April 8, 2010
Storytellers captivate Cortland students
Ithaca couple share folk tales, personal stories with children in city’s 5 elementary schools
An American Indian woman was walking through the forest with her baby strapped to her back, when she heard a loud noise through the trees.
“It was a head,” roared Mitch Weiss, as most of the 40 fifth- and sixth-graders listening to the story jumped. “It was a flying head and it was huge, with big hair paws attached to it. Flying through the forest, looking for food.”
The woman escaped and later, at her home, tricked the monster head into eating fire, scaring it away forever.
Wednesday was a time for stories at Randall Elementary School’s library, as each class spent an hour with Ithaca professional storytellers Weiss and Martha Hamilton.
The pair, who are married, are sharing tales in all five city elementary schools this week, trying to show students the art of telling a story that captivates listeners.
The idea is to show children the power of literacy and stories, said librarian Patti Nelson. The schools have an author or storyteller every year just before National Library Week, which is next week.
The program is paid for with funds raised by each school’s parent teacher organization, paid through Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES.
Weiss and Hamilton were scheduled to appear today at Smith Elementary School and Friday at Barry Elementary School.
They mixed old folk tales with descriptions of events that happened to them, such as finding a suitcase containing not just clothes but an airplane ticket, in the road near Ithaca, and tracking down its owner.
That event happened 20 years ago, Weiss told the students, before people had cell phones and ways to gather information quickly.
The couple, who have authored 12 books for children and two books for teachers, bill themselves as “Beauty and the Beast,” joking with the students about which is which. Their books are folk tales from around the world, adopted by them and illustrated by various artists.
American Indians told stories mostly in the winter, Hamilton said. They were afraid stories had such power that they would cause crops to stop growing in the spring and summer.
Hamilton chose the ancient Greek myth of Arachne, who boasted that her weaving skills were greater than the goddess Athena’s.
The goddess heard and challenged her to a weaving contest, and Arachne’s resulting tapestry was beautiful but depicted the gods as drunken fools. Furious, Athena transformed her into a tiny insect-like creature — a spider, who would weave beautiful creations that few people would see since they were hidden in dark corners.
“When people do see them, they just brush them away,” Hamilton said. She believes Greeks created the story to explain why something as intricate as a spider web could exist, other than to simply catch flies.
“If you tell stories, you will learn a lot about yourselves,” Hamilton told the students. “Shy people learn to express themselves.”
She later said, after the fifth- and sixth-graders left and about 50 second-graders arrived, that this was true for her.
“When I started doing this 30 years ago, I was incredibly shy,” she said. “I had to come out of my shell. I found out I could do this.”
Hamilton said she wants children to understand the importance of expression and body language.
“But you can’t do too much,” she said, “or the listener sees only the storyteller and doesn’t hear the story.”
Nelson said the students meet a variety of writers and storytellers during their six years at the school.
“The more variety we get, the richer the experience,” she said. “By the time they get through sixth grade, they have had a range.”
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