The Next Story You Hear Might Be Missing Some Parts
Part 1, How I got here and stories from the field
By Larry Johnson
This is Part 1 of a two-part series about Larry's life and experience using storytelling in education and literacy.
Stories have always been teachers, whether told by a live person, or played out in modern media. As a storyteller/ educator, I believed my job to be to tell stories to help children find what they care about the most. That, in turn, would inspire them to want to learn the 3R’s as tools to find everything there is to know about their interests. I’m also concerned that children learn early to be critical thinkers/ viewers, striving to get at what is true. A central propaganda dictum is “Tell the truth, just not all of it,” and all of us, not just children, find ourselves befuddled by powerful, convincing presentations that leave out significant stories, or parts of them. The classic about this quandary is the old Hindu tale, popularized as The Blind Men and the Elephant: Six sightless friends grabbed different parts of an elephant, each arguing adamantly what they had found, based on their limited “feel-only” perspective. The trunk was a snake, the tail a rope, and so forth, and the ensuing argument promised to end years of friendship. Fortunately, a seeing person happened by, persuading them that their fighting was pointless. They had each grabbed a small part of the big picture, and paying attention to that would do them all well.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
The very conservative Christian tradition that I grew up in has often dominated the official education narrative with powerful pronouncements of what is true or false. I grew up hearing Bible stories with strong admonition about what they meant. Yet, as I looked more deeply, I found that Jesus told great stories, and his followers would walk away, wondering, “What was he talking about?” What he was saying was so far from the accepted, cultural beliefs, they’d come back, have a discussion, and a wider truth came to light, usually looking very little like what they already knew. They learned a lot because they talked it out with their Master Teacher, not because it was forced on them, as too often happens in religious circles. Also, it had much more to do with people caring about each other than it did pounding them because they were different. Yet, the further I’ve gotten away from that, the more I find that same rigid unwillingness to listen everywhere. It’s in other major religions, in the educational establishment, in politics, and yes, even in any number of important social justice movements.
In that vein, I’m going to reach way back to how I got involved with storytelling and media literacy, eventually pushing for having someone in every school district teaching all teachers to incorporate these skills into their work. I’ll tell some stories about it because that’s a best way to learn. Then I’ll pull some scattered thoughts, strategies, and resources together so a teacher might incorporate some of them in their classroom. Also, maybe someone might pick up the mission to put a teacher of storytelling in every school district. That teacher would teach every teacher to tell stories to teach students to tell stories to look at all sides of the issues with an ear to, “If I can hear your story, it’s harder for me to hate you.”
Television Invaded Our Woods in Third Grade
I was born into story in Swedish Hospital and took coffee intravenously the second day. When I was two, my Dad built a solitary house, so we could grow up in the country, a mile from the farm that is now the Mall of America. Four blocks away, by the dirt road that is now the freeway leading to the Mall, was the greatest playground in the world. There were abandoned farm buildings with fossil-embedded limestone foundations. These were surrounded by groves of huge trees covered with swinging vines, and nearby were spontaneous stretches of “prairie.” That’s where we first experienced the uncoiling of hibernating snakes, rolling out like a ball of badly tangled extension cords, then slithering off one by one in the sunshine. About 3rd grade when TV and Tarzan movies appeared in the neighborhood, the playground became “The Jungle,” where we swung like Tarzan on the vines. Developers were already mowing down ‘COUNTRY' to build row after row of pattern houses with replanted trees, and though we never moved, new schools emerged everywhere. I went to three grade schools, two junior highs, and missed two high schools by one year.
One day, when TV was still an infant, my Dad came home from Sylvester’s Salvage with a used 8 mm projector, a box of old silent movies, and a silent home movie camera. At age eight I learned to run that film projector, and Sunday nights I put movies on the screen. Mom filled bowls with popcorn, and everyone took turns reading the captions with great flair. Then when mom began recording our lives with home movies, we watched and remembered the dialogue out loud, or just made it up. Nonetheless, TV was taking over, and I was haunted for years by one of our regular trips to visit my grandparents. Dad turned on the car radio so we could listen to Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, and the other popular radio dramas. They were gone, even when he stopped the car and fumbled through all the stations, there was no trace. Not until years later in broadcast school did I learn that radio filled up with music as TV swallowed the dramas, whether or not they were better there than on the radio.
Winky Dink, an early participatory TV cartoon, fascinated everyone. You had to buy a magic crayon and screen kit to put on your TV, so when Winky Dink was being chased by a lion, you could draw a bridge from cliff to cliff. That let him run to safety, as the announcer told you to erase the bridge so the lion couldn’t chase him. Of course, Winky Dink ran across, and the dejected lion was stranded, even if you never drew the bridge. My parents had early resistance to buying everything you see on TV, so we couldn’t afford the magic kit. Dad helped us cover the screen with Saran Wrap and use regular crayons, which worked. We also made our own all black Hopalong Cassidy suits to compete with kids who bought them in stores, and during the 60s emergence of racial justice, I thought, “Now, here, early on, was a good guy who wore black.” Then, when my actual broadcast classes started, I learned that 'Hoppy’s' cowboy suit was actually blue, but it looked black on black and white TV. Media merchandisers figured kids wouldn’t bug their parents to buy the suit if it didn’t look the same as on TV. It was informal media literacy, but somewhere during those turbulent 60s I dove in and joined National Telemedia Council, known then as ACBB (American Council of Better Broadcasts).
