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First Day of Elementary School!

Deer  Dear blog,

Today was my first day of school. I learned a lot! The teacher was great, and not bad to look at either. I love school!

Love, Jacob.

Okay, so it wasn’t my first day at a student, but it was my first day as a bona-fide, on-the-payroll elementary school teacher.

Go adult me, real job hell yeah.

So, here’s how it went:

I got to school about an hour before my lesson started at 1 PM. All the kids were there, 10 girls and 5 boys. And before you say anything, for privacy/protection purposes, I am changing all their names. Plus, it’s fun to make up names. Anyway.

I came in and introduced myself, and against my better judgement, I asked a group of children to go around the circle and tell me their names (even though I already knew most of them) and one fun thing they did this summer. It actually went smoothly and no one lost focus until the circle was just about complete. I then led them in the Heartbeat Hello game, after which I started my lesson, which was about storytelling.

I told them about three ways to tell a story: having it read to you, reading it yourself, and performing it. I asked the kids to comment on which type of storytelling they liked. Melanie said that she liked being read to, because she didn’t have to do anything but listen. Crystal said that she enjoyed reading, because when she reads to herself, no one interrupts her, and she can go as fast or as slow as she wants, and she can imagine as she reads. Paul said that he liked acting it out, because he could cast his friends in the roles and put on costumes. Caroline agreed, saying that she could make up her own characters and her own story better by acting it out.

So, I read them this story that I wrote, based on Evgeny Schwartz’s The Dragon:

A long, long time ago, there was a little town in the land of Russia. It was a quiet little town but it had a big problem. A dragon ruled over the town for four hundred years. The dragon had three heads, four paws, and five claws on each paw. He was big and tall with scaly skin, and he breathed fire. Every year, the dragon took someone from the town, and they were never seen again. Everyone was scared of the dragon, even the town mayor.

One night, a man called Lancelot visited the town, to learn more about this dragon. He stopped at a small hut, the house of a man and his daughter. The daughter’s name was Elsa. Lancelot asked Elsa to tell him more about the dragon. Elsa did not want to, for fear that it would bring her the bad luck of being kidnapped by the dragon. But Elsa’s father told Lancelot about the dragon, and how he scared everyone by burning down houses and filling the air with smoke from his breath. He also said how much the dragon ate – many chickens and cows each month, and all the vegetables and fruits they grew in the summer and fall. Lancelot decided that it was time for a change, so for Elsa and her father, he made up his mind to kill the dragon.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Elsa answered it, and an old man walked in. Elsa introduced him to Lancelot. The old man then asked Lancelot why he came to town. When Lancelot told him that he came to kill the dragon, the old man laughed and said that he, himself, was the dragon.

Lancelot was confused – how could this old man be a dragon?

The old man said that he liked to come and visit the people, but to fit into their homes, he had to change himself into a person. Lancelot then challenged him to a fight. If Lancelot won, the dragon would give the people their town back and let the mayor run the town again, and if the Dragon won, he would kidnap Elsa to be his servant. He accepted before going home for the night.

The next day, Lancelot and the dragon met in a field. The town mayor wished Lancelot the best of luck before going to join the rest of the townspeople far away from the fight. The townspeople watched as one by one, Lancelot chopped off each of the dragon’s three heads. The struggle was over. Elsa was safe, and the mayor could run the town again. Lancelot said goodbye to his new friends and went home. Everyone was happy.

However…

One year later, Lancelot returned to the town to visit Elsa and her father. To his surprise, nothing had changed. The people were still poor, and Elsa and her father still lived in the tiny hut. When Lancelot saw Elsa, he asked what happened. She pointed toward the castle where the dragon lived, only now it was the castle where the town mayor lived. She explained that even though the town mayor did not kidnap people, he took the peoples’ animals, vegetables, and fruits, and sold them to make money for the town. Instead of helping the town, he kept the money and made the dragon’s castle even bigger, and moved in himself. Finally, Elsa told him the worst news of all; the mayor decided that he wanted to marry Elsa, and the wedding was tomorrow! Elsa was not happy, and Lancelot needed a plan.

