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  • Writer's pictureKevin Cordi

Spotlight on Debra Weller, Let us go to Storytelling Camp!

Today we spotlight the work of Debra Weller who has been working and running storytelling camps for years.

She, a California Storyteller, has been leading storytelling camps at the Aliso Viejo and Mission VIejo libraries for the past 10 years. Each summer she runs four separate five day camps for two hours each day. The goal of the camps is to immerse children ages five-twelve and teens in oral tradition storytelling.

By modeling storytelling and engaging students in cognitive feedback, the children become aware of the role of the storyteller in presenting a story for an audience. The children gain confidence in their voices and performance abilities by playing games to improve story development and presentation skills.

What does Storytelling Camp look like?

At the beginning of the week the children choose pre-selected picture books with no more than three paragraphs of print. Debra shows them how to storyboard to move them away from memorization of a story to remembering a story. They practice with partners and in small groups giving affirmations and suggestions to each other. On Friday, the children perform their stories to parents and siblings. The teen story camp has the purpose of training the teens to tell stories for library story time. The teens earn service hours for attending the camp and performing for the library.

Why is it important that youth learn the art of storytelling?

Storytelling empowers youth to have confidence in developing public speaking skills. It also helps youth learn to organize thoughts and make expressive presentations or writing. I had a very shy, introverted student in my storytelling club. By working with a partner and small groups with improvisational stories, the student started to openly share personal and imaginative stories.

As the student progressed with learning a folk tale, she stopped looking down at her feet. By the day of her performance, she was able to fully make eye contact with the audience, put expression and gesturesi n her storytelling. Example #2- During my teen storytelling camp, I had twelve teens. At first they were reluctant to tell to one another or speak in front of the group. I eased them into a comfort zone by helping them to create short stories by looking at magazine pictures. They organized their thoughts into a bare bones format of beginning,middle and end. They jotted down the structure of their story and then told the story to a partner.

What do you say to a parent who says that my kid is too shy to tell stories? Why is important that reluctant students be engaged in the telling (and listening) process?

I let them know that my goal is to help each child find their voice. I would never force a child to tell. Sometimes the shy students just needs to listen and observe. I gently coax the students with simple recitations of nursery rhymes and personal story exercises. The students are also coached in using different voices to recite nursery rhymes. By working with a partner and providing a welcoming environment, the shy students had a metamorphosis. The shy student eventually sees story as a safe medium to find self expression.

How are the teens different than the other youth you work with at the camps? What should we know about telling for and with teens?

Teens are not always willing to perform in front of their peers. They are concerned about what friends will think. They need to be given permission to have fun and to be out of their self imposed boxes they create to protect their identities. Teens need to first build a trusting realtionship with the story camp leader. I do this by passing the story stick and asking them questions to share about their lives. Give teens a purpose for the telling. The teens in my camp knew they were going to be performing for family and younger children. By having a purpose and a deadline, they rose to the performance. The librarian gave them community service hours for attending the camp. Teens may require an incentive to get going with storytelling.

I love to tell to teens. At first they may roll their eyes and think, " Are you kidding? Storytelling is for young kids." The storyteller has to choose a story that has deep meaning, humor or a slice of life to engage the teen tellers. They are not always going to participate in a story during the first exposure. However over time, they discover it is OK to be silly and to chant a phrase with the storyteller. Stories about self discovery, character building, overcoming an obstacle. personal growth are good tales for teens.

How do you select the picture books that you use? What is your criteria outside of three paragraphs? How do you know it is a good and useful resource for telling?

(You can order this book by clicking on it.)

I look for ethnic folktales. fables or current good children's literature. For beginning tellers, I find fables are a good start, just enough for a story. I like Arnold Lobel's Fables because they are humorous and have fun characters. Besides three paragrphs of print, there must be a good story line to engage the teller and the audience. One minute stories are good for this purpose. Stories with personfiication and dialogue allow for the teller to use different voices and gestures. Repetiton and patterns in the story assist the teller to understand the plot of the story and to remember the sequence. I know if it is a good story if I feel like there was a message or a poignant part of the story that I can identify with. I let the students read three or four stories before choosing one that they can identify with the characters or problem in the story. Personally, I like stories about naughty children or characters who solve a problem.

Imagine yourself as a youth, what would you tell the storyteller about telling to you? Why did you choose this?

I would tell the youth that I want a story that makes me laugh. I would want to see the youth enjoying the story instead of just telling with no expression. I would also want the youth to invite me to be part of the story by making sound effects or chanting a phrase. My goal would be for me as the listener to be totally immersed in the story and to tap into the teller's energy and enjoyment of telling. I want to see the storyteller having a good time.

What is the non-typical responses that you have heard from the parents who listen to their son /daughters tell stories?

How did they learn to tell the story without reading? My kid can focus on something that is not texting.

Have you heard back from any youth after the event? What did they say?

One student said she was so excited about telling again. I am hoping for a fall performance with the students.

Some tellers say I don’t know if I can tell for kids and especially teens, what are they missing by not being engaged in the process?

The teller need to trust his/her abilty to weave magic. Teens are just bigger bodies, but have the same five year old wonder and curiosity. The teller must choose a good story that is not too simple in plot and has well developed characters. Teens need a break from media to dicover they can engage an audience and have power in their voices.

When I began telling stories thirty eight years ago, I never expected it would become my profession and one of my greatest joys. Teaching children, teens and adults to tell stories helps me to share my talents.

We have been talking with Debra Weller and so value the rich advice she has given us about storytelling camps and working with youth, especially teens. Our hats go off to Debra! We look forward to hearing more about her work.

If you know someone who should be in the spotlight, let me know. We are listening. Your story is important.

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