The Next Story You Hear Might Be Missing Some Parts
Part 2, Thoughts on How We Can Tell Our Stories
By Larry Johnson
This is Part 2 of a two-part series about Larry's life and experience using storytelling in education and literacy.
Smashing Watermelons to Get Out of the Cave
I don’t know if he’s still around, but there was a comedian, Gallagher, who used to smash watermelons with a sledgehammer as part of his routine. He also had a piece that went on and on about the general nature of young people of middle school age. His conclusion was, “I don’t think we should try to teach them anything. Just put them all in a cave and let them out when they’re old enough to go into high school.” Interestingly, back when I was teaching storytelling and video, and doing a great deal with international video exchange, we got a video once from a school in Japan. It had a captivating scene of a trip to the beach, something like going to the amusement park the last day of school. Students were taking turns being blindfolded and trying to smash a watermelon open with a stick. “That’s like when we break a piñata,” said one of our students, and then the most amazing discussion began, suggesting how much ongoing learning could happen, even with middle school, if that and other cultural comparisons could be harnessed to reading about such differences, writing the plans and questions for the next video to go to them, and the teamwork/collaboration to get it done.
Larry was born in a Swedish Hospital and took coffee intravenously the second day. In 1961 he did JFK's 50-Mile Hike, because it was a physical challenge and a story. When he turned 61, he did a 61-Mile Hike, accompanied by the environmental, social justice, and conflict resolution stories he's been telling since the 60s, as a camp director, army medic, originator of participatory children's hospital TV, and public schools storytelling/video specialist. He plays music on multiple items others might just throw away, like FRENCH SHOE HORN, SWING GARDEN HOSE, and HEAVY METAL RECYCLED WATER FAUCET. He's been able to tell stories and teach storytelling in many places, from the Hutton Yacht in the Stockholm, Sweden Harbor, to the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, to "opening" for Captain Kangaroo at a conference at the Kennedy Center, but his favorite place to tell is still neighborhood schools, and with his grandchildren.
Larry's favorite letter of recommendation is still one of the first he got, when doing school assemblies in the 70s:
Dear Mr. Johnson- Thank you for coming to our school to tell stories. I was sick that day, but the other kids liked it a lot, so I'm going with that. Your friend, Keri
Contact Larry at
Today, with instant international communication via the internet, you wouldn’t even have to take the VHS tape somewhere to have it copied to the standard used in the country you’re sending to. Nor would you have to put it in the mail and wait a week or two to get there, then wait some more while the school you are sending to makes a tape to return. I never really advocated for Gallagher’s cave idea, but I did think about Plato’s “lost in the cave” story, where you start walking, always keeping the same finger on the wall till it leads you out. I thought the finger on the wall was organizing middle school totally around media production, rather than individual subjects, catalogued in careful curriculum, and delivered in rooms that may or may not ever meet up with related topics and endeavors.
Here I’m going to try to recapture my thoughts in a coherent form that might be adapted in some form today.
A CLASS ALLOWING FOR FREE-FLOWING DISCUSSION GENERATED BY THE MERGER OF REAL LIFE AND MEDIA CONSUMPTION.
I think it is still true that most educational reform ignores what we used to just call “television,” except perhaps to complain about the negative effects of what tends to be most popular. Popular media is designed to create endless viewing and perpetual buying. When there were just 4 or 5 channels on TV, some parents chose to not have a TV in the house so their children would not be harmed. Did it work? Usually not. There was always a friend, a good friend, with good parents, who had the forbidden TV available, but now it’s impossible. Video programming of all sorts is on thousands of cable or satellite channels. It comes up in email links, on Facebook and You Tube, on your cell phone, and more. A lot of it would probably be best not watched by anyone, but that almost always needs to be an individual decision. Still, I would guess there is now more really valuable programming available than ever before. The issue is finding it and becoming interested in paying attention. Young people tend to be drawn to the goofiest and most grotesque, often not looking for what else is out there. Also, some of that goofiness may be filled with inherent value, whether or not viewers consciously notice it, or whether many adults would even agree.
