller? 
Now for that paradoxical fear; the fear of being listened to. 
When I first started storytelling I was in a character costume and I always told stories sitting down. There is nothing wrong with a sitting position for storytelling, if that is what is most appropriate for teller and listeners, and there’s nothing wrong with adopting a storytelling persona. But I sat down because I was afraid of standing up and claiming the storyteller’s space. I was in character because the storyteller was another separate identity, not really me. My fear was about being myself, and allowing others to see and hear me. 
I worked with a drama consultant on how to stand up and tell, but it took quite a few years to discard my fairy costume and become Morgan, the storyteller. The fact that much of my work was in an ‘entertainment’ capacity prolonged the fairy persona, however, when I did move into telling stories in the arenas of education and health promotion I felt that I was beginning to understand the real power of storytelling. 
Over the years people have asked me why I became a storyteller and I’ve responded with various answers about love of books, stories, performing, communicating with people etc. However these answers never seemed accurate or comprehensive enough. Until one day I had what is referred to as an ‘aha moment’. I became a storyteller because I wanted to be heard! 
Once I understood this, it was as though a veil lifted from my eyes and I was able to see into my heart. Knowing what you are doing is one thing; knowing why you are doing it gives clarity to your purpose. It is also the best antidote for Fear. So what do I want people to hear? Stories of empowerment, compassion, tolerance and the celebration of community strength and diversity. Essentially the stories I tell have Love at their core. Traditional tales tell of love withheld, the desire for love, it’s absence, it’s expression and ultimately it’s triumph. Love can conquer Fear. For me storytelling is a gift of Love.

 

Morgan performing on Folkways Day 2009, at the International School of Augsburg 
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