"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Today's Bards & Seanachies: Irish Wisdom in Storytelling Techniques

Having the "gift of gab" by kissing the Blarney stone is not enough to be a storyteller. An Irish proverb says, "Time is a great storyteller."

The number of stories you know, the principles learned within them, and the time it takes to apply the principles can measure intelligence.

Whether bard or seanachie (pronounced Shawn-ah-key), both well-known Irish storytellers during the Celtic era, 300 or more stories were committed to memory and shared with village people to Gaelic nobility.

During that period, people respected the role of the storyteller.

Wise people today still do.

Nowadays we have professional storytellers, and perhaps you count yourself as one. Or maybe you love to tell tales around the kitchen table or at the workplace or around a campfire. Regardless of the "stage", you probably have characteristics similar to bards/filidh and seanachies.

Consider personal connections to the following--

Traits and Qualities of the Bard/Filidh:
  • 100% focused on the storytelling craft and supported by patrons
  • 12+ years of intensive training through expensive schooling
  • Skilled in storytelling, poetry, music composition, singing, and playing of at least one instrument--usually harp
  • Repertoire consisted of long stories that took two or more hours to tell and some that had to be told over the course of several nights
  • Learned stories, verses, histories, and genealogies
  • Upon graduation of training, then wore cloak of crimson and yellow feathers and carried a gold rod
  • Each year received 21 cows, food for himself and 20 attendants, kept 6 horses, 2 dogs, and immunity from arrest for any crime save treason and murder
Bard-Types of Today
We have few, if any, apprenticeships that would compare to the bardic schooling. However, many universities offer storytelling as a course and some places, like East Tennessee State University, have a complete Masters program. Some storytellers further their education by receiving doctorates in related fields such as Folklore or Theatre. (Click here for list of higher education programs.)

The National Storytelling Network has promoted apprenticeships through the creation of the J.J. Reneaux Mentorship grant.

Attending storytelling conferences and festivals are always places of learning. Some of the most popular are the National Storytelling Conference and the National Storytelling Festival. These kinds of events remind the storyteller of how many truly embrace the art.

You can see some of these tellers at listings like Storyteller.net, the Professional Storyteller social network site, and the National Storytelling Network directory. Some state guilds like the Florida Storytelling Association or the Utah Storytelling Guild have websites showing their members.

As for style, some tellers rely purely on the spoken word while others enhance their stories through song, music, or dance. There is not a right or wrong way.

Traits and Qualities of the Seanachie:
  • Most of his time focused on another occupation than storytelling though he told as opportunities came
  • Audience mainly composed of small and poor communities, which is why known as "village storyteller"
  • More affordable than bard and often told stories when a bard could not be secured
  • Some stayed in one location as a storyteller while some traveled and were paid in food and shelter
  • Keepers of the history and lore of a certain folk
  • Learned distinctive gestures to emphasize points in story
Seanachie-Types of Today
At times I have heard touring storytellers wish that they could stay in a place long enough to know their audience. Circuit and festival tellers are the "rock stars" of the art as they are most visible and celebrated by the media.

Some communities are realizing that their homes and neighborhoods are full of stories. It could be said they are searching for their seanachies to remember the folkways.

StoryCorps, a National Public Radio (NPR) initiative, was formed to "[create] an oral history of the United States using the stories of everyday Americans" with the help of two mobile recording studios traveling on a cross-country tour. The stories will be archived in the Library of Congress.

Then there is the [HEAR]SAY project at St. John's, Newfoundland of Canada, which is a pioneering project of story mapping through recorded oral histories. Signs are posted throughout streets and people can call the telephone number on the sign to hear the story connected to that area.

Arthur Rowan, who wrote The Lore of the Bard, said, ". . .if it is the myth and legends of the folk that you love, and your desire is to keep the magic of those traditions alive, then the way of the seanachie might be for you."

Storytelling Techniques through The Triads of Ireland:
Liz Warren, English and Storytelling Professor at South Mountain Community College in Arizona, stated, "The Irish Storytelling Tradition is one of the most thoroughly studied, documented and celebrated of any in the world."