Growing up, my brother was the goofy, all night sleepover storyteller. I was the serious student, athlete, programmed to become a conservative, evangelistic minister. I did the JFK 50 Mile Hike when I was 15, and organized an annual neighborhood track and field meet, drawing as many as 100 participants with boys and girls of all ages competing together. I wrote a lot, but there was no way I’d get up and talk to a group. My junior high vocational tests said I was most suited to working with people outside, a thought that locked in and stuck when I was given opportunity to work at, and then run evangelistic Youth for Christ camps for children in trouble with the legal system. I got into a speech sequence at the University, thinking, “If I’m going to be a minister, I’d better learn to talk,” but the real impetus was hearing an outstanding storyteller at a campfire in 1968. I decided, “I want to learn to do that,” and I never looked back, even when I discovered I could no longer work in what seemed a very narrow religious environment. At that point, the broadcast sequence in the Speech Department began to look more interesting, even though I no longer had a TV at home. I continued running camps, kept telling stories, and encouraging campers to do the same, either orally, or in writing. I even got class credit to use the new portable video equipment a bit with young people, not unlike the way some group workers created car clubs to engage boys in trouble.
Media Literacy Parachuted into the Midst of My Story
By the time I finished at the University, I was a really good storyteller, committed to using storytelling and TV to work with children. I was in a marriage that wouldn’t last, to a woman who worked with me in the “evangelistic” camps. When my broadcast degree and draft notice arrived the same day, we were on a 3-year waiting list to adopt a child. I became a medic, going to Germany for 3 months, then on to the jungles of Vietnam. The system, rewarding my service to country, waived the waiting list and gave us a baby girl as I was shipping out, maybe to never come back alive. My wife was so distraught, I never told her the part about Vietnam. Instead, I spent money we didn’t have to bring her and the baby over, thinking “even if it’s just 3 months, I still haven’t seen my daughter.” Thank God I didn’t go to Vietnam, but it was a jungle in Germany, living with the military system on base and much prejudice toward American GIs in town. The only apartment I could find was one renting exclusively to impoverished Germans and American soldiers, as well as prostitutes, and people from Turkey experiencing joblessness back home. Then, somewhere early in my work as an army medic at our little Field Hospital, it came up I was a storyteller. I was offered the chance to travel as a storyteller medic with a USO show, which I reluctantly turned down because it would mean leaving my family alone, for long periods, in a lonely, if not dangerous place. However, it made me start to think, “Is there a way to work as a storyteller without travelling all the time?”
I grew up with the early local character host kids’ shows. There was one on every channel, with opportunity for children to be guests who laughed when the 'Laugh' sign went up, or clap when it said 'Applaud.' I also had parents and grandparents who watched The Lawrence Welk Show diligently. In the army base library, I found a Welk biography, and was fascinated with his story of starting the TV show so he could be a musician/band leader without leaving family for endless road tours. I had also seen a visible change, one I didn’t really understand, when angry, traumatized children were given opportunity to perform at campfire programs. The idea began to formulate that when I got home, I would start a local kids show where I would tell a story each time, but the bulk of the program would be children as talent, singing, telling a story, reading their poetry, talking about their painting, or explaining some amazing science adventure they were in the middle of.
When I got back, I couldn’t even get a TV interview, the mantra being something like, “Thank you for your service. You have no experience.” The experience I did have finally got me another youth work job, running camps and other programs at the YMCA in Austin, Minnesota. On and off I got paid to do some writing, did storytelling in churches, and storytelling school assemblies. The PBS station in Austin was just starting, and they gave me opportunity to turn my idea into a short time popular show, generating talented young people through a club I created at the Y. Later, when I tried to focus just on the show, larger stations wouldn’t even look at the tapes because local live children’s TV was being eliminated all over the country.
About that time, I got off a bus, and saw a young man staring at me. He said, “Aren’t you that guy that used to tell stories at that camp? Do you remember the password?”
He then repeated this complex gibberish needed to get into the fort in one of my old stories:
KIMO KEIMO, DERAHAHN, MA HIMO, MA HEIMO
MARUMPSOD BUMPADIDDLE, SOUPBAG TIDAWIDDLE
NIPKOW NIPKAT SINAVICH KEIMIO
I was more than amazed, and after several similar experiences with former campers, I began to think, “These are kids who have trouble learning? What if you went into education and taught by telling great, important stories?” Shortly after that, I went into the library, thinking there must be a storytelling organization somewhere. The librarian didn’t know but found the National Story League (NSL) in the Encyclopedia of Associations, and I joined. It grew out of a 1903 educator’s conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Professor Richard Wyche encouraged storytelling in education, especially his practice of taking great classics like the Odyssey and telling them as “cliffhanger” serial stories. I had been doing serial stories at camp, only mine were constructed on the spot, featuring THE FLYING MEATBALL AND HIS WONDERFUL, MARVELOUS, SWISS ARMY KNIFE, with multiple tools that could rescue campers the next day from whatever cliff they were hanging over. Despite my dread about going to more school, I decided to rescue myself and use the GI Bill to add a teaching certificate to use storytelling and videomaking as prime classroom teaching tools.
Needing more income than the GI Bill, I applied at Minneapolis Children’s Hospital for a night security job which had big blocks of time, between rounds, to sit on call and study. Every time I made rounds, I passed a doctor’s office with an Action for Children’s Television sticker, and one morning I met her, Dr. Karen Olness, having trouble with her key. As I helped, I asked about the sticker, and she told me the hospital was built with a channel they hoped to activate some day with special TV for young patients. This included the story of a little girl, whose inherent fear about surgery was elevated to horror when she saw, on her hospital room TV, the George C. Scott movie, The Hospital, complete with bad operations on the wrong patients.
