Monday, March 31, 2008

Big Apple Playback

I had the pleasure of seeing a troupe of storytellers called the Big Apple Playback Theatre Company. They are from New York, as their name suggests, and their work is remarkable for a number of reasons.

Number 1: How it Works
One of the performers sits at the front of the room and serves as the moderator. Her position close to the audience creates an intimacy that is only reinforced by her conversation directly with the spectators.

The moderator asks for a volunteer to share an experience that created one, two, or three feelings . The moderator then reiterates the story for the approval of the spectator, creates a title for the story, and tells actors waiting nearby to perform it.

Number 2: Why it's So Powerful
Needless to say, most adults are not used to discussing their feelings, particularly in public. At first no one volunteered. However, after the second story was told, hands shot up all over the room when asked for a contribution.

Needless to say, most adults would like to talk about how they feel if they felt they were in a safe environment.

Number 3: Mirroring
The telling of the story can be moving, but the performance of it transforms it into a new sort of project. This happened for both audience members who hadn't spoken and for the original storyteller, I found out afterwards.

One rarely is offered an opportunity to see one's feelings interpreted in movement and sound (sometimes language, sometimes not). As with children, adults benefit from a validation of their experience. The evening was moving in a way that is hard to describe if you weren't there.

Number 4: Surprises
The stories that one thought would be moving in performance rarely struck a chord for the audience. The death of a loved one, for example, often caught sympathy with the audience in its telling but had little effect when performed. Perhaps we've become immune to dramatic emotional states through television and the stage. Rarely do you get a film that doesn't focus on some sort of upheaval.

The stories of subtle experience, however, were moving beyond words.

And so I'll leave it there.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The British Curriculum: Strands of Conversation

The British curriculum for Key Stage 3 in primary school is described as having 12 strands:

1. Speaking
2. Listening and Understanding
3. Group Discussion
4. Drama
5. Word Recognition
6. Word Structure and Spelling
7. Understanding and Interpreting Texts
8. Responding to Texts
9. Creating and Shaping Texts
10. Text Structure and Organization
11. Sentence Structure and Punctuation
12. Presentation

All are in conversation must be in conversation in order for them to be fully understood. All are addressed when telling and listening to stories.

Storytelling as Conversation

I've already articulated the reasons for which conversation makes a very apt model for learning. Now I'll extend the argument to an equation that is the same backward as it is forward (storytelling as conversation: conversation as storytelling).

1. All conversation contains convention.

2. Convention is, by definition, what we take for granted.

3. All stories are made of conventions and other elements that are new.

4. By responding to the conventional meanings in existing stories with new stories, storytelling becomes a kind of conversation between us and received wisdom.

Conversation as Storytelling

What is conversation but a series of stories batted (or gently tossed) between at least two parties? One story either contradicts another, context shapes the story that is chosen, and so on.

I joined CAGSE because the CEO believes strongly that storytelling as a bridge between children's experience and that of the past, present, future -- in any subject area. And we add the element of Latin language taught as conversation as well. From the largest elements (beginnings, endings, and so on) to the smallest (words and their meaning), students start to look at the world around them in new ways.

Some of this can be seen in the blog posts. All of it is very exciting indeed.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Most Generous Site

Educators looking for inspiration and ideas (especially along digital lines) should not miss ICT in Education or Ewan McIntosh's blog.

The sites are generous in their range of offerings and definitely worth a look.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Storytelling as Conversation

Circle Game

For years, I discussed at length why best model for learning is that of conversation. Most of my interest in social networks, advertising, innovation, and just about everything else in business involves the value of dialogue and of creatively shaping stories without censorship or pressure to conform (in other words, structured but unscripted conversation).

I began this blog four years ago just to talk about this issue in business. It took me all this time to get back to where I was before I took the job running CAGSE.


If you've just checked in, CAGSE is an educational consultancy that puts Latin programs into State schools in England.

This is not just any Latin program. It's one that solves all the problems left open by existing programs like Cambridge (no grammar) and others (no interest). Based on building blocks from Richard Gilder's book, Via Facilis, the kids learn a lot more than Latin. They learn about how language works, they hit each of the 12 strands of the British curriculum, and they have fun.

There are a lot of reasons for choosing England -- the symbolic weight Latin has here because only the top kids in top schools are allowed to study it, the opportunity to participate in improving the educational system according to government standards that Latin meets, and more.

The two pieces to our program at the moment are language study -- mostly through games and exercises -- and storytelling. Both develop critical thinking, problem-solving, confidence, and literacy.

The storytelling program has lagged behind the language lessons per se because of time and resources. However, the time has come to go full ahead.

Back to the Beginning

The model we'll use is storytelling as conversation -- among languages, between the past and the present, between authority and interpretation, and between individuals and the collective.

More as we go.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

What's in a Name?

Yesterday I attended a workshop in Taunton, Somerset (UK) about (what the leaders called) the art of workshop.

OK, anything can be an art, and there is art in anything well done. But that's a bit of a reach.

It turned out to be three women who seemed to be working out their ideas about what to do in such a workshop on us. That would not be so bad, really, if they had a clear idea about what they were trying to accomplish (we all teach so we learn). But instead, I had the distinct impression we were paying for the privilege of teaching them what they should be looking for, doing, and why.

Needless to say, I was glad the thing wasn't expensive.

Workshops are a Crap Shoot

Anyone who has ever attended a workshop knows that it's a crap shoot. You are never quite sure what is going to happen, who will attend (very important to how the thing goes), or what you'll learn (if anything).

I won't go into detail on this one, but suffice it to say that there were workshop leaders from all over the country who were led around without being consulted about how the thing was going -- except in terms of how to do it better next time.

Why not check in while the thing was happening and change directions when needed?

Learned A Lot (But Not As Advertised)

I came out of the day having learned what Sarah Mooney, my storytelling partner, and I need to insure when we lead our own programs. And I learned it better than if it had been taught on purpose.

1. These things need to be fun. Don't take yourself or your project too seriously.

2. They need to be fun through play. Real play. This means you, workshop leaders.

While doodling as you do in your teenage self while the grown-ups drone on, a fellow participant and I embellished a map of "workshop" we had created in a fit of silliness to meet the criteria of a completely different assignment (write a manifesto for workshop -- we should tell them?).

This participant crossed out the word "work" and replaced it with "play" -- as in playshop.

Playing means free movement -- of ideas, of the body, of relationships. Don't try to control things by sticking to the program. Honor your participants by checking in with them, and adjust accordingly.

3. Ask questions well -- and with precision.

Come up with an angle on an old question that can change perspective on the issue. No guarantees, but a little creativity and thought goes a long way.

More in the next post.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Children in the Middle East

There is a wonderful blog with posts from Palestinian and Israeli children. It worth seeing.

Leila Segal, a freelance journalist, runs the blog along with other youth projects. Take a look.