My suggestion is this: even if nothing else happens, every middle school student should have a required class, once each year, led by a “hip” teacher given ample “research” time to view and pay attention to media that students watch. Those teachers should also be gifted at free-flowing discussion, and be grounded in values, media literacy, health, racism and social justice, and the rest of what we call broadly, social studies and history from many different cultural perspectives. They should be masters of the “teachable moment” and believers in the concept that making students feel comfortable in bringing up anything, without judgment, can ripple out for good, far more than any standardized curriculum. At some point, some guidelines and online sharing by teachers engaged in this would be good, but it starts with a school or district starting to do it. I’m pretty sure there are places that do some of this, but we should all know about it, and there should be safeguards so it can’t be shut down because some of us have forgotten about what media we consumed at that age, and what was on our mind.
A STUDENT PUBLICATION THAT CAPTURES ESTABLISHED CURRICULUM AS REFLECTED IN THE CONTINUUM BETWEEN LIFE AND THE MEDIA.
Most schools have some kind of a literary or newsletter type publication, which tends to be extracurricular, and tended by students who are gifted in this area. At the very least, I would advocate for those publications to begin carrying the kinds of stories and information that would appear in the class suggested in #1: reviews, pro and con on popular media; analysis of which media promoted food is truly healthy or not; impact of media messages on the broader society, especially as it relates to young people; and balancing absorption in media time with other healthy activity, physical, mental, and emotional. Going beyond the “very least,” I would advocate for an exclusive student “magazine,” maybe 3 or 4 times a year, on healthy media use, created out of an ongoing class each student is required to take at least once in middle school. This would be led by a totally committed journalist type teacher who loves the students at middle school age. With guidance and structure, students would work together to do all aspects of putting out the magazine, the reading and research, the writing and graphics, the actual mechanics of printing, and the math involved in staying in budget.
A MIDDLE SCHOOL PROGRAM BUILT TOTALLY AROUND MEDIA PRODUCTION.
Early on I discovered that storytelling and video production tended to attract students having “behavior” issues. Some of the best storytellers in school get in trouble because they are good at talking but have never learned how to be appropriate. I worked very hard at helping young people become even better and focused on this skill, then found “stages” where they could get deserved recognition. Part of that was, “It’s not OK to talk like that there. It’s more than OK to do it here, and here’s a best way to work on it.” Video or media production takes it several steps further. All children watch a lot of media, but those having trouble with reading and writing usually consume more. Having opportunity to take control, to create, not just watch, almost always makes a major shift. Being excited about making a video brings young people into the world of you have to read and write to build a plan and script, because you don’t get what you see on the screen by just poking the camera around. That doesn’t automatically turn a poor reader into a good one, but it opens up an incentive that wasn’t there before. If you hate reading because it was hard, and you hate it more because of “kill and drill” exercises, there is now a crack opened to, “I want to get better at this because I want to help make this video. Then the collaboration allows for pulling a group together where some perform, some research and write, and some do the mechanical/technical work.
When I started to think about this years ago, I just had a school closed circuit channel, and I’d been given opportunity to be a Storyteller/Video Specialist with 6 or 7 camcorders so I could break classes into small groups to work on video projects inside the 55-minute prohibitive period. With younger classes I mainly told stories, gave them opportunity to learn to tell, and I made “elaborate” video with them, scripting aloud in group discussion, then making a bit of a fancy video with in-camera editing. By 3rd grade I began to teach how to translate a story into a video script, and students began to make their own, which only got better as they grew older.
So, what I’m proposing here is that ultimately there is some variation of everyone learning the mechanics and the heart of media production. Then, students interested in science work with the science teacher to create science videos or other media that teach everyone else. Some balance between, “I want to do this,” and “This is needed” is created, and student creativity puts the information out in a way that is accurate but has the flair that attracts the attention of the middle school age group. Similar operations occur with math, social studies, and other subject areas, the result being an ongoing collection of student-made video that can play and be required viewing for whatever content “testing” needs to occur. Some student made videos would be worthy of continuing to show indefinitely, while others could be retired when the producers have moved on to other schools. With the guidance of the content specialists, student made science or history videos could be supplemented with quality professional video. From the start, and throughout, a “curriculum” is a guide, but not delivered in down the line fashion.
Students are inspired to learn by creating teaching tools that teach others, and the information gaps are filled in as needed by professional educators.
