Telling Tales in Middle School

Coal mining, World War II, ghosts and getting in trouble: it was a fine day for storytelling to eighth grade students today.

The middle school students will be entering stories in the local writing contest, and for the past 6 years I have visited the school to tell stories and talk about writing and what makes a good story. In past years the focus was on ghost stories but this year the students will be writing stories from the hills--stories about where they live, about life experiences and perhaps even stories from history.

I brought coal mining artifacts with me, along with letters, photos and other documents that are part of my story about my parents meeting in England during World War II. Realia can be a valuable addition to a storytelling program, particularly one that includes topics that might be unfamiliar to an audience. For children, using the letters, coal mining hardhats, lamps and other items provides a visual stimuli that enriches the experience and the story.

So we had a fine time--great listeners, good questions and participation. I had one period with no class, and was using the time to catch up on email on my phone when another group came into the library. These were a sixth grade class, I think, and they were there to read and use the computers. My display caught their attention and soon the group was around my table, asking questions, trying on the helmets and looking through the World War II notebook of documents. I didn't mind; it was my break but their interest made me happy.

Then they spotted the bottle of turpentine, and they asked what story I told with it. I asked the teacher if he minded if I told them a story, and with his permission told them a tall tale series of dog tales. They loved it, and so did I! This little impromptu telling was the highlight of my day, I think--these kids really wanted to hear a story, and how often do we come across a group this age who beg for a story? I got many hugs as they left.

This group made me appreciate the joy of what we storytellers do. While the teachers must deal day-to-day with apathetic students and curriculum standards, we get to come in and tell them stories, engaging them in a whole new way that makes them eager to hear what we have to say. Learning certainly took place with this group, perhaps unplanned and not in the textbook, but I am betting these children will remember the stories, remember how the carbide lamp worked, and maybe, just maybe, they will be inspired enough to find and write stories of their own.

Storytelling in Buffalo

 We had such a great time, Lorna Czarnota and I, telling tales together in her city of Buffalo, NY.

The weekend started with my workshop on Appalachian ballads. The session covered a brief history of ballad collecting and the migration of the songs to America and the Appalachian region. Then the fun really started as I taught them two of my favorite ballads. We talked about singing--why people think they cannot sing, how to find your way to a song, traditional unaccompanied ballad singing and much more.

That evening Lorna and I presented a program of Celtic and Appalachian stories and ballads at the Storytellers Cafe, a venue created by Lorna that has seen increasing popularity as it enters its third season.

The place was packed!

For a performer, it's a real pleasure to present to such an attentive, interested audience.

Sunday morning found us in church, where I sang two songs, one a gospel tune and the other a spiritual. Then it was back on the road for me, along the shore of Lake Erie and southward through Ohio to home.

It wasn't all work, though. We took some time for fun too, taking the Maid of the Mist under Niagara Falls. Here's what that little adventure sounded and looked like:

I got thoroughly wet, but I'd do it all again in a minute.

For information about the Buffalo Storytellers Cafe and upcoming events there, check out their Facebook page.

This Weekend: Celtic Storytellers!

This Saturday! 

The Celtic Storytellers


Trinity Performing Arts Center 
711 Niagara Falls Blvd, 
Amherst NY.

Susanna Connelly Holstein and Lorna MacDonald Czarnota present a concert of Scottish and Irish story, ballad, folk song, and music. Appalachian charm and Urban flair.

Lorna Czarnota is an award-winning storyteller and humanitarian, Lorna has been telling stories professionally since 1985. She performs and presents in schools, libraries, museums, festivals and conferences, runaway shelters, detention centers, residential treatment facilities, theaters and community venues, among others. Her performances include traditional and original stories, occasionally with music and songs for all ages. 

Lorna specializes in mentoring at-risk youth and their families through story. She was nominated in 2004 for United Way and Univera Health Community Hero Award and named Hopevale Incorporated's Volunteer of the Year for 2005. Lorna holds a certificate in trauma counseling. 

Her other specialties are identity building in communities following disaster and personal trauma, empowerment for abused women, imagination playtime, historical portrayals and role-play, and Scottish tales. 

Lorna is a keynote speaker, workshop leader, artist, historian, and holds a Bachelor of Science in Creative Studies for Young Children, as well as a Masters in Special Education. Lorna is the founder and Executive Director of  Crossroads Story Center, Inc, a not-for-profit reaching at-risk youth through storytelling. 

She is a member of Spin-a-Storytellers, National Storytelling Network, National Network for Youth, Northlands Storytelling Network, League for the Advancement of New England Storytellers, Virginia Storytelling Association, Scottish Storytelling Center and the Healing Story Alliance.

The National Storytelling Network honored Lorna with the 2006 Oracle Award for exemplary leadership and service and significant contributions to community through storytelling.Award for exemplary leadership and service and significant contributions to community through storytelling.storytelling.

Susanna Holstein lives in Jackson County, West Virginia. As storyteller “Granny Sue” she performs across West Virginia and out of state, telling stories and singing Appalachian and British ballads. 

A published writer, she is a frequent presenter of programs and workshops at conferences, festivals, schools and libraries. Holstein obtained her BS (Education summa cum laude) in 1991 from WV State College and Master of Library and Information Science from the University of South Carolina in 1995.
Susanna writes an online journal, Granny Sue’s News and Reviews, the poetry blog Mountain Poet and a monthly column for the central West Virginia publication Two Lane Livin’. Her work has appeared in four anthologies of Appalachian writers as well as in other print and online journals.  Her poetry, nonfiction and fiction works have won  numerous awards at the WV Writers Annual Conference.She is past president and a founding member of the WV Storytelling Guild, former WV State Liaison to the National Storytelling Network, and a member of several regional storytelling organizations.

