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Susan Notes: Telling a story. What a great idea! It's the very, very beginning of reading, and stressfree.

January 28, 2004


The young audience sat mesmerized as 10-year-old Crystal Gaspar reached under her jaw with both hands and pulled upward, pretending to remove her head and place it on her lap. Grasping an imaginary brush in her right hand, she stroked the hair before returning the head to its proper place.

Dressed in an African-style print of lavender fish, she recounted the Southern folk tale of "The Talking Eggs" by Robert San Souci, continually hiking up her skirt as she paced back and forth in the school library. As Crystal retold the story in her own words, the second-grade students became entranced by the tale's two sisters, one lazy and one industrious.
In the story, the hard-working sister befriends a magical elderly woman who shows the girl some amazing sights, including the head-removal trick.

Crystal, a fifth-grader at Noble Avenue Elementary School in North Hills, worked hard for her moment in the spotlight. She practiced in front of her family and before a mirror dozens of times, even during the school's nine-week fall break. Not only did she learn to retell the 10-minute story in her own phrasing and pacing, but she also overcame her shyness.

"I'd never done a public speaking presentation before," Crystal said. "I wanted to participate so I could see the children's faces when I did my story."

The opportunity to teach the art of storytelling and, in turn, give children a chance to shine was Nailah Malik's motivation for bringing her workshop to Noble, one of the largest elementary schools in the San Fernando Valley.

A professional storyteller for 17 years, Malik became attracted to the art form as a child, listening to her grandmother recount stories.

Malik went on to earn a bachelor's degree in theater arts and a master's degree in library science from USC. Her frequent storytelling performances at schools and libraries, in addition to her workshops, are often funded by cultural grants from the city of Los Angeles.

Educators are catching on to the benefits of storytelling, said Kevin Cordi, who teaches it at Hanford High School in Central California. "It's now being seen as a huge educational tool to bring kids back to language," he said. "Every day, we lose kids who become disinterested in books and learning because they see them as things on a shelf. When you tell a story, the words come alive and an immediate connection is made."

The art of storytelling, by young and old alike, is growing in popularity, according to teachers and festival organizers.

Storytelling events take place around the country: The Los Angeles DreamShapers held their second annual festival in November at USC; the Smoky Mountains Storytelling Festival is to begin next week in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.; and the four-day National Youth Storytelling Olympics is set for early April in Fresno.

At Noble, Malik worked with students in teacher Kristin Ulrich's fifth-grade class once or twice a week, helping them choose a story and polish their delivery.

The children made selections from a stack of about 20 books that Malik calls "sure-fire stories." They are full of colorful characters, catchy phrases and humor and they usually have a moral.

"She taught them to not memorize the story but to put their own spin on it," Ulrich said.

For Malik, it was reminiscent of her USC theater days in the mid-1970s under the tutelage of Professor John Edw. Blankenchip.

"He would require us to dig from within, to give life to [our work]," Malik said.

Initially, about 20 students at Noble wanted to be storytellers. But in the end, only seven practiced enough on their own to be ready for an audience.

And they weren't just the outgoing students. At the beginning of the workshop some of the participants were shy and reserved, but by the end, Malik noticed that many of them had blossomed.

Their accomplishments are even more remarkable because none of them are native English speakers. Week after week, Malik tape-recorded the kids telling their stories, pointing out mispronounced words, double negatives and missing sentences. Students would then write out their corrections.

"We cleaned up some of the language. It was a unique grammar exercise," said Malik, who also works part time as a young adult librarian at the Jefferson Branch Library in Los Angeles. "Hopefully, this will carry over into their [creative] writing. They will be better able to look at detail, scenery and people."

Storytelling benefits both the audience and the performer, said Blankenchip, a USC School of Theatre professor emeritus. "It's more exciting than reading it. It's live contact. It's better than watching it on TV or seeing a film," he said. "The performers get satisfaction from the response. If they are good storytellers, that keeps them going. It keeps them motivated."

As an example, Manuela Figueroa, 11, who completed Malik's workshop last spring at Liggett Street Elementary in Panorama City, has gone on to perform at the Pacoima Branch Library.

"Having enough confidence to speak, seeing themselves being heard makes them feel like a hero," said Malik.

John Murillo, whose fourth- and fifth-grade students participated in the Liggett workshop, said the experience had a lasting effect.

"They look at literature in a different way. They've learned there are different ways to communicate beyond speaking. Even within speaking, there are different ways to communicate," Murillo said. "To hear my kids give a speech is just incredible."

The rewards go beyond improved public speaking skills. Many of the participants got a boost of self-esteem that gave them more confidence in general, teachers said.

Having the courage to tell a story in a silly voice to a group of peers has the potential to empower kids to stand up for their convictions, Murillo said.

"They became much more self-assured in all facets," he said.

Malik believes that storytelling youth will be less likely to get into trouble as they grow up.

"It's a deterrent to violent or negative behavior," she said. "In a gang, they are seeking attention but in a negative way. With storytelling, they are seeking attention but in a positive way."

Ten-year-old Noble student Frank Ortiz, who moved his shoulders up and down as he retold the Brazilian story of the Dancing Turtle, said he thinks the storytelling experience will help him achieve his dream of becoming a police officer.

"If I had to talk to a group of people, I would have been scared, but not now," he said. "I'm glad I did it."

If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at latimes.com/archives.

— By Stephanie Stassel, Times Staff Writer
ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS CHILDREN EDUCATION STORYTELLING--some good things in reading are happening in some places
LA Times


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