I told the doctor my background and training and wrote up some ideas adapting my original idea to the needs of the hospital. We went to work, but dedicated funding proved impossible, as no one seemed to understand. Funders said, “PBS should do this,” not understanding we were talking personally tailored to the immediate needs of current patients. Expecting to make the channel activate some time, I took breaks from nighttime homework to create an occasional piece, using ACBB materials, recommending best programs for hospitalized children on PBS and commercial stations. When my GI Bill, and education program was about to run out, Dr. Olness loaned the hospital money for a small salary from her education fund, saying, “Get something going, and someone will pay for this.” All we had was a live channel and an old security camera, so I began a call-in radio show, with a different child’s drawing in front of the camera each day. I visited patients before the show, both to promote and to build personalized content that could lift spirits and encourage getting well. The idea caught on, and support and resources began to trickle in from parents and grandparents who had experienced the value. A volunteer donated a real TV camera allowing for a puppet to sing special songs, tell stories, and interview patients’ dolls and teddy bears. That was also the novelty that caused the news media, local and national, to descend en masse, leading to more support, permanent funding, and other hospitals finding their own ways to duplicate what we were doing.
In 1980 our show became the first non-broadcast program to get the Action for Children’s TV National Achievement Award. This was ironic, as the major stated reason for cancelling local shows nationwide was ACT’s first major victory. They argued, and won, that it was wrong to have a character host hold up a product and appeal to children to have their folks go get it for them. Broadcasters responded with, “Then we can’t afford to do local”, and they went to expensive national shows with similarly expensive, highly produced ads. As I received the ACT award at Fanueil Hall in Boston, Brother Blue, an iconic African American storyteller, danced down the aisle, spontaneously charging the ceremony with his brilliant stream of consciousness storytelling, long before the general public knew what is today called rap. I had not met Brother Blue, but I knew him from his notoriety in the storytelling community. Peggy Charren, ACT Director, was as caught off guard as everyone else, and just said, “That’s the thing about living in Boston. You never know where Brother Blue will show up.” I spent two wonderful hours, after the awards, walking the historic stories of Boston with Brother Blue, talking storytelling at all levels, including what I called “Making TV Behave Like a Storyteller.”
Unlike theater or highly produced video, real storytelling involves eye contact and participation with the listeners. The storyline remains the same, but the audience makes the telling different each time.
Building live shows from visiting with patients, then interacting with them on air, created a semblance of that live storytelling experience. Brother Blue, the ultimate in audience participation, got it.
By 1982 the channel was still originating from a corner of the AV room in the basement of the adjoining adult hospital. I had become an administrator by default, talking to the media, giving tours to funders or visiting hospital dignitaries, and trying to explain to doctors why they couldn’t use the color camera that was donated exclusively for use on the patient channel. I was raising money and resources, as well as recruiting volunteers to do the work I loved, the work that got the channel started. Besides a live, daily call-in show, we were operating 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, with donated, quality children’s programming. Our yearly budget for staffing and everything else equaled the cost to produce about 10 minutes of one Sesame Street episode, or almost as much as the hospital PR department paid to produce one 20-minute promotional film. I asked for some paid help, and the answer was, “You did this by yourself when you started. I don’t see why it should be any different now.” I wrote a restructuring plan that included the reciprocal benefit between the kids’ channel and the entire media operation, but it meant nothing. Dr. Olness understood, but she had been squeezed out of the picture. My immediate supervisor, Director of Media, understood, but she was made powerless by the bureaucracy, and I was in an exhaustive quandary.
When I got my teaching certificate, teachers were being laid off in huge numbers all over the country, so I had quit thinking about working in the schools. It is media literacy, I think, to understand that people pay a lot of money to get good PR to create their brand. Somehow the novel hospital channel had generated free worldwide publicity that helped the channel, as well as the hospital. Part of that story was that I had TV training and experience, plus teaching credentials, and so the Minneapolis Schools Media approached me and begged me to apply for a new Cable TV Director position. They said there was no one inside the district who could do what was needed, which was flattering, but I was hesitant to walk into a stated “Director” job. When I decided to do it, I told them I saw all communications on a continuum, starting with personal storytelling, on up to highly produced films and sophisticated cable delivery. I said there should be camcorders in every school, and teachers trained to use them, for whatever subject they taught. I also argued for students to be taught to make video and to have media literacy tools, even as they were expected to make written or oral reports for class assignments. I offered, and sometimes was invited to tell stories in schools, as I helped them connect to the educational and public access services offered by the cable company. Also, the district insisted they wanted their own channel, but a decision had been made “downtown” that organizations had to share; no one would get their own. I used storytelling and community organizing advocacy skills to get an exclusive school district channel. The fear was largely blank channels, but the school media services truly did have plenty of resources to keep it filled.
In 1986, Mary Schepman, a principal with an exemplary arts program, was appointed to open a new International Fine Arts School. I had told stories for her several times, and she put together discretionary pieces of staff funding and asked me to work as a specialist, teaching storytelling, critical viewing skills, and international video exchange. I jumped at the opportunity, and spent a wonderful 6 years there, functioning like a music teacher seeing 5 classes a day. Mary’s departure, and the start of budget cuts, led me to a new magnet program that had big grant money, isolated from other cuts. I was invited to do the same thing with a science/math/technology focus. My ample environmental/outdoor education experience would let me tell and teach science stories, and video at least got to play “second fiddle” to computers in the technology section. It was a wonderful program, but it began to surface that structural flaws were breeding mold and ventilation problems that were making children and teachers sick and sicker. A few of us were labelled whistleblowers for doing what to me was just telling needed truth via advocacy storytelling. To others with more power, we were threatening to uncover a serious, expensive infrastructure need that leaders were apparently afraid to stand up to and demand remediation. I have described it elsewhere as teachers and children being treated like Vietnam Veterans exposed to Agent Orange, but the reality is a few who worked to improve building health were ultimately dribbled out, amidst what became years of work to restore personal health.
That blow has always been softened by communications from grown-up students, like “You gave me the tools to use storytelling to work in social justice”. . .