In Summer 2008, Warren led a study abroad in Ireland on storytelling. Her syllabus online mentioned The Triads of Ireland, a collection of 214 Old Irish sayings that list three qualities at a time. The third item tends to be the climax or the anticlimax of the list.

Warren referenced three of those triads that relate to storytelling--
  • Three glories of speech: steadiness, wisdom, brevity
  • Three hateful things in speech: stiffness, obscurity, a bad delivery
  • Three things that constitute a poet: knowledge that illumines, knowledge of incantations, improvisation
Glories of Speech--(my interpretations)

This is not a common word that storytellers outside Ireland may choose to be important in storytelling. It could refer to the storyteller having a calmness or control over the sharing of the story. Perhaps this promotes the idea that every moment within the story contributes in some way to the main purpose of the story, thereby creating a "steadiness" in the telling.

Bards and seanachies believed in the stories they told. Their audiences knew not to question. If a feat or achievement seemed too remarkable within a story, then the storyteller would justify that it was a time of magic. I like to say that every story is true. Some stories are more true than others. Even in the tallest of tales, principles are being taught.

Considering that the bards and seanachies knew two-hour and longer stories, brevity seems a strange "glory of speech". At the same time, the Irish are known for their blessings, jokes, and anecdotes. Length may not be the issue as there are times in all of our lives when we have shared more details than necessary to relate a story.

Hateful of Speech--(my interpretations)

Other words for "stiffness" are "frozen" or "fake". Memorized stories have a danger of sounding "stiff". A bit of improvisation and reaction to the audience's feedback allows life to be blown into the story.

When a storyteller begins or ends a session with stories of gloom, then the audience's trust in the storyteller is shaken. Serious stories can be shared though the storyteller must give a sense of hope or some hint of positive emotion at the end.

A Bad Delivery
Inappropriate or boring remarks could constitute "a bad delivery". Part of the problem could lie in a lack of passion or excitement in the story choice. Audience members can sense from the storyteller's tone of voice and body language of the disinterest in the tale.

Anyone has potential to be an honored bard or seanachie.

You can bask in the glory of speech beyond the "gift of gab" and onto the honored status of storyteller by applying the Irish storytelling techniques.

Here is an Irish blessing to guide you on the path of storyteller--
May you have the hindsight to know where you've been
The foresight to know where you're going

And the insight to know when you're going too far

Online Sources or Interesting Sites:
Online Videos:
Collections of Irish Stories, Anecdotes, and Sayings:
Other Interesting Irish Books:

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Former 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

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Teller & Teacher Heroes: Stories to Save the Day in the Classroom

Two-time Grammy winner and storyteller Bill Harley said, "Everybody worries about things being 'educational' with kids. I believe everything is educational, in that it says something about how one looks at the world--it imparts a knowledge, or world-view."

Still, there will always be the people--including administrators, principals, and educators--who would rather have the facts and scientific proof that storytelling is necessary during the every day moments in the classroom.

These people should not be thought as "villains" for our teller and teacher heroes who support storytelling, but they do need to be welcomed as friends. With time, you may have some loyal "sidekicks" in the pursuit of imagination.

In the meantime, there are books and position statements that can provide super powers in vanquishing disbelief (see list at end of post). Storytelling can be embraced in any school.

Before you arm yourself with the stack of books or print the position statements, consider going back to the basics.

If I were to condense the skills of storytelling to four steps, they would be:
  1. Love Your Story/Subject
  2. Know Your Story/Subject
  3. Know Your Audience/Students
  4. Love Your Audience/Students
These steps are easily adapted for educators and professional storytellers alike.

Love Your Story/Subject

Stories are known to tap us tellers on the shoulder to be told much like how certain subjects like social studies or math or language arts are drawn for teachers to teach.

Sometimes the relationships we have with our stories or with our studies extend beyond love. There must be some emotional charge to move us to share something.

