Of Hammers and Carpenters

perfphotoHere’s a twist on the old saying, “When you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I suggest: “When you’re a carpenter, you think that no one else can wield a hammer.”

As a professional storyteller, I get caught up in the work of storytelling: the teaching, performing, writing, rehearsing, invoicing, etc. And no matter how many times I say it in a professional setting, I sometimes need to force myself to remember that no one needs to have graduated from a class, cracked a book or been a professional to tell stories that matter.

This semester I did something I haven’t done before. In one of my classes, I insisted that everyone do a service-learning project for their final presentation. Service-learning is a wonderful concept that has been in existence for more than a decade. It allows students to use the classroom material in real-world settings to (1) understand the relevance of their studies, (2) volunteer in the community, and (3) acquire added insights into their classwork.

I have always assigned service-learning projects as an alternative to research in my storytelling classes, but never before have I required them, mainly because students in my university often have jobs, children, transportation challenges and other constraints. But this semester, as an experiment, I told my students in my Peace, Conflict and Oral Narrative class that they must tell stories and/or do storytelling activities for a university group, a senior center, a school, a library or other community setting. My Storytelling class students could do it in lieu of research, but were not required to do so.

Here are a few of my favorite discoveries:

°One student was all set on a research project when her mother died unexpectedly. She switched gears hundreds of miles away from school when she requested to arrange the funeral and set about eliciting stories from family members and friends in a way that, she said, she would never have been able to accomplish had she not taken the class.

°Two young men who were, in their words, in no way interested in working with kids, had their eyes opened and their smiles propped up when they worked in schools with little ones, telling stories, singing songs and facilitating activities. One of them, who returned to his old elementary school, actually signed up that day to become a volunteer.

°A young woman who immigrated from Venezuela charmed older adults at a senior center and assisted living facility as she shared her story of what it was to come to this country and know no English. Time was, the majority of seniors in the room would have been immigrants. No more.

°A young woman discovered for the first time in her life that she loved performing—and was quite good at it. She is in the process of rethinking her career choice.

°A young man assembled his informal club of 25 students to create a storytelling ritual in honor of a member of the group who had recently died.

Yes, I know, these students actually HAD cracked open a book and sat in a class; that was the point of their doing the service-learning: to reinforce their studies. And yet, none of this was about storytelling theory: master narratives, counter stories, companion stories, social interactionism, co-creation, diffusion, collective unconscious, fourth wall, archetypes, etc.

It was good old-fashioned community storytelling.

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