...Things like, “You made me comfortable standing up to talk, so now I’m doing real well as a salesperson,”...“I remember your class vividly, as a student 20 years ago. You created opportunities for us to tell stories in the community, and you were the first person who told me there was value in the stories I told. I am now a Licensed Counselor, and interestingly, I am starting a nonprofit to use storytelling, film, and art to tackle fear, shame, and self-acceptance.”
I was pleased to be able to work directly with students on storytelling and video, but during my time in the schools, was always working on the belief that the district, every district, should have a teacher on special assignment teaching all teachers to embed storytelling, video, and media literacy into their work. One year I helped the district Language Arts staff with a grant to teach one teacher from every school to do this with storytelling, then to be a catalyst to help it spread to others in their building. The next year when we were building systems to support these catalyst teachers, the district reorganized everything. They put new specialists into Language Arts, and new priorities slowly squeezed the program out.
By this time, I had become active with a newer National Storytelling group, NAPPS, now National Storytelling Network. The difficulty is they grew up around an annual “tourist attraction” Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee, and tended to cater to performing storytellers wanting to travel like folksingers. There was a not-so-subtle message that a storyteller working as a teacher was pretty much someone who just hadn’t made it yet. There was also a growing body of certain kinds of stories which were preferred or not, depending on how they would be viewed by sponsors of similar festivals emerging around the country. For me, this was too much like the historic concerns about which messages went out on TV, or not, depending on who was advertising. Still, despite that, the presence and growth of NSN has provided resources for teachers who do want to seriously utilize storytelling in their work.
The greatest hope came when my storyteller/therapist wife, Elaine Wynne, and I were asked by George Gerbner to represent the national storytelling community in the early 90s formation of his Cultural Environment Movement (CEM). Gerbner was the surgeon general’s first researcher on TV violence, and former Dean of the Annenberg School of Communications. I had read much of his work in broadcast school, and Elaine and I used selected writings in the STORYTELLING AS A MODERN COMMUNICATION ART course we started at Metro State University.
We were spurred on by Gerbner’s poetic rally cry—“We must get the stories into the hands of people with something to tell, not just big corporations with something to sell.”
We were a community of nationwide leaders representing religion, social service, environment, media, education, storytelling, and more, all of us working to highlight the important stories being left out of the mainstream.
Two of the action items from our Storytelling Working Group were to:
Align storytelling with the media literacy movement to infuse both into educational curricula, and
Create an exemplary pilot program as a mechanism to nurture at least one teaching storyteller’s presence in every school district.
It was exciting, but even as the CEM effort was struggling to survive, my overall health, from the school mold exposure, was in a terrible place. Many things fell disappointedly into folders, but I am excited again to dig all of this out and synthesize it for the future.
From the Field:
Stories Informing the Present with their Presence
I realize I just told you a story about coming from a totally unrelated place to a focus on making storytelling and media literacy stick in the world of education. Here are some more stories, reflecting the interplay between storytelling and media literacy. They’re not in curriculum, narrative or historical order, because stories don’t teach that way. They are more like stones splashing in the pond, rippling out to impact whatever ideas and actions are nearby. These stories are not even fully put together, as an official short story might be. They’re just there, as anecdotes, hopefully doing what stories do, INFORMING THE PRESENT WITH THEIR PRESENCE.
You’re a Storyteller So You’d Understand
During my time at Children’s Hospital, I worked on the employee newsletter, interviewing staff to get at the story of who they were really. The first one I did was with the hospital administrator, a serious, “proper” woman who had once been a nun. As I was asking questions, trying to get past those two stereotypes, she fell into a long and thoughtful pause. Then she said, “You’re a storyteller. You’d understand this. When I was in third grade, we had the most wonderful teacher. At the start of the year, she promised to tell us a story on Fridays if all our work was done. We loved stories, so our work was always done, and each Friday she sat down at the piano to play magical music we’d never heard to accompany the most remarkable stories. At the end of the year she apologized, and I still don’t know why. She said she loved Opera and the only way she could see to do that in third grade was to tell us the stories and play the music. I still don’t understand except she must have felt she was supposed to stay inside some curriculum. Years later I was in Rome and had opportunity to go to the Opera. I grew up poor and might not have been interested, but I remembered that teacher and how her opera stories made me want to get my work done. I went to the Opera, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
I got temporarily and nationally famous by putting a purple earthworm puppet in front of the camera at Children’s Hospital, but my favorite fame was always children in my school, saying or writing things like, “You’re a great storyteller. You helped me learn.” My favorite letter from the days of doing school assemblies was, “Mr. Johnson. I was absent the day you told stories in our school, but the other kids liked it a lot, so I’m going with that.” Fame, however, is not always so kind, and maybe sometimes better discarded, as I learned one year, first week of school. Officially I taught storytelling and video, but I always deliberately eased into media literacy, and I started school gardens. I believe growing a garden to be a best way to learn to care for the earth, the element most trashed by the general consumerism of network TV. It was the year “Field of Dreams” was out as a popular movie, and the previous spring we had planted a “corn fence” around the school garden. My plan was to start classes outside to tell them the story of my cousin Johnny Johnson’s corn fence around his yard near the farm that is now the Mall of America. Then I would demystify one of the many video special effects by making students disappear into the corn with a simple VHS in camera edit. Next, we would go inside so they could see themselves disappear, together with the movie scene where the ghost ball players disappeared into the corn.
I got outside with the first graders, and as they started to sit down, I saw what appeared to be something a dog left. “No,” I thought. “Looks like a rotting leaf,” and to prove it, I stuck my finger in it. It was, in fact, a surprise left by a dog, and I was sure the class would be destroyed, in convulsive laughter, for at least 15 minutes. Miraculously it wasn’t, so I figured I’d “gotten away" with it. Now, I’ve always believed it’s healthy to acknowledge you have an ego, then keep it from driving everything you do. Every storyteller likes to have listeners say things like, “Gee, that was a great story. Thanks for telling it,” but this day was different.