The next day, before the wedding, Lancelot arrived in the town square. Once the townspeople saw Lancelot, they cheered, remembering how he killed the dragon. They urged him to kill the town mayor, who had made their lives harder and was now marrying their friend Elsa. Soon, the mayor arrived, followed by Elsa, to start the wedding. Lancelot went up to the mayor, and asked him what he had done for the town since the dragon’s death. The mayor looked guilty, and said that he had done some bad things. Lancelot was angry. The mayor then asked Lancelot how he could start to help the town. Lancelot then turned to Elsa, and asked her if she wanted to marry the mayor. Elsa looked at both of them, and said that no, she did not want to marry the mayor. The mayor agreed not to marry her, and the wedding was over. Elsa was happy that she had her freedom again, and the mayor was happy that Elsa was happy.

However, the townspeople were still angry at the mayor for all he had put them through. They wanted him dead, just like the dragon. Lancelot turned to them and said that killing the mayor would not help anything; someone else could then become the new mayor and be even worse for the town. Instead, Lancelot told the town that everyone has a little bit of the dragon inside them, and to have happy lives, they needed to stop that dragon and do what was right, just like the mayor did by not marrying Elsa. The town said thank you to Lancelot, and worked on making their lives better, little by little.

The End.

After the story was read, I passed out copies of the same story, and we went around the circle, each reading two lines. I was surprised at the fact that almost everyone could read all the words, although a few times, the next kid in the circle stopped paying attention, so we had to stop the flow of the story to catch him or her up. I checked the time, and we were barely halfway through the story and it was already 1:50 PM, so I finished up until “however…” and then acted it out, with me as the narrator.

I narrated as Caroline stood up to play Lancelot, and Max and Susie sat in their tiny hut (made by the arms of Melanie and Grace), and Paul and Jordan created a giant castle behind them for Susie to point at. Then, we switched out for the next scene, the morning. Natalie got up to play Lancelot, and the rest of the kids were excellent townspeople, cheering for her. Ariana, who’s very particular about what parts she plays, was happy when I called her up to be the mayor, and I had her bring up Kate to be her Elsa. Natalie repeated Lancelot’s angry words, and Ariana played a sheepish town mayor. The best part? When Natalie asked Kate, as Elsa, if she wanted to get married, and before she could even get the question out, Kate let out a firm and immediate “NO,” causing us all to laugh. Natalie then repeated Lancelot’s wise words to the angry townspeople, and they thanked her.

In our reflection, I got mostly silly answers, but it had been almost an hour. In the brief “what did you learn?” question, Crystal said that she learned that you can’t place blame on just one person for all your problems, and Susie – one of the youngest – said that she thought the point was that you can’t just say that something’s fixed and walk away, you have to make sure that it stays fixed.

After a brief bathroom break, it was time for the lecture portion, so I told them about Evgeny Schwartz, his life, and walked them through 1000 years of Russian history in just about 15 minutes. Surprisingly, most of them stayed with me, with the exceptions of three goofballs, but I just ignored them and maintained eye contact with the kids who were paying attention and asking questions. When I told them Evgeny Schwartz’s birth/death dates, both Grace and Max asked me how Schwartz died, and Melanie – who quickly determined that he died at age 62 – said that it was probably old age. Thank goodness 62 seems like an old age to a 10-year-old.

At 2:30, I introduced the concept of a satellite diagram, and drew one about Russia, after which they went back to their seats for written/drawn journal time, and my first lesson was done. When Marla (real name of their teacher), asked them for feedback on the lesson, what they said basically melted my heart. Susie had fun learning a new story, and she loves dragons, so that was a bonus. Melanie and Crystal were amazed that we learned social studies, history, and theatre all at the same time, and Paul called me the best teacher ever, which basically put him on my good list, forever. Marla said that it went exactly the way she imagined it would go, so…mission accomplished. I was so worried that I’d be too boring, or slip into college-teaching mode, but it seemed to come together, somehow.

I think I’ll go back on Thursday.