Educators in charge also help guide how media is delivered to other students, individually at school or at home vs. a group watching with discussion. All of this is dependent on a mindset that moves on “This has potential. Let’s figure it out,” as opposed to “This is impossible. How would you organize it? We’ve never done anything like this.” I think it’s also particularly relevant in this time when we’re being forced to do education online, at least some of the time.
I’m nearing the end, but even if nothing else can happen, it’s valuable to learn how to tell stories yourself. It enhances whatever talking you do to teach, and it saves your life if the technology breaks down. Whether you are working to be a good storyteller yourself, or teaching young people to tell, here are some general principles that can be helpful:
Recognize that storytelling belongs everywhere, not just on performance stages. Often the best story is a simple one, making change happen. It might be told to a child at bedtime, to a class at school, in a meeting at work, or a door in a political campaign.
Chose stories you love. If your telling comes from a deep, caring place, your listeners will be attracted, even if it’s not perfect yet. Practice a lot, at first, telling it to the mirror, to the cat, to a family member. As soon as possible, let your practice become simply telling what you care about the most, in lots of real places. Don’t let polish diminish personal power.
Make an outline or a series of pictures that sequence the action of your story. Use it to retrieve the story in order, using your own words. Relax. Smile. Look your listeners in the eye, one at a time, and tell from the heart.
Know exactly why you’re telling a story: to delight children; show them you care; inspire them to want to read and learn...to make needed change in the world or community. Knowing your reason helps shape the spin you put on a story that was first written. It gives form to a personal story, suggesting what you say to begin and end, and what details you keep. Don’t worry if listeners get something different from what’s important to you. Your purpose inspires theirs.
Know that the life of the story is almost always in the dialogue. Don’t tell us what the character said. Let them say it, with all the feeling you remember from that person when you experienced it, or a similar character if you’re telling a written story.
Strive to bring out the truth. There are stories told to hurt others, or to keep someone from facing appropriate consequences, but real stories, fact or fiction, build love and respect in the world. Listen more than you tell, and live the inherent truth, “If I can hear your story, it’s harder for me to hate you”
Learn to live in the story you’re telling. Ursula Friedrichson said, “You must walk your story.” While you’re telling a story you love, can you be standing in the place where it is happening?
“You must walk your story.”
Storytelling to Influence Economic and Bureaucratic Decision Makers
It is common for large corporations and associations to employ well-paid lobbyists to spend time to talk (tell stories) to decisionmakers, persuading them on how government money be spent. Sometimes this can be harmful to ordinary citizens – e.g. if a company gets permission to dispose of toxic waste in an inexpensive, unhealthy, and hazardous way,
Money definitely talks, but so can caring individuals with a strategic, heartfelt story, delivered in a letter, at a hearing, a school board meeting, in the media, or on the phone.
Here are some thoughts on that:
Keep It Short and Simple – Consider the story of the little girl who wrote a letter, persuading Abraham Lincoln to grow a beard because it would make him look better. Appearance shouldn’t matter, but it does, and maybe it helped Lincoln get elected. We don’t know for sure, but with different leadership we might be two countries today.
Local and From the Heart – Suppose the issue is saving a school wetlands area because it serves as a nature study area, but also natural flood drainage. If you told the simple story, “My family lost our home to a flood in another state, and I’ve heard that putting a parking lot over a swamp, or wetlands, is like putting a plug in the bathtub, and forgetting to turn off the water till it’s in the living room”. Even if strong forces argue against it (and they will), some school board members might think, “I didn’t know that. I’m going to check it out.” They might save the wetlands for your school.
Think to Be Strategic and Effective – What’s the best “medium” to tell the story. During cable access days, there was a story of a small town where seniors crossing a busy street could never make it across because the light changed too fast. Cars would honk, and people were scared. No matter how many times the story was told, nothing happened until some high school students learned to make video. They set up a camera at the intersection for an hour, played the tape at City Council, and the streetlight timing was changed. Seeing made all the difference, and just think the value these days when young people have pulled a cell phone camera from their pocket and recorded a story so horrible it shouldn’t have happened, and no one would believe if it was simply told.
