Norma Azevedo had no problem holding the attention of a roomful of high-energy third-graders. As she spoke, they listened to her, laughed with her and sang songs with her.
Azevedo was telling stories.She had no video games, no movies, no television. She used only a few simple puppets to enhance her tales. The rest was left to the technicolor imaginations of her young listeners.
Storytelling not only inspires the imagination; as an educational tool, the rebirth of the oral tradition has produced results that are anything but imaginary.
"Storytelling lets kids be exposed to rich language and there's an emotional involvement," asserted Dee Kyle, a teacher and storyteller at Verde Vale School in Anderson, Calif., adding that both those elements are missing in television. "You are an active participant when you listen to a story being told. It's not passive like TV."
Storytelling requires active participation by both the teller and the listener.
The storyteller, of course, has to tell the story with imagination and verve. Eye contact with the listeners is very important, especially with young listeners. By the same token, for a listener to get caught up in the story, he must really listen, letting his imagination work with both the meaning of the words and their sound as they are spun out by the artful storyteller.
"Storytelling makes (a story in a book) more real to children. It improves their reading and writing skills," said Azevedo, the Shasta County Office of Education librarian.
"Storytelling in the classroom is the first step in the language arts building process," she wrote in her master's thesis. "Storytelling makes reading seem easy. A word which has been heard and understood is easier to recognize in print."
For her and many other teachers, the connection to books is important. Most of her tales are oral elaborations of children's storybooks.
If storytelling has real benefits in terms of language facility and enhanced interest in reading, it can also provide other benefits.
Redding resident Laurie Short, who often tells pioneer-era stories dressed in period costume, said she tells stories because it's fun. But more than that, she said, "storytelling has to be purposeful."
Because her stories depict the past, they give today's children "a look at the way things were. It's made kids more grateful for what they have today."
Among her stories, for example, is the tale of the little girl whose bottom froze fast to the outhouse toilet seat, a predicament resolved only when her brothers came to her rescue. That story makes children realize that indoor plumbing, soft toilet tissue and other comforts of the modern home weren't always available.
Robin Velte, a Mount Shasta school library consultant, explains, "The world has become way too complex. Storytelling takes you back to something more simple. We need a break."
As Jimmy Smith writes in an introduction to his "Homespun: Tales from America's Favorite Storytellers," "Tales are told to educate and entertain, to explain the unexplainable, to honor the past and its people, and to record the simple, seemingly unimportant moments of human existence . . . Tales an almost magical way help us make sense of our world."