Wisdom from Storyteller Winston Stephens

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on July 25, 2012.

I am a self-proclaimed “storytelling advocate,” and I believe every parent should tell their own stories to their children.  I’ve been thinking of ways to try to inspire parents to do this, so it was only natural that I should interview my storytelling friend, Winston Stephens.  Stephens is a retired kindergarten teacher, and storytelling has been a big part of her life, both and in and outside the classroom.

Children respond better to stories than they do lectures, and I believe they never forget the storytellers in their lives.  I asked Winston if there were storytellers in her life that she remembers.

“Many!” she said.  “My Stephens grandfather told all kinds of stories to my brother and me, some Br’er Rabbit tales, The Three Pigs and stories from his childhood. My Winston grandmother regularly told me stories about her life (in which she was always the heroine), sang story songs (The Fox Went out on a Chilly Night) and recited one long story poem (Lasca) that I learned by heart. My parents would make up bedtime stories and others for special occasions.”

She says her father got sick of the story he made up for her and her brother because they made him recite it over and over, and if he tried to change one detail, they wouldn’t allow it!

“I felt personally honored to have that special kind of attention paid to me.  Stories have helped me to make sense of actual events in my life,” she says.  “Those who tell stories are revealing their values, telling you what’s really important, imparting their culture. True stories about personal experiences usually impart wisdom that the teller has learned, as well as giving the sense of how ordinary life today differs from what it was like in the past.”

As the oldest child in her family, Winston slipped easily into a storytelling role and imitated the way her parents and grandparents told stories.  Later, she would use storytelling in her classroom.  She says every Friday there would be a told story instead of a storybook, and at the end of the year, she had an extra special story to tell.

“On the last day of school every year I would tell a story about how that class got stranded on a deserted island and had to figure out how to makes tents, find food, and, eventually, get themselves rescued. In the story I highlighted the real kids’ strengths and interests. While I was telling, they would cheer and add more details. It was all a validation of what we had experienced and learned together.”

Today she tells stories too. She regularly tells stories for the Kindergarten classes at a nearby elementary school, and she’s been hired to tell a few stories at birthday parties and family reunions.  For the children she sometimes uses props such as a set of nesting dolls or stuffed animal.  One of her personal favorites is using an Appalachian-style dancing man on a board to tell a story, which includes songs for him to dance to and the children to sing to.

She has also started finding storytelling opportunities for adults in the community.  In January, she took a class at Athens Academy by the Southern Order of Storytellers, which is based in Decatur.  The SOS is eager to encourage storytellers around the state, especially by getting storytelling “clusters” started.  Stephens started her own cluster, which meets at her house on the third Wednesday of every month.  They talk about storytelling news, get advice from experienced tellers and practice telling.  They invite anyone who is interested in attending.

She is also enjoying the new Rabbit Box events, which are currently held in downtown Athens on the second Wednesday of every month.  They provide a forum for people to tell a true story from their lives, but it has to be told in 6-8 minutes and related to a certain theme.  Stephens has signed up to tell a story in August when the theme is “Now I Get It.”

These events prove that storytelling must be just as good for adults as they are for children.  Indeed, whenever you are waiting to hear “what happened next” you are engaged in a story.  Stories are part of our lives whether we’re conscious of them or not.

You can find out more about Winston Stephens’ storytelling at her website, http://mswinstonstephens.com/stories.htm, and if you’d like more resources to help you tell stories to your children, visit my storytelling resources page.

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