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Storytelling: A Hands-On-The-Mind Teaching Technique

When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to have parents willing to travel all over the United States with four children in a car without air conditioning, exposing us to the wonders of this beautiful country. During those travels, our family visited many National parks and hundreds of museums, listening to numerous talks, presentations, and programs concerning the area that we were visiting.

As a child, I was intrigued and inspired by the sites we visited, but my patience with the “talks ” wore thin very quickly. Even my mother would urge my father to skip the next “program, ” encouraging him to take the family on a “tour” himself. When he relented, it was stories that the family would hear. His stories blended the facts he read with his passion for the specific site, or battle, or historic event of our country. His stories, and his excitement for the subject, kept us intrigued with where we were visiting.

It is that kind of inspired love of topic, combined with the art of storytelling, that constitute the basic foundation of Interpretive Voices— an organization recently created by a consortium of accomplished storytellers who provide listening and learning experiences that serve and enhance interpretive programming.

Telling stories is a natural and universal means for collecting and crafting information so it may be saved and remembered. Telling stories to ignite a passion for what is being shared is the goal. For when individuals are passionate about something, their enthusiasm is contagious to those around them. In this way, storytelling becomes a “hands-on-the-mind” technique successful in all aspects of human interaction, especially education.

Telling Stories

People are wired to learn through story. If you think back to a favorite teacher or speaker, you’ll discover it was the “storyteller ” in that person that made them so memorable. The inspiration you absorbed from those influential people came to you through the power of story.

Once, Truth walked about the streets here on Earth looking to share his knowledge and thoughts. He was kind and generous, yet confused about the way persons kept a voiding him. You see, Truth was naked and uncovered, and people would close their doors and windows in his face, pull their children in the other direction, and turn their backs on him. He became so forlorn, he decided to visit his sister, Story, to see if she might have an answer to his dilemma.

Story was beautiful, all covered with satin and silk, jewels up and down her arms and on her fingers; she was a sight to behold. Everyone loved Story. Why, whenever she went into towns, people invited her to their homes, begging her to sit and spend time with them. Children loved Story. When she was around, they would sit at her feet, all eyes upon her and listen with rapt attention to what she was saying.

Truth knew about Story’s popularity and, therefore, went to her home to see if his sister could offer advice for his problems. Story greeted her brother with open arms, and then, realizing his sadness, invited him in to talk. After Truth told his tale of avoidance by others, Story took him silently by the hand up to her attic. In the far corner she uncovered a huge trunk, opened the lid and brought out fine cottons and linens, draping them over Truth’s naked body. Then, she put golden chains around his neck and jewels in his hair to gather the sunlight. She stood back and looked lovingly at her brother He was squirming around, feeling quite uncomfortable in these confining garments. But his sister assured him, “There, go out into the world. See how you will be accepted by others from now on.So Truth thanked his sister, kissed Her good-bye, and left her home, walking towards the nearest town. Immediately, people began to notice Truth. They gathered to him, listening to his every word. Children loved him now, reaching out to touch him, eagerly a waiting what he had to say.

And you know, it’s no different today—people still run from the Naked Truth, but will flock when he’s bedecked as a Story. (Adapted from Jacob Krantz, Preacher of Dubno.)

We all have stories to tell, especially those of us involved in the sharing of information. It is finding the story within the facts that Interpretive Voices helps those in the interpretive field accomplish.

Using Stories to Reach Learners

According to Freeman Tilden, in his book Interpreting Our Heritage, “Information is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information.” A good story conveys images powerfully, making the listening audience “experience” the information, not just hear it. Doing this achieves another of Tilden’s principles of interpretation – – “The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.”

Many presenters focus on only two of their audience’s senses — seeing and hearing. They, and their institution’s collection, are seen by visitors who listen to information. But, what about engaging the other four senses? (Yes, four! Along with taste, touch, and smell, there is the sense of emotion.) Without including all the senses in a program, visitors are cheated of truly experiencing the docent’s presentation.

As one of Interpretive Voices’ trainers. Sherry Norfolk, says, “Think of facts as grains of wheat. Such grains are hard to hold and carry in your hand without spilling and losing some. But, if you weave a basket of story, it carries and holds the facts in your mind, like a basket carrying the wheat. ” Both decent and visitor will remember better when relating facts through story.

Guiding your listener toward seeing natural fact as story is not difficult. It takes a bit of creative thinking and the willingness to present a program in an innovative way. For instance, if your presentation revolves around a pottery exhibit, why not share the facts through a different perspective, such as through the “eyes of the pottery. ” Whose hands were on them while they were being created, then used? How did that feel? What service did each of them render and did it make them important? Why was the pottery left behind when its culture moved on? What was it like being buried for all that time, and how did it feel to finally be uncovered and placed in a museum? Remember, much of the same history happened to the pottery as to the people who created and used it. Seen through the eyes and mind of exhibit pieces, the presentation takes on a whole different “feel.”

Try animating various objects by thinking of them as beings — think of baskets as “the basket people ” and interpret the information from that point of view. The Native Americans have done this for generations in their use of story with animals and land taking on personalities and experiencing life.

If an exhibit in your museum has paintings or prints, take the visitor into the composition; let them travel in time with you as you lead them into the surroundings and subject they are looking at. Research and find stories about specific objects or subject matter, then present them while your listener is experiencing the presence of the item.

Last year, I was invited to do a program at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming. My presentation was to work with their exhibit at the time, which was “Robert Bateman: Natural Worlds.” Numerous wild animals appeared in these beautiful paintings, and prior to my arrival, I researched and developed stories about many of the animals. It was not difficult. It was fun, and the paintings themselves were an inspiration to me.

The day of the program brought a diverse group of visitors of all ages. As I waited to begin and watched people milling around, looking at each painting and then ambling on to another, I wondered if they were actually “feeling” what I had felt when first seeing some of the work and thinking of stories I know about those animals.

I did my program, traveling from painting to painting sharing tales about the animals: “Why the Cardinal is Red,” “The Lion as Arrogant King,” “How and Why the Polar Bear Landed at the North Pole. ” On and on I went, and when finished, almost every person in that gallery traveled to one or another of those paintings they had earlier only glanced at, and stood in awe looking deeply.

One little boy particularly drew my attention. He appeared bored before the presentation, but afterwards went directly in front of Bateman’s Polar Bear painting, stood on his toes to get a closer look and said with great emotion, “Wow!” That is the power of story.

Bev Twillmann is president and co-founder of Interpretive Voices, a group of gifted storytellers/storyeducators who embrace a wide variety of storytelling styles and a huge repertoire of tales This successful group works all over the country, providing interpretive training for docents and staff at parks and museums. They promote the value of stories for educating. For further information about Interpretive Voices, please contact Ms. Twillmann at: 9508 George Williams Road Knoxville. TN 37922, or call her at (423) 694-9988.

Twillmann, Bev. “Storytelling: A Hands-On-The-Mind Teaching Technique,” The Docent Educator 8.2 (Winter 1998-99): 8-9.

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