Saturday, September 11, 2010

I Also Teach Math with Stories

I've just posted a video where I explain a math concept.  (It's the formula for summing up an arithmetic series, if you're interested to know.)  I mention it here because there's a story to go with it.  The mathematician Gauss figured out that formula when he was ten years old and used it to dumbfound his brute of a teacher.

It's a great story. And it goes well with teaching math.  In addition to being a storyteller I'm also a math and science tutor.  I always use story when I'm teaching.  Here are some possibilities:
  •  A Story Goes with the Concept: Sometimes I'm lucky and there's a ready made story, like the Gauss at Ten story, that just goes with a concept.
  • Something Funny About the Inventor: I may have to dig a bit but there's often something funny or interesting about the people who thought up the math (let's face it, some of them were weird).  Any time I'm telling about something thought up by Leohard Euler, I tell about how he used to write mathematical proofs with one hand while cradling the baby with the other.  Or Archimedes, when he figured out how to get the volume of an irregular shape, jumped out of his bath and ran naked down the streets of Syracuse shouting "Eureka!"
  • How Math Saved My Ass: I have some stories of my own.  Once I was teaching traffic school and forgot to note down who had paid.  Some had used a discount coupon and some hadn't.  It was like a word problem in a book.  And I wrote an equation, solved it, and knew how many people I needed to collect from.
  • The Student's Eyes Are Glazing: Sometimes the student just needs a break from the left brain.  I'll insert a funny story for 3-4 minutes, then we can get back to the subject at hand.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

How Spiderman Helped Me Be a Storyteller

When I was in junior high school, I started secretly collecting superhero comic books. I was too embarrassed to do it openly since my parents were down on superheroes and I was a good kid. So I'd make my weekly pilgrimage to the comic book store, a dark musty place piled high with comics old and new, and come home with the latest issue of Spiderman or Dr. Strange or Howard the Duck rolled up inside a newspaper or tucked inside my jacket. I kept them all in drawers in my desk, in neat stacks by title, each stack in issue number order. (Collectors might be interested to know that just by chance, the first issue of Spiderman that I bought was #129, which just happened to introduce The Punisher and is now worth a lot of money. Total chance.)

Reading Spiderman and the other titles, I was enchanted by the fact that these were continuing stories. The authors would plant a clue in one issue and not develop it until several months later. There were mysteries which ran for a year or more. Sometimes they'd draw out multiple plotlines at once. I loved it! And I wanted to do it.

At the time, I was telling stories to my brother Andrew who was about seven and my sister Laura who was about four. Laura had originally asked for a story about Aquaman. I thought she said Appleman, so I created a costumed superhero with an apple helmet and started telling stories about him. Then I wove in members of our family and The Adventures of the Litzkys was born.

As I read more Marvel comics (including some really thoughtful ones by Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber, which I still have), I started making my Adventures of the Litzkys continuing. When I found that I couldn't remember where I'd left off last time, I started keeping notes. Once I started keeping notes, it was a short step to plotting future stories. I worked out plotlines and mysteries that lasted for months and years, just like the comics I loved. I brought the story to a grand finale on the day my family drove me down to college.

I still have the notes I kept. In fact, I recently transcribed them into the computer (and I couldn't help embellishing them and fixing errors and inconsistencies). I'll probably pick out some story ideas from those notes: there's some good stuff in there. But I miss telling a continued story. I'm going to try to get a continuing saga going online.

That's how Spiderman and friends helped me be a storyteller. And yes, I eventually "came out" about reading comics. It was kind of an open secret and one day Mom just said, "You like to go to the comic book store, don't you Michael?" Relieved, I answered as though I'd never been hiding it at all, "YES!"

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Is It Authentic if it Aint on Google?

How far do you go to make sure stories from other lands are authentic?

I tell stories every week at Lakeview Preschool here in Oakland. Each week they "visit" a different country. I try to have a story from that country when I go in on Wednesday.

A few weeks ago, they were visiting the southern part of Africa (yes, I know, Africa is a continent, not a country. To their credit, they spend a week in each of the four quarters of the continent, not just one week on "Africa").