Smile, and Be Polite to Everyone in the Room – Somewhere in the Old Testament it says something like, “Angry words stir up a conflict, but a soft answer stops a fight.” No one likes to be yelled at, but we have a tendency to do that when we disagree. If you can make your point by story in a memorable, but kind way, most people will listen, even if they disagree. The warmth of your smile surely comes thru in person, but also on the phone, or when you write a letter.
Thank Them Profusely – Even if all they did was listen to your idea, your story, thank them for it. You never know when that act of kindness (rather than anger because you didn’t get what you wanted), might lead to change.
A Closing Message from the Virtually Unknown Founder of PBS
In 1986 our video exchange work and Grand Prize in the Tokyo Video Festival was written up in the NTC newsletter. In the next issue there was a congratulatory note to my wife, Elaine, and me from Dr. Harry Skornia. I thought, “Why do I recognize that name?” I went to my bookshelf and found Television and Society, by Dr. Harry Skornia, the only book I had kept from my broadcast training. Marieli Rowe gave me Dr. Skornia’s address, and I ended up spending two weekends with him in Florida before he died in the early 90s. I had forgotten the book laid the blueprint for public broadcasting in this country, and that Skornia was the first paid director of the Nat'l Assoc. of Educational Broadcasters. His job was to put the network in place, which he did. Those who were there at the time consider him the founder of Public Broadcasting, but I have since found that most people working in public broadcast have never heard of him. This is yet another missing story to tell.
Dr. Skornia and I bonded initially over our work in common as peacemakers, the international video exchange being a way to facilitate that appropriately in a school setting. As academics frequently do, he had difficulty understanding what it really meant to be a storyteller, but as we spent hours talking, he began to get it. In fact, he had always been there, just not with those words, as I learned that Skornia had been the one to create academic acceptance for the philosophizing, the stories of Marshall McLuhan. I still had THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE as well, but that was not an assigned text. We were told in broadcast school that reading it would mess up our minds. It did.
In 1990, Elaine and I were asked to organize the NSN National Storytelling Conference on STORYTELLING AND THE ELECTRONIC MEDIA. This had never been explored at this level. At the beginning of the re-emergence of storytelling, I was somewhat suspect, tainted by association with TV. Most storytellers believed in the pure and personal act of storytelling, and yet by the time of this event, some were seeking ways to get on big name programs to promote their work. It was a comprehensive, exhilarating few days, and that’s another story, but we asked Dr. Skornia to give the opening greeting by speakerphone from his home. I include it in abbreviated form here:
"Good evening. First, I want you to know how honored I felt to be asked to greet you as this important Congress begins. I’ve had a long, full life, working mainly in the fields of education and electronic communication, and I’ve just begun to learn of storytelling in the way you think of it. Still, I believe I have some thoughts from my experience to help in your quest for responsible connection between oral storytelling and electronic media.
After WWII I was asked to reconstruct the German broadcast system, which had been totally converted from education and information to sinister propaganda. I knew we were structurally converting evil to good, and I pray you realize yourself as a medium for good, every time you tell a story to a live audience, or thru the media to those you can’t see. I pray you always tell stories that ennoble the human condition.
When I was teaching broadcast in Universities, I always tried to get students to think which medium is best for your purpose? Don’t just use TV because it’s new or will generate the most money. Use it only if it is right for what you are doing. Good, responsible television is valuable for many things, but not all. Sometimes its graphic images diminish ability to use imagination, and my observation is that storytellers have the power to strengthen that important skill. In that vein, I believe audio may be the best electronic medium for storytellers.
Finally, when we were working hard to get public broadcasting started, we wanted to create something to tell the stories that couldn’t be told on commercial networks because profit and bottom line ruled.
I urge you, always, to tell the important stories that aren’t being voiced elsewhere. Don’t tell a story because it will make you popular or make you more money. TELL IT BECAUSE IT WILL HELP SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE TO LIVE A BETTER LIFE."
And that’s the way it was.
TIME TO USE OUR MEDIA LITERACY SKILLS TO FIND A MISSING STORY AND TELL IT TO SOMEONE WE LOVE.
