Storytelling tradition shared in Brooklyn classroom

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Brooklyn - posted Tue., Jun. 7, 2011
Storyteller Teresa Whitaker begins her story with a song Brooklyn Elementary School. Photos by D. Coffey.
Storyteller Teresa Whitaker begins her story with a song Brooklyn Elementary School. Photos by D. Coffey.

Storyteller Teresa Whitaker carried two pieces of luggage and three hula hoops into Marla Rufo-Pellegrino’s first-grade Brooklyn Elementary School classroom on June 2. Out came fabric and musical instruments - enough to transform the classroom into an East African village. One student became a rhino, another became a leopard. One by one, she turned willing first-graders into musicians and performers who helped her craft a tale from the Maasai tribe in Africa called “Who’s in Rabbit’s House?”

Whitaker works with the Connecticut Storytelling Center, whose mission is to promote the living art and use of storytelling. Whitaker travels the state, bringing stories to life in the classrooms she visits. This was not her first visit to Brooklyn Elementary School.

“It’s a sweet school,” she said. “The kids remember. There’s a nice continuity from one year to the next.”

With her soft voice and easy gestures, Whitaker was able to disarm any misgivings the children might have had, as she set up her stage on the classroom floor. What she gave was a mini lesson in myth.    

“We’re all storytellers, aren’t we?” she asked them. She reminded the kids that stories are powerful tools. They help you meet relatives who died before you were born, she said. They keep the memories of loved ones alive. Stories are used to explain and teach and solve problems, she said. She told the students about folktales, stories that have been passed down for thousands of years. And she reminded them that stories were universal, used all over the world, throughout all of human history.

She called on first-grader Ella Davis to be the rabbit in the story. As she draped Davis with brightly-colored fabric, she told the students that African stories had special elements to them.   

“There is a call and response portion to them,” Whitaker said. “The storyteller will ask, ‘Let it go?’ and the people respond, ‘Let it come.’” She had the students practice.

“Let it go?” she asked.

“Let it come,” they replied.

African stories also use music, instruments and rhythm, said Whitaker. They encourage audience participation. They utilize movement and sound words in the telling, she said. All the while she was draping students in the fabric of their characters: Cody Ferrara was a frog; Sage Eno was a jackal; Kaitlyn Lau was a leopard; Diamond Chapman was an elephant; and Michael Eckman was a rhinoceros.

She handed out instruments to accompany each character: thunder columns and thumb pianos and tambourines. There were instruments the children had never set eyes on before. One mimicked the frog’s “ribbit,” another the graceful movement of the leopard.

The animals were each called upon to help rabbit rid her house of an unwelcome guest that no one could see. Eventually, frog saved the day, order was restored, and the unwelcome guest – played with gusto by Patrick Lefevre – was shown to be harmless.

Whitaker was able to engage the entire class in the telling and enjoyment of the story. Her job is more than craft, her rewards more than a happy hour spent in laughter.

In order to be on the roster for the Connecticut Storytelling Center, Whitaker had to audition and submit material. She had to develop lesson plan ideas and provide references. On top of that, she did a storytelling residency.

Storytelling is a two-way street, Whitaker said. She often gets insights from the students whose classes she visits. They can help her change the way she tells a story. She calls it a real community-builder.

“It really strengthens literacy,” Whitaker said. Stories teach so many things, she said. Kids learn visualization, sequential imaging, and story structure. They learn to use their imaginations. “Stories show how alike people are all over the world,” Whitaker said.

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