This passion reflects in our aura, which emulates in pitch, tone, facial expressions, and body language.

One of my World Literature teachers was so dedicated that she dressed up as a cockroach when we studied The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Or there was the Social Studies teacher who entered the classroom as a Russian soldier during the Joseph Stalin era. Both teachers shared the stories connected with those characters.

Costumes are not required to form an impression. But the energy they had? I remember their love for what they taught.

Usually when we share how we started on a certain path, we are energized. As teachers tend to be mysterious people to students, then teachers are encouraged to share how they became teachers and why the subject called to them.

Besides, to this day, there are students who think their teachers live in the school. Remind the students who you are and your connections to the curriculum. Students discover real-world yet their own personal connections to the subjects if you are willing to share your personal stories.

Beyond your personal tales, there are the moments within the lives of inventors, authors, scientists, and other great minds in history that would be interesting for students to understand.

When you find the stories fascinating, then it is likely that your students will feel the same way. Even teenagers, who tend to hide their feelings or disguise them in looks of disgust to look "cool", could sense the excitement.

Know Your Story/Subject

What we care about most is what we spend the most time. If you truly love a story or a subject, then hours and perhaps years are set-aside for it.

There is not one way to learn a story.

If you are visual person, then drawing storyboards of the different scenes in the story may work best.

If you are a literary person, then creating an outline of the plot points may trigger your memory.

You could be kinetic and prefer a hands-on experience. Then you may want to "play" with story by getting a partner in order to have pretend dialogues between characters. The dialogue may not make it to the final version of telling the story, but it may be enough to inspire the development of the piece.

You could decide that you like all of these techniques. . .or you create your own techniques.

When a teacher develops a lesson plan, much of the same brainstorming and organization skills are needed.

You do not have to consider yourself a storyteller to tell a story in the classroom.

Know Your Audience/Students

A teacher has an advantage over a professional storyteller as a teacher often sees the students daily over the course of ten months while a storyteller usually travels from venue to venue.

Due to this advantage, a teacher experiences the individual student personalities such as strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. These insights help decide what stories would be the most appropriate and of impact.

For example, the bully of the class may need to hear stories where there are consequences for such actions. Someone who is shy may feel empowered if a character who reflects their personality was able to conquer a great feat.

As a storyteller, I do my best to ask questions from the teachers as they know their students better than anyone. If I know what the students learned before I arrive (or what they are about to learn), then I take joy in connecting with the curriculum.

Rather than performing for school assemblies where all grades of the school attend, I relish in telling several times with smaller groups divided by grades so I can tell more age-appropriate stories. At a school in Salt Lake City, UT, I told stories for a day and a half because there were five sessions for the Kindergarten to 2nd grades, three sessions for the 3rd and 4th grades, and three sessions for the 5th and 6th grades.

Since early elementary grades focus on learning to read and write, my program for the Kindergarten to 2nd grades was on Literacy with stories like "Story Pox", "My Mom told me to go to the Library", and "My Brother ate my Book".

The 3rd grade were learning about several Native American tribes while the 4th grade were learning about Utah History. Can you guess the type of stories I shared with them?

Then the 5th grade focused on United States History while the 6th grade discovered World History. I began and ended with American tales, which included a tall tale with Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind Crockett, and mixed the middle with folktales from around the world.

Afterward, one of the 5th grade teachers approached me and said, "We are learning about the Revolution right now, but when we get to the Frontier, then we could have a tall tale section!"

Love Your Audience/Students

It may be the first time that a storyteller sees a particular audience, but the storyteller can still love them. The audience can tell whether a storyteller is excited or nervous or dreads them.

Students have the same sensory skills with teachers.

Hopefully, after seeing the same students every day, an appreciation for the students' creativity and genius has been instilled.

You will be a genius, too, besides already being a hero, by delving into the resources listed below.

Statements on Story in Education:

"Must-Have" Books on Storytelling in Education or Studies:
"Must-Have" Books on Youth Storytelling:
Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Former 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