. .  . and tell me a story

Sit. Join me around the fire.

Listen. I have a story to tell you.

Long, long ago, when I was a little girl, I used to hear stories about my ancestors, as I'm sure you did as well. Stories, because my father was orphaned at eleven, my mother did not know her father, and her mother died when I was nine. So, because I never had grandparents, stories were the web that connected me to my ancestors. My young, self-less mother was often engulfed in the everyday battles of survival, yet she cultivated in me a life-long love of stories, books, and writing. Because stories replaced absent memories, they were all that I had, and my imagination became an important aspect of my heritage.

I can remember hearing many stories regarding Earhardt Therwhacter, one of my mother's ancestors, who left Germany for Holland and boarded a boat called The Janet. Sickness abounded on this treacherous journey, and a pregnant woman who would not stop screaming was picked up and thrown overboard. Literally, only the strong survived this difficult trek. In 1741, my ancestor arrived in New York.

Another ancestor of mine, my father's father, who also died before I was born, was hardly ever talked about. He was called "Shorty" and used to visit his mother on the Blackfoot reservation in Montana. He lived an exciting life; he knew Indian sign language, Spanish, broke horses, lived in a cave, rode with Pancho Villa, had a bad eye, and the end of one of his fingers was missing. This ancestor of mine really seemed to embrace life, and he became the great mystery man to me. My fascination with my grandfather is where my interest in American Indian Studies began.

Thank you for being a part of my story and adventure.

Now, sit back, relax, and listen.


Mrs. Ferrero, my fourth grade teacher at Margaret Heath Elementary School in Baldwin Park, California, presented me with what I believe to be my first academic cultural immersion experience. Of course, at the time my young mind did not understand the theoretical or pedagogical reasons underlying her methods of instruction, and even now looking back, I do not know whether she actually understood the progressive nature of what she was doing. I do, however, know that she was a great teacher, and I loved her classes and looked forward to each day with her. She had been fortunate enough to visit Japan, and she made this foreign country come alive for me, and, as a matter of fact, my classroom experience with Mrs. Ferrero is one of my clearest and most powerful elementary school memories.

Mrs. Ferrero implemented a wide variety of techniques that made Japan seem real and exciting to me. For example, she decorated her entire classroom with pictures and artifacts and brought in kimonos for us to try on. She also provided each of us with chopsticks, taught us how to use them, and provided a feast for our entire class in order for us to test our newly acquired culinary skill. She also taught us the song "Sa-Ku-Ra," which still rings magically in my ears even after all of these years. I also learned the delicate art of origami, and Mrs. Ferrero brought in the thin, brightly colored paper and many different patterns for us to use. Her elementary school classroom was an immersion experience for me; it was experiential, collaborative, and interactive.

Storytelling and the MTV Generation

This powerful, pre-class teaching technique empowers students, improves listening skills, and brings a sense of community into the classroom:

I realized very early in my career that in order to teach many of the students who attend my classes, I would have to figure out how to reach this young MTV generation who seems to be bent on instant gratification. I also knew that I would have to be imaginative in order to create a safe and fun environment that would be conducive to learning for this pierced and tattooed, under-prepared generation of the nineties who enter my classes tightly clutching their twenty minute attention spans. Of course, not all of my students fit this stereotypical portrayal, but I found that most students do expect to be entertained during class; I am expected to be both an actor and a comedian. As a composition and Indian literature instructor, my ideas about composition and literature began to emerge and merge as I began to see similarities in both types of courses. The link and overlap of theories and methods became apparent to me as I tried to make the topics accessible to students. In doing so, I found that these originally hesitant students began to blossom academically. For example, In all of my classes, I use the powerful technique of storytelling as a method of bringing the group together as a whole and empowering both the orator and the receiver of the information. Five to ten minutes before class starts is set aside for storytelling, which ends exactly as class begins. Storytelling is strictly voluntary and students choose the stories they want to present. Because I tell the students that it is the unusual that sells in life as well as in a classroom, the stories range from renditions about family or friends, a review of a movie or book, to any other adventure that the student thinks is out of the norm. In the beginning of the semester, I often walk into the class and say something like, "someone tell us a story-what did you do this weekend, did you go anywhere or see anything that you would like to share?" There are usually more students who want to tell stories than time will permit. The only two rules the students must follow are that as a student is telling the story, the rest of the class listens intently and without interruption, and the subject matter must be appropriate for the classroom. When the story is finished, the group comments on the story by choosing to share a similar story, agree or disagree with the review, or even try to help solve an issue. Recently a student stated that he and his brother had an unemployed uncle move in with them. This uncle was unemployed, watched TV all day, and contributed no money or any other assistance to the household. The class listened, and the student was offered three different possible solutions: kick the lazy bum out, give the uncle thirty days to find a job, and don't do anything out of respect for the uncle. I actually had one student, who was not able to stay for class because of a dentist appointment, come to class just to tell her story. An added benefit to storytelling is that students are very rarely late to class. As a matter of fact, my students can often be seen running to class in order to be able to hear the stories. This oral technique helps the students telling the story by being heard, and it helps the audience learn the art of listening. The class forms a bonded unity through the storytelling that remains intact throughout the class period and the entire course.