Toward the end of the day, the first graders filed by in a neat hallway row. Suddenly a little boy pointed and yelled, “I remember you. You’re the guy who stuck his hand in the doggie doo.”
Blue on Blue is Rarely True
It was a year I thought I had lost it. I had been teaching storytelling and video in what became the “most popular program in the district”. There was concern about “What will these kids do when they get to middle school and there is no program like this?” A few of us advocated replicating the idea and keeping it small, part of the beauty of our school. This, however, was not the thrust of an articulate parent running for school board on this platform. She won, and we opened the next year in an old junior high building, triple the size and K-5 now K-8. It was chaos, and I learned later that class selection involved the music and symphony centerpiece program rejecting older students they didn’t want. A woman in the office was downloading them into my groups, mumbling, “Larry is good with these kids”.
I always used some form of “story circle”, where a story stick, or object, went around the circle. When you had the stick, it was your turn to talk/tell your story, but it was OK to pass. Middle School was always the hardest. First time the stick usually whipped around the circle so fast it got back before it left. Then I’d say, “Let’s go around one more time, but this time, just hold it for a bit. There might be something there.” Almost always someone would tell a good story, then someone else, and we were in business, but these classes held excessive numbers of students purporting to not care about anything. Their angry obstinacy was matched with fear from those who wanted to participate but didn’t want to be mocked when class was over. The extreme test came the day James got up and began telling the most foul, sexual joke one could imagine. I stopped him and said, “You know that’s not appropriate here. The only place I can think it could be OK is a very adult night club. I question it even there. Love between two people can be funny, but it should be beautiful. Laughing about making it grotesque hurts a lot of people.” The class was stunned, even more silent, but with a different tone. I think they expected me to totally lose it and didn’t know what to do when that didn’t happen.
We continued on with a few weak “Three Little Pig” type stories. Then another young man got up and began telling a gripping story about living in a crack district, surrounded by drug dealers and prostitutes. This tale was also very graphic, but something told me it wasn’t to be stopped. My imagination conjured a waiting list of angry parents, but the story wasn’t done to taunt or titillate. It was real, from the heart, and it had a distinct point that no child should have to live in such a place. He finished to a standing ovation, and I never heard a thing from parents.
I think every student, even those with totally different life experience, respected the importance of having space to tell the truth, from the heart.
I Can’t Be Here Next Week
The Name of the Fame
When Elaine and I were first together, we lived on the West Bank in Minneapolis, the area that has always been home to new immigrants, to Scandinavians in the early 1900s, and people from Somalia today. It’s also always been sanctuary to great musicians not afforded the luxury of being made famous. During this time Elaine interviewed Eddie Berger, a local jazz great. Eddie had trained many very famous jazz musicians and was the featured fixture in a notable local jazz night spot. She asked him, “Does it ever bother you? Not to be so famous like so many you taught?” His immediate reply was, “Nah, I’ve got my friends. I’ve got my health back, and I’m the star in my own saloon”
I did much telling of long classics as serial stories. Each week, I’d say, “When we last left Pinocchio, who remembers what just happened?” Someone would tell and bring us up to date, and then I’d go on with the next episode. Pinocchio was great, because the original is so different from most modern film versions, especially Disney. That allowed for wonderful story and media literacy discussions, but I also told many others, like Stone Fox, Tom Sawyer, The Secret Garden, Ruskin’s “King of the Golden River,” and more.
I admit to loving the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, but it was a time of knee jerk reaction to Christian domination of education messaging. You could tell Native American stories, or tales from other traditions, but nothing from the Bible. Once, before I actually went to work for the Minneapolis schools, I told Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant” on the district radio station.
When I came back the next week, they had cut the ending because the little boy who taught the giant to share his garden with the children had holes in his hand and feet. He was, in literary terms, a “type” of Christ. I didn’t think that made Wilde a fundamentalist Christian, but apparently someone did.
Finally, I decided to just tell the story of Joseph and not say where it came from. I changed his name to “Joe” and figured if anyone recognized the story, they wouldn’t care. If a parent called and took issue, which never happened, I’d argue that you should be able to tell a story from the Hindu scriptures one week, and the Bible the next.
One day I was in the episode where Joe was thrown in jail because Joe refused to cave to demands from his Boss’s wife for wrongdoing (if you don’t remember the story, she tried to get him to sleep with her, but I adapted the details to “something wrong” for 3rd graders). The jilted woman lied to get Joe in trouble, and I ended with the usual “but Joe was honest, a hard worker, and pretty smart. . . so how will he get himself out of this one”. That day, as class was over, Kelly stopped me and said, “Larry, I won’t be here next week.” I figured she was alerting me that she’d need to find out what happened next, so I said, “Oh, are you going on vacation?”
“No,” she said. “We have to move to my Grandma’s. My mommy did something naughty. She’s going to jail.” We talked a bit about how hard that was, and then I reframed the story, “but you’re honest, a hard worker, and you’re pretty smart.” She paused, and a big smile spread across her face, a smile that said, “I can figure out how to get through this, just like Joe.” At the end of the day, I alerted the classroom teacher and the school social worker. They weren’t aware of what had happened, but that’s what stories do. They bring out other stories that need to be told.