RESOURCES FOR THE STORYTELLING JOURNEY
I’ve never been good at proper bibliographies, but we are living in a world where you can type anything into “search,” and find what you want, plus related things you didn’t know about. I’m going with that, but with the concession of alphabetical order, sort of. I did Google 'Storytelling in Education' and got mostly reference to 'digital storytelling,' a worthy media literacy topic, but different from storytelling in person, which is largely what I have discussed.
Anne Pellowski – Anne travelled the world for years as librarian for UNICEF. As a storyteller, she consciously collected stories from many countries, including how to tell them. Her many books include The World of Storytelling, Hidden Stories in Plants, and The Storytelling Handbook. This one includes stories of some of my students telling and learning to tell.
Books on Storytelling Which Are Old and Proven – Jack Maguire’s Creative Storytelling, Marie Shedlock’s The Art of the Story-Teller, and Ruth Sawyer’s The Way of the Storyteller.
Jack Zipes – Long before Jack became a friend and mentor, I read Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, one of the 60 or so books on stories and storytelling he has written, edited, or translated. His work is sprinkled with references to critical thinking and media literacy, but most relevant here is Speaking Out: Storytelling and Creative Drama for Children, about teaching students to be storytellers, and Jack’s translation from the Italian of innovative educator, Gianni Rodari’s Grammar of Fantasy.
National Association of Black Storytellers – Part of their stated mission is to tell stories that address contemporary social justice issues, and to “listen to and blend the voices of our elders and our youth”. We are regular attendees at the local festival done by storyteller friends, Nothando and Vusi Zulu of Black Storytellers Alliance. These organizations showcase and promote the work of wonderful African American storytellers, but I felt honored the first year to be asked to bring African American storytellers from my classes to be part of a workshop on youth storytelling.
National Storytelling Network – I haven’t belonged to NSN since the mid 90s, but I was pleased to see they now have, since 2015, a Youth, Educators, and Storytellers (YES) special interest group. I hope that can stick, and reach back to embrace the work done in this area going back to the 70s and 80s when NSN started as NAPPS. Sadly, the older national group, National Story League, dissolved recently after 115 years of focus on storytelling in education, including youth storytelling. I did the keynote on their founder, Richard Wyche, at the 100th anniversary conference in 2003.
Northlands Storytelling Network – Northlands is a regional storytelling group, growing out of a 1978 Mineral Point, Wisconsin Story Fest (inspired by the National Festival in Tennessee). In 1994 Mark Wagler and I, with Maren Hinderlie, organized HEADS’N’TALES, a Northlands-sponsored Storytelling in Education conference in Madison. It was regional but drew people from around the world. Focused on all aspects of education, workshops were organized so presenters did not just talk about their work. Attendees had discussion with them after watching teacher/storytellers tell stories in their nature center, place of worship, or classroom—elementary, secondary, or college.
SIXTY-ONE – This is my book, finally put together and published by Shipwrekt Books in 2016. I started writing it in basic training in 1970, then threw notes in a folder till inspired in 2016 to transform them to a book. I call it 61 stories crying for less war, and an end to poor care for veterans in mental health and exposure to chemical toxins. Many of the stories come from my years as a storyteller in education, and equity in education is still a big issue. A major missing story is that Martin Luther King, Jr. also said, “I now realize we will never end poverty and racism until we stop spending so much money to send young people, too many of them poor and of color, out to kill poor people around the world”.
Walter Enloe – Walter is an innovative educator with numerous books, many of them focused on involving youth in peacemaking. I have a chapter, “Telling Stories in an Age of Television” in Creating Context: Experiencing and Understanding Cultural Worlds, and “Video Letter Exchange” in Linking Through Diversity: Practical Classroom Activities for Experiencing and Understanding Our Cultures.
World Storytelling Day – Elaine and I were invited to help get this going in 2003, part of a group of worldwide storytellers linked via internet by Swedish storyteller, Ulf Arnstrom. Since that time, every year, on or around March 20, there are storytelling events, big and small in 25 or more countries. Ever-evolving volunteer leadership makes it a little hard to pin down, but last year it relocated to Facebook. Searching on the internet brings up a couple old and inactive websites, as well as some sites that have tried to capitalize on the relative “fame” of the event. In the early years we got Ulf and others up at bizarre times to tell a story into evening events in Minnesota via speakerphone. More and more these days the immediate video exchange capability of the internet is allowing easier live world connection.