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Heard It Through The Laptop

Today, I heard some voices through my laptop.

No, it wasn’t Marvin Gaye. Nor was it Gladys Knight and the Pips. Nor did it tell me to plow under my corn and build a baseball field.

My dad sent me a link to an mp3 tonight, and with him and my sister in the room, I opened it.

And what I heard amazed me.

The crackle of the static and the whistle of the feedback yielded to the first voice, accented by the chirp of a parakeet in the background.

“Stanley? Stanley…Stanley?”

It sounded like a sweet old lady, but not at all who I thought it was. But as she began her recitation, it became clear exactly who it was.

“Dear children, and grandchildren, and the children who will come after we are gone…”

It was my grandmother. She identified herself, and announced the date as November 17, 1972, and began to tell the story of how she, along with my grandfather, great-uncle, great-grandmother, and aunt (a baby at the time) escaped Nazi Germany in 1938.

I’ve heard this story many times, from my grandmother before she passed away in 2005 at age 94, and then from my father. Even I have retold the story, a few times. First, shortly after my grandmother’s death, to a group of students from my college, and then one day to my friend Stacey over lunch at Franklin Dining Commons, during my junior year at UMass, who listened with wide eyes and a spoonful of cereal that never made it to her mouth. My grandmother openly told the story at school assemblies, in synagogue, and even on camera for the Steven Spielberg Holocaust Archives at Yale University.

But this was the first time I heard it through the voice that my father knew, that my aunt knew, before age deepened and roughened it slightly. She spoke slowly, with grace and dignity, adding dramatic pauses for effect and choosing her words very carefully.

After a few minutes, another voice emerged from the background.

It was not a familiar voice, but it was one that I felt like I had known forever.

My grandfather.

My grandfather, whose name is in mine, who died in 1973.

I had never heard his voice…until now.

For the next twenty or so minutes, we listened to the story that we all knew, now told by my grandfather. His voice was slightly more accented than my grandmother’s was, but it wasn’t hard to match the voice with the photos I’ve seen of him, notwithstanding the fact that I always imagined him speaking in a deep voice with a German accent, which is exactly what I heard.

But listening to him, it was like hearing the story told for the first time.

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A Tisket, A Tasket, A Sto:lo Story-Basket

At long last, I have actually finished reading a book. Yes, really. And not even one for school, which is all I seem to be reading lately, well given the fact that I’m in grad school, it’s kind of inevitable. But today, at Michelangelo’s Coffeehouse on State Street, the book was indeed finished, a feat several weeks in the making. In a turn towards nonfiction, I present to you my review of Indigenous Storywork: Education the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit by Jo-ann Archibald aka Q’um Q’um Xiiem.

Also, in an effort to bring more international culture into my life, I’m officially counting this as the first country in the ever-popular Read A Book from Every Country contest that probably exists but I just made up. This book represents Canada, and the Sto:lo Nation.

Indigenous Storywork is not a book of stories. It incorporates a few stories, such as two involving the character of Coyote, among others, but is more focus on Archibald’s process of developing a technique for storytelling,

A symbol for the Sto:lo Nation

from start to finish. On page 11, Archibald provides a helpful chart of her context for all Indigenous storywork. The four concentric circles represent the four levels involved in identity and in the germination of the story. The outermost circle is the nation, and continuing inward, we see the community, the family, and finally, the self. At compass rose points are each of the elements of the human that are in play when telling the story: intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Discovering the stories is an exciting process, where she realizes the power of the characters and how they can touch lives from young to old, and how they can be used effectively as teaching tools to keep First Nations traditions alive as well as impart valuable lessons. She encounters many roadblocks, though; she deals with the issue of language, translation, and preserving content; intellectual property rights (who do the stories belong to?); focusing on individual/tribal experiences rather than lumping her work into just “First Nations” scholarship; and the ever-present dilemma of keeping the stories faithful and sacred to the storytellers, possibly risking their extinction, and passing them on, which preserves the stories but puts them in the hands of those who may not use them properly, and for whom the meaning may get twisted. At the end of the book, Archibald compares her work thus far to a “story-basket,” citing the Sto:lo tradition of a basket weaver giving her very first basket to someone who needs it. As the “story-basket” is presented to the reader, it leaves her book open-ended, as if this is just the beginning.

