Yesterday I had the wonderful opportunity to go to a workshop led by Ohio storyteller Lyn Ford called “Tell It! Developing Language Art Skills through Interactive Wordplay.” The workshop was put on as part of the Pedagogy & Theater of the Oppressed Conference. Because there were only six of us there, the session ended up being specialized to the interests we brought to the table and the questions we had about using storytelling as part of our pedagogy or community organizing practices.
The workshop was such a great experience. We discussed storytelling tools–voice, body language, and facial expression–and how cultural background impacts the way we read these cues. For example, we spent some time on the universal facial expressions (joy, sadness, anger, fear, and surprise) and did an experiment to show how other expressions are harder to read in their nuances, making it unfair to assume you can read someone’s face. The workshop emphasized asking questions that prompt the student/participant to express themselves beyond a yes/no/fine so that clearer understanding is established. With this dynamic, we also touched on eye-contact, gestures, and other elements. The big takeaway here was that storytellers have a socio-cultural agreement with their listeners and this includes not only involving them in the story as active listeners, but also not disrespecting or distancing them through inattention to cultural behaviors.
We also talked about story prompts, universal story tropes, and ways that creativity and imagination benefit students. Regarding working with young women, Lyn Ford told me that creativity and imagination are an important way to give girls options so they can visualize possibilities for themselves and their actions. We closed the session talking about grave stories–the ones that deeply affect us and we may not want to share. We made story strings of our own personal stories, which I found really therapeutic.
I’m excited to work some more creative engagement into my teaching this fall, working with storytelling as a way to get students more excited to write, and with the nonverbal cues we talked about as a way of teaching visual rhetoric with more nuance. I’m also excited to work more with the implications of storytelling in education and human rights discourses.
As I mull over things during the summer, I’ve been reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In the book, Paulo Freire argues for a pedagogy that treats the student as a co-creator of knowledge, rather than using a “banking model” in which the student is seen as a repository for the knowledge and skills the curriculum or other powers at be deem valuable. I can see how storytelling, especially considering the things Lyn talked to us about, can be a really powerful tool in the classroom or in reaching out to build a coalition across cultures.
It also got me thinking about Girl Rising and about the way that storytelling and a more respectful and inclusive approach to discourse can benefit work to help girls and women have better access to education and health care. (Note: this is just one example. There are tons of scenarios that could benefit from more respectful and inclusive approaches.) In Spectacular Rhetorics and Just Advocacy?, Wendy Hesford criticizes the way that human rights campaigns consistently depict women and children as victims and the audience of the campaigns (often Americans) as heroes (to boil it down to a snippet). I think what is so off-puting about this is that in seeking to give oppressed people help, there is not the move to also empower them to have a voice. Even in aid, there’s a reification of a binary that leaves white Westerners with all the power.
What I find really compelling and beautiful about Girl Rising is that it isn’t a story of aid organizations or governments helping girls. It isn’t a story of uplift in the traditional sense of the paternal West coming to the rescue. Rather, the project empowered the girls, with writers who understand the culture the girls come from, sharing their stories of how their lives were changed by themselves or people in their community. In fact, the film also gives respect to the grave tales, not directly exposing elements of the stories that the girls were not comfortable telling. Instead of usurping the stories, the film is a collaborative effort to share stories as a means of forming a coalition. I think that’s 85% of why the film is so powerfully beautiful.