I started April 27th as the sun came peeking over the rolling hills near Pittsburgh, when a fellow member of the West Virginia Storytelling Guild (WVSG) came to pick me up so that the three of us could carpool down to the Frank & Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center at Fairmont State University. You may not know that although the guild is centered in West Virginia, its members extend into nearby states – wherever Appalachian culture thrives. We were driving down to attend the guild’s annual meeting, and it was my first time attending.
The conversation was fluid, as it often is with a car full of word weavers, and we were quickly at our destination. I had been to the Frank & Jane Gabor Folklife center once before for a workshop, and it’s wood paneling and memorabilia were the perfect backdrop for a storytelling workshop and storyswap. I was able to exchange smiles, handshakes, and hugs with friends and fellow storytellers before sitting with my complimentary cup of coffee, camera, and notebook for the mini-workshop to begin.
I had heard positive reviews of Dr. Kevin Cordi’s work before meeting him, and his workshop definitely revealed why. Dr. Cordi, an award-winning national storyteller, has performed multiple times at the National Storytelling Festival.
He was also the first to be a full-time storytelling teacher in a high school. So when it comes to storytelling, you can trust he knows his stuff.
It was this area of expertise, storytelling in schools, which our workshop was about. But what stood out the most was his kind and encouraging spirit, and I could understand why he is so well-liked. He not only imparted knowledge on how to reach students in schools, but did so with a force of joy and belief in us as workshop participants to give us the confidence to go out and apply that knowledge. He reminded us that when we are approaching schools, where administrators, teachers, and professors may have a slew of credentials, we are coming in as “the narrative expert,” to “show the proven method of learning with story.” I loved how he said that he doesn’t tell his students in schools “how brave” they were to present a story (because, then, you’re teaching that speaking in front of a group is something to be frightened of! Malarkey), but explained that “A story is a gift that we have to receive,” and then asks his students, “Who has a gift to share?”
Faster than I could jot down all my notes, his workshop time was up.
Kevin graciously stayed past his scheduled time to answer questions, sign a few of his books, and listen to a few of the stories at the afternoon storyswap! Before the storyswap, however, more good things happened. Both Paige Tigue & Mikalena Zuckett gave reports on the storytelling enrichment programs they are doing in their respective schools in eastern and central West Virginia.
I thought the way that Paige built an interest in storytelling among her school’s students was unique and clever. In many schools, students will have some time before classes begin after their buses drop them off.
There are usually designated areas where students can congregate during this time, and one of those areas was the library – so she started telling stories there. As more students started attending, she finally asked, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a storytelling club?” Monkey Shines Storytelling Club was born!
Mikalena’s path to her group of storytelling students was very different. Her job within her school gave her the liberty to hand-select a few students she believed would be interested in learning storytelling, and she works with those students periodically in the same way you would with any other enrichment program. These students have had the opportunity to perform before their classmates, and the students loved hearing their peers tell stories!
I believe it’s so important for the storytelling tradition to continue, and I believe in today’s technologically saturated world, the current generation of children may need traditional, face-to-face, oral storytelling experiences more than any generation before them. It was great to hear how different tellers are initiating very young tellers into this tradition, even though the paths that got them to that point are different. I found it all very encouraging.
Both Paige & Mikalena’s troops would like to broaden their library of stories by listening to national & international tellers. If you have any CDs or DVDs you would like to donate, please contact the guild for instructions on how to do so.
After spending the morning learning ideas and finding out ways to connect with schools impact future storytelling, the guild presented the annual Bob McWhorter Clock award to Dr. Fran Kirk, professor at FSU and interim director of the Folklife Center, the home of the WVSG. She has tirelessly promoted storytelling in 2018 and contributed her own stories through school visits and her one-woman show 9 Before IX. She spearheaded the Mountain State Storytelling Institute for several years on campus, as well. And true to form, her first and only request was that the guild seek to honor the memory of Jane Gilchrist, another storyteller who passed away in 2019.
Then we parted separate ways for an hour for lunch before the storyswap.
The difficult part about trying to describe a storyswap or a storytelling concert is that you truly do just have to be there (shameless plug: the Jane Gilchrist Memorial Concert will be on September 7 of this year at the Folklife Center; check the guild’s event page in the future for more details!). The major difference between writing and storytelling is that a written story can be handed out to 10 different people, and regardless of whatever takeaway they get from it, all 10 different people will have “heard” the same story. But with storytelling, the gestures, tone of voice, even the expressions the teller uses make for a unique experience – with few exceptions, with two different tellers, you will hear two different stories, even if it’s the same story.
What I will tell you is that we heard stories ranging from a teller telling for the first time for anyone outside of Toastmasters to a teller who has been doing storytelling for over 70 years. Everyone who had a gift to share was given the chance to tell a story. There were chilling tales, like the one about a murderous house within an unexplained time warp, and the one about the Flatwoods Monster. There were humorous tales from a series of unfortunate events trying to get a harpist to a wedding, to a case of mistaken car ownership by a liar’s contest winner. There was also the historical tidbit of the stones used for the Washington monument to the lady who outsmarted bad luck. What a kaleidoscope of stories, and I haven’t even mentioned them all.
There was also a meeting after the storyswap, but, alas, we PAers had to start the car ride back to the ‘burgh. We said a few more goodbyes and “see you next times” and expressed gratitude for good stories told. In was one of the better ways to spend a Saturday, and as the rolling hills of West Virginia frolicked seamlessly into the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania, we talked about the stories we had heard, about stories we have yet to tell, both of which helped keep “story” at the front of my thoughts all the way home.