The Storyteller Is the Medium is the Message
Mrs. Groh, my 3rd grade teacher in 1950s Bloomington, pointed me to the story of George Washington Carver, and to this day I wish I knew: Was she just encouraging me, a good reader, to look at bigger, harder books than my classmates, or did she have early, conscious respect for African Americans. Similarly, my aunt and uncle gave me the biography of Jackie Robinson because of my grade school baseball interest. Not much later, my Bible College evangelistic work had me roaming the streets in the poorer parts of town as a 19-year-old. Many residents and potential campers were the African American families who couldn’t live in Bloomington, and I regularly picked up groups of white and black kids to play basketball in the Bible College gym. Early on it gave me experience to see past massive cultural stereotypes, so later as a storyteller/video teacher it was easy to seek out and tell the stories of George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, or Lewis Howard Latimer. Latimer was the brilliant African American scientist in Edison’s lab, the one who actually found the filament that kept burning and made the light bulb possible. It’s just that Edison gets all the credit.
In recent years there has been much more official emphasis on restoring the stories missing from the education narrative, which is good. The story is important, no matter who tells it, but as Marshall McLuhan said, “The Medium is the Message.”
The medium is the teacher, the storyteller, and though many are still working to make the teaching population more reflect the body of students, we still have far to go.
Systems are entrenched, and I’m writing in the midst of much overt pushback, screaming, “There is no problem of racism in this country.”
I was almost 40 when I actually started teaching, so I had already done quite a bit of independent storytelling work in schools. Because I was trying to make something new happen, I wasn’t always full-time, but could fall back on independent work. One year I was full-time in an innovative school that had two music teachers. The second was part-time and happened to be African American. My perception was she was very good but was going to lose her job because of budget cuts and lack of tenure. I offered to go to part-time so she could stay, and students of color could benefit by her presence, and still by what my program offered. I was told emphatically that the system did not work that way. I could voluntarily “demote” myself (rather harsh language, I think), but that would just allot the position to the next person in line with greatest tenure. Teachers are mistreated enough, so I’m not advocating dumping protections for teachers. No matter how good a teacher is, some of that trauma is downloaded, usually unconsciously, on students, but I am arguing for some element of fluidity. I stayed and did my best to tell the percentage of stories that reflected the races and genders in front of me. I would argue, however, for a story line that said if student population is 35% African American, 15% Native American, 10% Asian American, and 40% European American, the tenure system should reflect those ratios when putting teachers in place.
I Guess I Don’t Look So Bad
The channel I started at Children’s Hospital was designed to be a fun way to deliver hospital and health information. There was also opportunity to help with the production, from operating camera, making graphics, or being a co-host. We did whatever it took, like for one little boy who wanted to be the voice for a puppet, not pre-recorded, but live on TV. He was in traction and couldn’t go to the “studio”, so we put a puppet on the screen, and he supplied the voice, the story, over the call-in phone.
Still, the difficulty for me was that most of the kids were in a day or two and gone. They got well quickly. The ones I got to know best were in often and for long periods, like the talented boy in traction, or the many children dealing with cancer.
One of those was an extremely gifted 7th grader, Jennifer, dealing with leukemia. She always wore a beautiful scarf to cover chemo hair loss, and she was always engaged in something creative like writing poetry or scripts for puppets. She ran camera, made graphics, and directed. When she made a puppet talk, it was clear she had a spontaneous flair for performance, but she would never appear herself on TV, reading her wonderful poetry.
One day we were cleaning up after a show, and I asked again. “Would you like to just see how you look on TV? I could tape you and erase it the minute you finish watching.” She decided that was OK, and after the tape played, she looked at me, saying, “Gee, I didn’t know. I don’t look so bad, do I?” Sadly, she died a few months later, but how wonderful this non-commercial use of TV could give her that awareness before she moved on.
Dear FCC: Yes, There Should Be Local Children’s TV
In 1993 the FCC asked citizens if guidelines should be adopted for amount and type of children’s programming available for renewal of FCC licenses. I’m not aware of anything changing, but I wrote this letter, and stand by what I said:
April 20, 1993
Dear FCC Children’s Committee:
Yes, you should adopt guidelines. I am presently a Storyteller/Video Teacher in the Minneapolis schools, but have held various roles related to children’s use of TV since finishing broadcast school in 1970.
Since there are now a wealth of well-done educational children’s shows nationally, I believe each local commercial station should be required to produce one program allowing for involvement and participation by young people in the immediate community. I also believe a structure should be created that would allow at least this one program to be sponsored by a coalition of healthy children’s products, ranging from “grow your own garden foods” to bicycles, roller skates, and gyroscopes. Just for good measure, you could throw in “homemade squirt guns” that don’t require pointing a gun because they are made by recycling already purchased and used dish detergent bottles. Sometimes we who are labelled “TV Activists” are cast as “anti-business”, which is not true. I object to harmful business practices, but there are thousands of healthy products that could be sold on children’s TV. I think there is something wrong with the reality that sugar overload in various disguises is still the predominant commercial message offered to children via the most powerful mass educator around.
I went into television almost 25 years ago because I wanted to give children an opportunity to be involved with it, as well as watch it, and the only model for that then was local character host TV. That disappeared about the time I set out to do a local program where children were talent on the show. I chose to follow an even more local route than I had dreamed, starting the first participatory patient TV channel in a Children’s Hospital. I then got heavily into school children making video, especially international video exchange, and still there is little support for such things. I believe with the proliferation of TV channels, local commercial stations could and should be mandated (under the “public owns the airwaves”) to serve children by creating 1990’s local formats paid for with healthy commercial products.
Apologies to Wanda Gag, Minnesota Author of MILLIONS OF CATS
One day an old man and woman turned off the TV, remembering how they enjoyed hearing stories when they were little. “I wonder if anyone still does that,” said the old woman. “Please old man. Go find out. Bring us back the best storyteller you can”.
