"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Attention Youth Tellers: PTA wants You!

Thanks to Julie Barnson, Patsy Chandler, and Jean Tokuda Irwin for granting permission to share their comments from interviews conducted September 30th and October 1st of 2008 as well as pictures shared of Brenna and Julie Barnson.

The cell phone buzzed and a breathless storytelling friend, Julie Barnson, exclaimed, "I had to call someone and I asked myself, 'Who would be most excited to hear the news? Rachel!'"

Storytelling was part of the announcement, though I wondered to what degree?

Barnson had received a packet from her daughter Brenna's school on PTA Reflections, an art recognition program for students. A couple days later, one of the 5th grade teachers, Ms. Coupe, pointed out the Theatre category so Barnson scanned the guidelines. "We saw that there was storytelling in Reflections this year and my jaw dropped," said Barnson.

She clarified that this Theatre category was only available in Utah and shared, "Other states may have a theatre category and I have no idea of what made them pick up storytelling, but it makes me happy! It's so nice that storytelling is recognized as an art. That's a big deal."

Ms. Coupe knew her student was a finalist of the 2008 Youth Tall Tale Contest. Brenna had created and shared a story on how the Great Salt Lake was formed involving a girl, a tiger, and a riddle contest.

Even before realizing storytelling was a possibility for the PTA Reflections, Barnson and Brenna went to the library weekly to find possible stories to audition for the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival and other youth-friendly events. Barnson laughed, "She usually chooses the first story she sees."

Barnson had to remind her daughter, "Choose a story that moves your heart, makes you laugh, or gets some kind of emotion from you." Barnson felt her daughter "doesn't quite get that yet."

At least the PTA Reflections program is a learning adventure for kids. Barnson boasted, "We participate every year." Now with storytelling offered, that tradition will continue.

Barnson and Brenna are not the only ones who wish to thank the PTA. In fact, over 10 million students need to thank Mary Lou Anderson, former National PTA board member, for inspiring the Reflections program in 1969 through art contests in Literature, Music, Visual Arts, and Photography. Several PTA websites have declared, "The excitement and enthusiasm that the Reflections arts recognition program generates for children, parents, schools, and communities is unmatched."

Jean Tokuda Irwin, Arts Education Program Manager for the Utah Arts Council, molded the Utah PTA Reflections program by adding Dance, Theatre and Film/Video while she served as Utah PTA's Individual Development Commissioner. The next Utah PTA Individual Development Commissioner, Margaret Wahlstrom, added yet another category of 3D in the Visual Arts.

Each year a theme is chosen such as "Suddenly I turn around", "My greatest wish for life is. . .", or the 2009 theme of "Wow. . .". The kids then transform a concept into creativity.

Utah had almost 70,000 submissions in 2008. With such a response, the National PTA sometimes turns to this state to pilot new categories such as what happened with Dance and Film/Video, which were categories officially added to the national list in 2006. Patsy Chandler, Utah PTA Individual Development Commissioner, shared, "Utah started with these categories and national liked the results."

In the meantime, Utah has two state-specific categories: Theatre (which includes Storytelling and Mime) and 3D Artistic Creations. Depending on the number of entrants, these two categories may share the same destiny as Dance and Film/Video though it would probably take five years, ten years, or more to happen.

When Jean Tokuda Irwin, who was then on the PTA Board, asked National PTA why there were no categories for dance, theatre, etc. They told her it was a question of money. She argued that money was not an issue in relation to having more art forms accessible for children. She asserted that if the situation involved kids with disabilities, they would not be allowed to use funding as an argument. She further stated that in the case of Reflections, some kids (dancers, actors, storytellers, videographers) were unable to participate because their art form was not one of the original PTA Reflections categories.

In fact, Irwin's own arts education assistant said, "I thought I never had any talent. If I could have entered in Dance, I would have participated in Reflections." National PTA encouraged Utah PTA to "pilot" the new categories and Utah has never looked back.

Though Theatre then became available, Irwin admitted that Theatre could be hard to understand and grasp for the non-trained individual. Most of the confusion was with Theatre and Film/Video as Irwin pointed out, "The kids could not tell the difference between Film/Video as an artistic tool versus just recording something." Chandler mentioned the same problem and said, "We try to clear those lines by saying 'This is Theatre' and 'This is Film and Video'."

In the storytelling community, often defining "storytelling" is difficult. It is almost comforting that long-standing arts like Theatre face the same issues.

When Irwin was on the PTA Board, she traveled throughout Utah with artists and videos demonstrating the differences between Monologue, Mime, Storytelling, One-Act Play and so on. When it came to storytelling Irwin noticed, "Kids don't tell stories anymore unless they are lucky to be in a storytelling family. They have television instead." The Barnson family seems to confirm this statement.

Irwin and Chandler may not personally know the Barnsons, though they have witnessed some fantastic storytelling performances in the past five years to the present time.

Chandler remembered one of the kids had dressed up like what her grandmother had wore when she crossed the plains into the Salt Lake Valley as a pioneer and received the Honorable Mention at state level for the performance. Chandler also saw a little girl tell "The Three Little Pigs" using puppets placed on Popsicle sticks.

Irwin attributed the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival and the Utah Storytelling Guild as influences to most amazing storytelling-related submissions. With access to this event and organization, there are qualified judges.

Sometimes parents unfamiliar with the art are unsure how to share stories with their kids. Irwin encouraged the parents to pick a character and make up a story. "A few would look at me with the most stunned looks on their faces adn ask, 'How do you do that?'"

Irwin sees her mission as teaching others how to create their own stories through dance, music, theatre, visual arts and creative writing. Since 1991, she has served as the Utah Arts Council (UAC) Arts Education Manager. The UAC's Arts Education mission is to promote active engagement and arts learning. Their mission is served by grants to schools and organizations, technical assistance and outreach programs.

In relation to Theatre, Irwin lamented, "A lot of kids have never seen live theatre before--at least that is how it is these days." Irwin continued, Most children today are growing up on a diet of television and videos so they don't have the opportunity to see live theatre in action or live storyteller in action. They just don't understand the medium."

From people like Barnson to Irwin to Chandler, there are many who support the arts. We can join in this advocacy through the annual PTA "Start the Art" Week, which is October 6-11, 2008 by contacting community leaders and government officials on how we feel. Or at least some friends and family.

So. . .is your cell phone ready to share the news with others?

Other Online Resources--

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
Tel: (801) 870-5799
Email: info@rachelhedman.com
Performance Blog: http://familyfamine.blogspot.com
Other places to find me: Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Professional Storyteller

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