For a book, it was pretty dull, but as a monograph, it was quite lively. Archibald writes, as others have noted, without jargon, and it is easy to identify with her feelings and emotions as she tracks down various elders and experiments with educational programs. As far as actually telling the stories, Archibald has basically described a more theatrical approach to storytelling, using things like sense-memory rather than rote reading. She also talks about the relationships between the elders, the words of the stories, herself as researcher and herself as storyteller, and makes it clear that each have a different role with one another and all are important in the storywork process; it is a venture that requires collaboration, which in turn requires trust.

On a macro level, Archibald is dealing with issues that are present in so many cultural contexts, especially the debate of keeping things sacred by holding them close, or sharing them and guaranteeing preservation but risking defilement, a pretty basic colonial/postcolonial issue. This is where I have not so much a disagreement with the author, but sort of a suggestion/solution. In one chapter (actually, in two) Archibald talks about the search for a story about plants, and getting shut down by the elders due to concerns of mentioning the names of sacred plants and their usage, and the harmful effect that the stories might have on children. For me, this is an example of self-censoring. Surely, the elders know what is and is not appropriate, and by volunteering the information, they themselves are choosing what to share, with the knowledge not that it can or may be shared, but that it will be shared. Archibald also mentions the cycle of tracking down elders and asking for permission, a practice that seemed necessary for the edification of the user but a nuisance for the elder who told the story. I mean, could you imagine calling an author, editor, and publisher, every time you wanted to cite something or use it in the classroom? Archibald does consider this, but is hesitant to accept it. My argument: reality check, look at the big picture. No one is going to be around forever, and even though it’s lovely to keep people involved as they’re still living, there must be some contingency plans laid for when the storytellers eventually leave this earth. Recording the story via text, audio, and video, signing an agreement, and seeing that it’s properly archived should be enough to eliminate at least one, if not all, of the middle-men, and expedite the process. Yes, a story is special, but that’s why there is an agreement in place, as a precautionary measure, to give the story the rights to assert itself, which is basically what Archibald wants. It would eliminate a quarter of the book, at least, but it seems like the only viable option.

The most notable sections of the book for me were when the author, instead of questioning herself, interacted with elders from various First Nations and engaged in dialogue with them. On page 50, Archibald gleaned a lesson in reciprocity from elder Vincent Stogan aka Tsimilano, one which she calls “hands backward, hands forward” teaching. This lovely passage encapsulates what she means.

My dear ones,

Form a circle and join hands in prayer. In joining hands, hold your left palm upward to reach bask to grasp the teachings of the ancestors. Put these teachings into your everyday life and pass them on. Hold your right palm downward to pass these teachings onto the younger generation. In this way, the teaching and knowledge of the ancestors continue, and the circle of human understanding and caring grows stronger. (Archibald 50)

Here, Archibald encourages symbiosis, in which the student is also the teacher. Every word heard from the ancestors will be passed on; at least someone in the circle will relate their experiences, even if just to one another, continuing the cycle of learning. Tsimilano’s performative act of embodiment makes the student a vessel for information, a conduit between past and future. This inspired Archibold to pay more attention, and to tell stories in short spurts of comfort rather than in their completion, which is discussed in later sections of the book. Overall, Archibold relays to the reader a sense of giving and receiving, and that storywork is as much about speaking as it is about listening.

In the spirit of collaboration and listening, don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what Jo-ann Archibald has to say:

 

Oh, and apropos, not only was this the first day in the recent past where my blog views have gone up rather than down, it’s also the first day for visitors from Norway (velkommen!), Serbia (добродошли!), and Bosnia & Herzegovina (dobrodosli!) as well as visitors from 30 countries. Keep on coming, write a comment or give me follow?

Works Cited

Archibald, Jo-ann (Q’um Q’um Xiiem). Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit. Vancouver: UBCP, 2008.