Down the road went the old man, wondering, “Where will I find a storyteller? I have no idea where to look.” He walked for days and days, over hills, through fields, across rivers, and neither saw, nor heard a storyteller. Everyone said, “No, I don’t think people do that anymore. They just watch TV.”
One day when the old man was exhausted and ready to give up, he stumbled onto a field full of big tents. As he listened and watched, he heard not one storyteller, but hundreds of tellers, thousands of tellers, millions, and billions, and trillions of tellers. The old man was in awe. “They’re all so good,” he thought, “just in different ways. How will I ever decide which one to invite home to tell us stories?”
Then he had an idea. “I know. I’ll invite them all. Then we’re sure to have the best”. So, he did, and hundreds of tellers, thousands of tellers, millions, and billions, and trillions of tellers followed him home. Back home, he said, “Look, old woman. I couldn’t find one storyteller. I found hundreds of them, thousands, millions, billions, and trillions. I couldn’t decide who was best, so I invited them all”.
The old woman fainted, and when she awoke, she said, “What were you thinking? Just feeding them all one meal will bankrupt us. You have to go tell them to find a way to decide who is best”. The old man stepped outside, and said, “Storytellers, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. We can’t afford to feed you all. We have to decide on just one, the BEST.”
With that the storytellers began to fight. “I’m obviously the best,” said one. “I’m on the road 350 days a year, and they don’t even argue with me. They just pay me what I’m worth”.
“That can’t be much,” said another storyteller. “I get $5,000 for each performance. I don’t need to be on the road that much”. Still another said, “I’ve been all over the world telling stories, and I’ve got a good shot at The Tonight Show. That ought to tell you something”.
Soon the field in front of the couple’s house was a frightful battlefield. Nothing could be heard, but the din of argument. Finally, when the noise subsided, the old man and woman stepped out cautiously, amazed to find just one storyteller remaining. “Where are the others?” they asked.
“I’m not sure,” said the solitary storyteller. “I guess they chased each other off.” The old man and woman said, “But why are you still here?” To which the storyteller replied, “I’m not the best. I just told stories to my children, and now to my grandchildren. Oh, I also tell stories to the classes I teach at school, but I don’t travel and get paid to perform.”
“Come in,” said the old man and woman, “please tell us a story.” She did, and when she finished, the old man and woman said, “You are the best storyteller in the world, and we should know, because we’ve heard hundreds of tellers, thousands of tellers, millions, and billions, and trillions of tellers.”
Ripping People Off with Great Storytelling?
I was in Boston speaking at a national cable TV conference where I presented myself as a storyteller/educator who happened to be getting paid at the time to be Cable TV Coordinator for the Minneapolis school district. When I was done, a Maryland school district media coordinator came up and said, “Do you do storytelling workshops? Could you come to Maryland and teach our teachers to use storytelling?”
I said, “I do, and I’d be glad to, if it worked out, but you know, there are great storytellers out there”. He said, “I know. We just had two of the most famous ones talk to our teachers. They did a great performance, but they charged a lot of money and didn’t seem to understand how to teach teachers to tell stories. They just did a show. I know you weren’t doing a workshop, but I can see you’re a good storyteller and you understand education”.
Then he said the thing that scared me the most:
“As soon as people here get over feeling ripped off; I’d like to have you come.”
That never happened, so I can only hope they found a good storyteller/teacher out there.
Why Did They Take My Video Off the Channel?
When you tell a story, you can adapt to who is in front of you, and I always told O. Henry tales, adult as they are, to children who had experienced the harder things in life. They loved them, and one year I told them as part of a special project with a very creative special education teacher, Patty Bomash. Then I showed the students part of a video letter from my storyteller/educator friend, Mark Wagler. One of Mark’s students told his version of a “Nate the Great” detective story, and that inspiration, with O. Henry, let me help Patty’s students write their own tale, “The Purse Snatchers”. Then they each learned to tell the story, and we made them all stars on an audiocassette they got to keep. Working as a group, we rewrote the story as a video script, carefully imaging and deciding each scene. Finally, we shot the video “professional style," one scene at a time, which is quite different from the usual practice of taping a school play with a single camera. Time and equipment to do editing was always short, so I had gotten into teaching careful, in-camera editing. We always hoped no mistakes were made but were willing to live with a “ragged edit” if we had to stop and redo a scene. It was good, but “didn’t look professional”, as they say. The video played on the school cable channel, but also went back to Wisconsin on a video letter to boost the esteem of the student who told the original “Nate the Great” story. Everyone felt good about it, especially the young man in our group who quit getting expelled because he didn’t want to miss this project. Also, the process of making their own video gave all the students inherent “behind-the-scenes” tools to help them view TV and movies more critically.
The difficulty always was the lack of understanding about this kind of work. The project with “The Purse Snatchers” happened the year after I finished being Cable TV coordinator, where I had created a time slot on the school channel to showcase videos made by students. The last year I was in that position, most of those videos were removed, by order of the Superintendent, because they didn’t look professional. It happened while Elaine and I were gone, helping students in London make a video letter to return to students who had sent them one from Minnesota. The one from Minnesota, a “from the heart” piece made by students, was one of the videos removed. I begged my boss to let me speak directly to the Superintendent, but it had to go thru the “chain of command”, and the chain links above me clearly didn’t understand. The year before we did “The Purse Snatchers,” I had edited the Minnesota to London videos to show the exchange, illustrating back to back pieces, like feeding the pet rabbit in London, and the class snake in Minnesota.“ The video won Grand Prize in the Tokyo Video Festival, and while we were doing the Purse Snatcher video, NHK came from Japan to make video of grade school kids shooting their own video, under supervision of the teacher who oversaw the first Grand Prize video made by a group of kids, not a “professional” video producer. While that was happening, the local CBS station sent a producer to tape NHK taping the kids making their video. He got talking about how great this was, and I told him about the kids’ tapes ordered off the channel. He almost dropped his expensive camera, saying he had been hired by the district to help them make important things like school board meetings look like network TV productions. He told me he got paid a lot of money to tell them they’d never be able to afford that kind of production, saying, “You’re a school district. You should be showcasing student productions and things about students.”
