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Telling Tales out of School--and In

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New York--Holding his hands behind his back, a third-grader wearing a three-piece suit stepped to the center of the stage. He cleared his throat and began to speak.

"My name is Robert Gonzales. I represent P.S. 106 in District 32 in Brooklyn. The story I am going to tell is 'Pandora, a Greek Myth.' Pandora: Long, looong ago, when this old world was very young, there lived a boy..."

Robert, who told his story to a group of teachers, parents, librarians, and children, was one of 15 New York City public-school students in grades three through eight who last week competed in the final round of the fifth annual Citywide Storytelling Festival.

Sponsored by the New York City Public Schools, the contest culminated in the naming of three students--one in each of three age categories--as "Best Storyteller," a title that assures them a place in the school district's Storytellers Hall of Fame. The competition to get there, however, had been stiff; more than 10,000 students participated in this year's contest.

Now in its fifth year, the citywide storytelling contest was the first event of its kind and remains one of the few large storytelling competitions in the country, according to Lucille C. Thomas, assistant director of the district's office of library, media, and telecommunications, who conceived of the contest and has directed it for the past five years.

Following a tradition that extends back hundreds of years, the students who participate learn a story, most likely a folktale or a myth. And with the help of teachers, librarians, and parents, the contestants also learn something of the art of telling a story--an art that has, in recent years, lost ground to television and other forms of instant entertainment.

The uses and benefits of the contest--and of storytelling in general--are educational as well as cultural, according to Ms. Thomas. Storytelling, she explained to the teachers and parents who gathered to watch the final round last week, can improve students' reading skill, heighten their appreciation of literature; stimulate their imaginations; and expand their knowledge of other cultures.

As children learn to tell a story, she added, they also learn how to speak in public--a skill that many adults lack. "I must tell you that I was 35 years old before I was able to speak in public without shaking," said Charlotte Frank, the executive director of the district's division of curriculum and instruction, as she handed a trophy to Ayvette Edwards, the third grader from P.S. 133 in Queens who placed first among the third and fourth graders.

'Final' Competition

The "finals" were the last in a series of competitions--building, local district, and borough--that began earlier this school year. Divided into three grade levels, the student storytellers first matched their skill with other students in their building; the winners moved on to district competitions and those who triumphed at that level competed with others from their borough.

Level I included students in the third and fourth grades; level II, students in the fifth and sixth grades; and level III, seventh and eighth graders.

The city librarians who judged the contest awarded the students between one and five points for each of several qualities:

Does the storyteller pronounce the words correctly and clearly?

Does the storyteller look at the audience?

Does the storyteller know the story as it is written?

Does the storyteller tell the story at a comfortable pace?

Does he or she use distracting mannerisms?

What is the quality of the overall presentation?

Storytelling, Ms. Thomas explained, is not "creative dramatics," nor is it an art that involves extensive gesturing, pantomiming, or other dramatic techniques. Librarians and teachers who work with the student storytellers are encouraged to discuss and demonstrate the techniques of storytelling: eye contact with listeners; placement, pitch, and quality of the voice; correct breathing; and timing, memorization, enunciation, and pronunciation.

A good storyteller must be sensitive both to the content of the story and to the reaction of his or her audience.

Choosing the right story is an important part of successful storytelling, according to Ms. Thomas. The story must be neither too long nor too short for the student's abilities, and, since the student will be repeating it dozens and dozens of times, he or she should like the story.

'It Made Me Cry'

Laura Pattison, a sixth grader from Intermediate School 61 in Staten Island's District 31 who told the story "The Clown of God," said that she chose her story because "It made me cry the first time I read it."

Nicole Wright, an eighth grader from the same school who was one of the three winners, chose a Vietnamese story called "Thy Kinh," because although it was sad in the middle, it had a happy ending. "I'm a romantic," Nicole said. "I love happy endings."

Both girls worked with Frances George, a librarian at their school who has also studied theater. They stuck closely to the text, and "worked on the pauses and the wording," Laura said.

She said that although she was slightly nervous for the final round, "I've been telling the story so many times I felt pretty confident."

As she learned her story, Laura explained, she learned also to change her style of delivery to match the tone of the story. Some parts are funny while others are sad, she said.

"That's important--to notice the different feelings in the story," she said.

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