Searching through books for a story from southern Africa, I found "Mulha" in the collection, The Maid of the North, Feminist Folk Tales From Around the World, edited by Ethel Johnson Phelps. "A South African Tale" the book says. "Perfect," I thought. "I haven't been telling enough stories lately with strong women characters and this one seems just right for 3 and 4-year-olds."

Now, when I'm telling a folktale from another land, I try to:
  • Compare a couple of different versions.
  • Pick and choose from the different versions the parts which I like best.
  • Know something about my source. (More below.)
  • Look up and verify any words I don't know.
  • Try to get the right pronunciation of all words.
  • Learn a little extra about the country so that I'm not just telling the story straight out of the book I read.
Regarding sources:
  • Is the source a native of the country or an outside observer?
  • Is the observer just recording or are they judging, moralizing?
  • Did the observer change anything or make something up?
Now I change stories all the time in the process of making them "mine." Sometimes I connect dots or supply missing motivation. Sometimes I just find that a story works better for me a certain way. Although some tellers I respect disagree, I think such changes are fine as long as I don't claim that my way is the way the story "is told." But I like to know what's authentic and what's some other collector's interpolation or invention before I work with a story.

So I tried to find another version of "Mulha" online. Nothing. The only listings Google gave me for the word "Mulha" were links either to Phelps's book or to Fairy Tales of South Africa (1910, Sarah Bourhill and Beatrice Drake), the book she got the story from.

I Googled "Inzimu," and "Imbula" which the story calls "male and female ogres." No listings for Inzimu, only one listing for Imbula and it's obviously someone's name.

Well, I went ahead and told the story. It was a good story. For a little more background I read (to myself, not to the kids) an article on Wikipedia about Swaziland (mentioned in the story) and another one on southern Africa. I decided not to include the words which I couldn't verify. I just said "ogre" for the monster. I introduced it as a story from the southern part of Africa. The kids enjoyed it.

How far do you go? Probably if I was going to put this story on a DVD, I'd try to research it further. For telling to a small group of kids, I think the amount of research I did was okay. But what do you think? How authentic do you keep stories? How far do you go in verifying what you read?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I Love to Practice; I Hate to Practice

Why is it so hard to get myself to practice?

I love telling stories. I love creating them. When I'm involved in the magic of a story that's unfolding just right, I feel like I could go out and hike to the top of a mountain (and I could, but getting back down would be a problem -- more in another post on why it's harder for me to hike down hills than up them).

And yet. I'll do the dishes first. I'll check my email and read my daily dose of Doonesbury (I'm up to 1998 in my year-and-a-half-long trip through the entire Doonesbury archives -- did I mention that I'm a bit compulsive?) I'll give the cats their treats. I'll reread a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery or an old Heinlein novel. Here I am right now, writing my first blog post instead of working on that adult version of Sindbad the Sailor or that vulnerable true story of hiking the Lost Coast alone in 1982 when I was age 22, strong-legged, and sad too much of the time.

Practicing brings up emotions. The true story I just mentioned: to really talk about that long, lonely, wonderful, miserable time in my life means embracing who I was then. Deciding just how much I want to share. How much can I recreate that young man? How much distance should I keep from him? The Sindbad story I want to do: will it be original enough? I've been telling mostly to kids for the last couple of years: can I still engage audiences of adults? Am I doing a racist stereotype "Arab" voice for one of the villains?

Practicing doesn't always go well. Sometimes I just sit there. Sometimes the best I can do is to read a traditional story out loud from a book. Or tell a story in funny voices, doing everything "wrong." Sometimes I try every technique I know and a story just lies there.

But oh, when it goes well, I feel so good! It's like I'm touching some elemental magic, riding a sparkling river down a sensuous canyon. It's like I'm opening a door to another world. I once heard Greg Brown, the folk singer, say that he wrote songs every day not because he felt that the world needed more mediocre folk songs but so that when a great song was ready to come through, the gates would be open.

That's the way I want to live as a storyteller. So I'm posting this first blog entry -- and going to practice!