Friday, March 18, 2011

Tales and Transformations

Athene and Arachne
Jacopo Tintoretto, c. 1475-85

The Story of Arachne

Athena, goddess of wisdom, was a proud and talented, young goddess. In times of peace, Athena taught Grecians about the arts. She herself was a skillful weaver and potter and always took pride in her pupils' work, as long as they respected her.

One of Athena's pupils was a maiden whose name was Arachne. Arachne was a poor, simple girl who lived in the country. Her father was a quiet man of humble birth. He dyed sheep's wool to earn money for a living. Arachne wove beautiful fabrics of delicate designs, and people began to comment to her that surely she had been taught by the goddess Athena. Arachne denied this and stated that she was certainly better than Athena and that she had learned little or nothing from Athena's teachings. She even went as far as to say that she was a better weaver than Athena! For the rest of the story go to

This past week I've been in coaching mode, helping my third grade storytelling students fine tune their tales. They have already been through the peer coaching process during class time, helping each other by listening, then offering Compliments and "I wonder if..." suggestions. They know what to look for, eye contact, pacing of the story, gestures, etc. in others, but sometimes it is more difficult to see the process in themselves.

Later, each student or tandem team receives two separate half hour sessions with me. The first is a straight telling for me where I take notes. Then we talk about what worked, what they might wish to change, suggestions of things to try and then they tell it again, incorporating the changes.

On Wednesday, just like Arachne, one student transformed right before my eyes! Victoria is telling the Greek myth of Arachne and I suspected she was memorizing the story, although they are cautioned to put their stories in their own words. When Victoria arrived for her coaching session I asked for a copy of her story. As she told the tale I glanced down at her story a few times. Yes, she was reciting it verbatim; not a good idea.

When she finished and sat down to chat I asked, "How was your eye contact with the audience (me). She truthfully stated, "I kept looking up." When I asked her why, even though I already knew the answer, she said, "Because I was trying to remember the words on the paper." Bingo!!

I pulled out parts of the story and read them to her exactly as they appeared and modeled changing the words while retaining the meaning. I then asked her to try and she got it. I also asked, "Do you have any gestures to go with the story?"  Again, "Yes, but I was too nervous trying to remember the words." Such an honest young lady!

I reiterated that as storytellers we are artists, painting pictures with our words and asked her to think about some images she could offer the audience as she traveled through the story. Those images would naturally call up gestures for her as well. Now it was time to try the story again. What followed was so strikingly different from her first attempt it actually gave me goosebumps.

Victoria began the story once more about Arachne and the beautiful weavings she designed then added "Her work was lovelier than the roses in her mother's garden."  Such a gorgeous image and it was all her own!  She continued the story and on the spot was able to step away from the written text and tell the story in her own words. The gestures began to flow; I saw her physically relax and step into the story, taking us back to ancient times with Arachne and Athena. When she finished, she was glowing and smiling from ear to ear...and so was I!

In the nine years I have been teaching storytelling I have never witnessed a student make such wide spread changes in their story in such a short span of time.  For the next session I will bring a video camera, tape their telling, roll it back and then they will critique themselves. Who knows what will be captured then? I can't wait to find out!