Contact or for more information.

Gory Story: Coming Soon!

The West Virginia Storytelling Guild will sponsor "Gory Story Theater" on Thursday, October 8, 2015 at the LaBelle Theater in South Charleston, West Virginia. 

Hair-raising stories told by four outstanding tellers! Jo Ann Dadisman, Granny Sue (Susanna Connelly Holstein)Karen Vuranch and Suzi Whaples. The doors will open at 7:00 p m. Admission is $10.00.. So put your big girl/boy pants on and join us...if you dare.

L is for Listening

Anyone who has been in the woods or the countryside knows there is much to hear, especially early in the day. This morning as we drank our tea and coffee on the porch we listened, trying to identify everything we heard. It was early, just before 7 am. Here's some of what we heard within five minutes of just paying attention:
  • crows calling on the ridge
  • mourning doves (Larry calls them rain crows but they weren't calling for rain this morning unfortunately)
  • an owl somewhere in the distant woods (what kind? Not screech; maybe a barn owl)
  • a hawk, probably the young redtail that lives on our land
  • dogs barking over at the neighbors'
  • bees--the bergamot and pineapple sage by the porch are popular right now
  • hummingbirds at the feeder and also at the pineapple sage
  • a rustle in the dry leaves of the woods--chipmunk? towhee?
  • Charlie lapping her saucer of milk
  • the squeak of our rockers
  • a tree frog, we think it was, calling
  • a very high-pitched sound of insects singing but I do not know what they were. Not cicadas--maybe crickets or grasshoppers? I've heard this sound for years but never thought about what made it.
Stop and listen. What do you hear?

Storytellers are listeners, and not just to voices and stories.

We tell stories, but we must first hear those stories from some source, whether it be another person, a book, our own inner voice, or the physical world around us. We need to be listening and aware to hear the stories being gifted to us daily.

There are stories told with a glance, in a song, in children playing a game. Stories are in the wind in the trees, birds calling, water trickling over rocks, the soft swish of snow falling, towhees scratching in dry leaves, doors closing, windows opening, swing sets creaking, footsteps, the hum of air conditioners or crackle of fire, car horns, train whistles, elevators - all these have stories for the teller willing to listen.

Migration Celebration!

I am almost ready for Saturday's Migration Celebration at Little Beaver State Park in Beaver, WV (near Beckley). 

We'll load the van with enough materials to make 100 bird feeders, 100 butterfly ornaments, bunches of stories about birds and other animals, and loads of fun. 

The schedule of events for the day is below. See you there!

K is for Knowing Your Audience, or, the Middle School Challenge

Every storytelling audience is different. Each person in the group comes to the event carrying their own baggage: sometimes it's good things like a happy mood, restless energy, or the memory of a recent funny thing that happened to them that still has them smiling. Or maybe they come with a need for quiet and space, a bad day, a fight with a friend, too much coffee or a poor night's sleep. However large or small the group, the emotional, mental and physical energy varies widely from one person to another. And somehow the storyteller has to bring all of these together and into the story.

Middle school students can be especially challenging. Some performers say that this age group is their least favorite audience because of the zany energy levels, unpredictable hormones, the drive to be different and yet not too different, and the seeming lack of interest this age group can exhibit for anyone over 19. And when the artform is an ancient one, requiring no technology, no musical instruments, and no external razzle dazzle--well, the storyteller has his or her work cut out to make storytelling "cool."

Ever since my days working in a public library with a vibrant, active group of teen volunteers, I have enjoyed working with the middle-school group. I like their combination of child/adult impulses, their angst over who they are and who they want to be, their efforts to stand out from the crowd and at the same time their fear of being left out or left behind. They require energy, respect, directness and the ability to laugh at oneself. And if there are any stories perfectly suited for this age group, it's ghost stories.

This week I had the opportunity to spend a full day telling ghost stories to eighth grade students. It's been a standing gig for the past 5 years. I volunteered for it the first time in appreciation of two English teachers who had convinced their students to enter the local writing contest I had helped organize. Since that first year, I've been back each year on a paid basis to tell stories and share information about writing a good story. It's been exciting, surprising, touching, and funny. Each year I hear new stories, tales passed down in families about strange things that have happened, ghosts in houses and caves, weird lights--you name it, I think I've heard it.

This year one young man (I'll call him Jimmy) told us the story of a huge sinkhole. Jimmy said he walked to the edge of it and looked down. Below it seemed to be lighted up, and he saw an animal that looked like a fox walking around and around in the hole. It scared him so badly he ran away. What a strange story! And yet he swore it was true and I could see by the look in his eyes that he was recalling the scene in vivid detail. I suggested that he write it down, and he did.

A few class periods later Jimmy was back in the classroom for a writing class, and he shared his written story with me. I asked him if he would read it to the rest of this large class of about 40 students. Afterwards his teacher told me that this class was a planned combination of high and low achieving students--and the boy who read his story was in the low achieving group. "You touched something in him," she said. "He never writes like that."

I credit the stories, and the sharing of them, with this inspiration in Jimmy to write his story. I hope he will continue to write because he has a strong voice and stories to tell.

I also credit the two teachers who see the value of storytelling for their students of all levels. Storytelling encourages the imagination while it reminds people of their own experiences, feelings and dreams. As each group left me on that storytelling day, I felt a bond with them that storytelling creates--and I know most of them felt it too as they smiled shyly, stopped to tell me a story or tell me they knew my grandchildren or some other little nugget of connection between them and me. Stories erase age differences, social barriers and social awkwardness. We're all one in the stories, and my day with the eighth graders reminded me of that, once again.