Don’t Shoot Him. That’s Eva’s Dad
The first story I ever told in a school was Robert McCloskey’s Lentil, the little boy who saved the day in Alto, Ohio, because he had learned to play the harmonica. The last page says:
SO YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT WONDERFUL THINGS MIGHT HAPPEN IF YOU LEARN TO PLAY THE HARMONICA JUST LIKE LENTIL.
It was 1973, and a media specialist who had seen me on TV, asked me to do a school assembly. I asked if she had a story she’d like in the program, and she said “Lentil.” I had never heard of it, and it was before I knew, inside and out, that to tell a story well you have to love it. In this case it worked out because I had taught myself to play a Hohner harmonica, working night duty as an army medic in Neu Ulm, Germany. That experience led me into several years of doing school assemblies, then deciding I wanted to work my way into the schools where I could tell stories but do it for the purpose of teaching teachers and students to tell their own. I had become dissatisfied with amazing people with a polished program, then leaving without ever knowing how much lasting impact was made.
One time when I was doing this teaching students to tell, my class was very late, so I went to find out what was going on. They were finishing up with a special guest, father of a student in the class. He was a K-9 policeman, and he had his highly trained dog with him. The children obviously liked him. He was a kind man, a good storyteller, and he had a dog. Plus, he was Eva’s Dad. I caught the end of his presentation and we went back to my room to do what we could with the remaining time. I thought nothing more about it till the next year the classroom teacher told me this man had called and offered to tell stories about his work in any class. It didn’t have to be his daughter’s. He said, “The summer after I was in your class, I was called to a shooting. A crowd had gathered, and it was tense. I got out of the car, and the man with the gun saw my uniform and pointed his weapon at me. I was sure I was dead, until a little boy in the crowd screamed, 'Don’t shoot him, that’s Eva’s Dad!" He was in your class, and his cry caught the shooter so off guard, my backup got in and disarmed him before anyone else got hurt. I think being in your class saved my life”
So, you never know what wonderful things might happen if you learn to tell stories to children.
Years later, when I was ready to leave the schools, truly too sick physically, and at heart, to continue, I looked at the job bidding lists one more time. One position stood out. It was a third-grade classroom that said, “Must be willing to integrate school arts program into class work.” This came up in the milieu of several years where specialists like art, music, and physical education were being eliminated. These were positions that had been in every school for years, so my focus as the only Storyteller/Video Specialist was long gone, and I was going to bidding every year, looking for something that gave some room for what I do. I was an environmental specialist one year, largely helping students tell stories and make video focused on environmental topics. That job was eliminated, so I taught health, doing the same, till that position was eased out. Every year it was something different, some of it budget cuts, some of it invisible harassment for taking on the “sick building” issue.
I took the third-grade class, and it was terrible. The arts program had been dying, and the school was out of control. The principal came in early in the year when I was telling the class a story, and she was amazed. She was glad to have me there. Then she began to show up, deriding me regularly for doing “word play” activities as part of teaching reading. I operated on the theory that reading is taught by loving the content through hearing the words in a story well told, then learning to recognize the words on the page, then getting comfortable reading them smoothly out loud, or silently. I had in fact been personally impacted years earlier when a high school English teacher told a Shakespeare story at a small-town storytelling festival.
I was always a good reader but had hated Shakespeare in high school for its archaic, hard to read language. I thought, “If the teacher had told it as a story, then sent us home to read, it would have made all the difference.”
Nonetheless, the insistence I was getting was that I should be using “kill and drill” activities or I was wasting my time and creating the risk that the school would once again fail the NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND tests.
History and daily life are littered with people being treated badly for no good reason, so being new to the school, I checked in with the long-time union rep. She said, “Don’t take it personally. They’re doing this cleverly so they can’t be caught. They’re harassing older teachers all over the District, hoping to get them to leave, so they can spread the money by hiring new teachers”. That helped enough to make it through to year’s end to give the dreaded tests, something I’d never done before. I reasoned, “OK, everyone is horrified about students failing these tests. That stress is being downloaded on the students, making it harder for them to do well.” I decided to administer the tests as a storyteller, like the one telling the story to the boy with asthma. Rather than just reading the test instructions, with all the unconscious stress spewing out, I read them with some crossover between a calming storyteller and a person leading a meditation. The principal, of course, poked her head in while I was doing that, and I noted a puzzled look, similar to the nurse with the asthma patient. It was sort of, “I don’t get it, but this looks like some kind of strategy.” To add to the cruel and unusual punishment of that evaluation system, bad or good school test results weren’t published until almost a year later. Everyone had to wait and worry. I was done at the end of that year, but I made sure to read the long lists in the newspaper the day they came out. My 3rd graders passed the tests, but no one ever called to say, “Who was that stressed man. I wanted to thank him.”
Cover image: Advertisement for Kodak's Sound 8 Projector, from 1961 issue of Esquire.
Stressed by the Test
One day when I was still at the hospital, I was paged to 5th floor, where a puzzled nurse said, “Dr. Olness wants you to tell a story to this boy having an asthma attack”. Her body language said, “I don’t get it, but it’s Dr. Olness”. I did get it. My Dad had severe asthma and emphysema, and I knew asthma was triggered by physical allergies, but often worsened by stress over the frantic coughing. Dr. Olness just wanted a calming story that would pleasantly take the patient’s mind away from the distress and help him relax. I told the story.