My Storytelling Journey
Amna Burki lives in the Canadian Prairies for the last 2 decades and has worked with a Newcomer organization as a mentor and facilitator in many programs geared towards those new to Canada, many of whom are students of English language. Her main work is as a Training Coordinator for a local parent-child coalition focusing on the early years where she trains service providers in various family literacy programs and workshops that support parents acquire language and other skills to support their families. Email: email@example.com
The following is an article I wrote for a storytelling project CrEST Course (Creative and Engaging Storytelling Course) https://davidheathfieldblog.wordpress.com/teacher-training/ that I was doing in March 2021. Even though I facilitate groups from many different cultures, what was unique about the CrEST Course was the different time zones participants were from. Most of them were English language teachers but they welcomed me in their group. This article was written a few months ago and while reading it again I realized so many of the things I mentioned have progressed in many helpful ways and oral storytelling has become an important tool for me.
My Storytelling Journey Part 1 (March, 2021) for CrEST Course
One of the most beautiful memories I have of my childhood was hearing stories from my grandmother. I grew up in a multigenerational family and was very fortunate to spend a lot of time with my grandmother as I was one of her youngest grandchildren. She was so good at storytelling that I could imagine and picture everything that she would say. She made the stories come alive by using gestures and mimes. She shared with me the amazing stories that are at the core of Abrahamic faiths, especially the Quranic versions of the story of Mary (Maryam), the mother of Jesus, the epic story of Joseph (Yusuf) through the stages of life and the challenge after challenge he faced at the hands of others. My favourite story was that of Moses (Musa) and all the amazing miracles he had at his disposal. My grandmother, being the matriarch of the family was usually asked to share stories at extended family gatherings and celebrations. She would also share the stories from our tribal heritage or from Northern India where she grew up.
My mother would also share stories, but mostly from books and some orally like the Boy who Cried Wolf or the likes of such stories, I guess to teach us great morals. My father on the other had spent a long time sharing stories from personal experiences. He was a young teen when our family had to escape ethnic violence and move to the newly created country of Pakistan in 1947. His family had to start from scratch, and they lost everything during the largest migration of human beings ever experienced in recent history. Over a million, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh lives were lost during that time of rising nationalism and ethnic tensions.
Once I could read, I forgot about all the stories from my childhood and lost myself in the world of books and adventures, however, the foundation of storytelling I had remained dormant for many years waiting for the ripe moment to resurface.
My recent quest to learn more about both family history stories, and oral stories have three reasons:
1. I took a course on history and learned what a primary source is (a document/photograph/journal entry from the event). Through repeated patterns of migrations and resettlement, much of my family history which was oral died out because the original language was not maintained, there was barely any record keeping, and many things were lost in migrations to settle in more prosperous or safer regions. Settling down in a foreign place isn’t easy and that process usually involves giving up many things including sometimes even the mother tongue over generations.
2. The second reason for my interest in stories was because I was involved with a fascinating project in the newcomer settlement field, called Intergenerational Volunteering, where newcomer seniors were invited to volunteer with preschoolers together in groups and many ideas of facilitating those groups were developed. One thing that many of my mentors at work suggested was oral storytelling, where oral story telling skills could be shared in those intergenerational groups, however at the time, I didn’t have skills in oral storytelling. The intergenerational program had newcomer seniors from and families from many backgrounds like Southern India, Ethiopia, Congo, Liberia, Ethiopia, Syria, Afghanistan, who spoke languages like Dari, Malayalam, Swahili, Arabic, had been taking place for almost a year when the pandemic lockdown forced us to move the program online. Prior to the pandemic I was aware of the need to incorporate oral storytelling but didn’t have the skills needed. However, during the pandemic after struggling to move seniors to groups on Zoom, I was ready to revamp the program and finally turned to a mentor who could make it more online friendly. My mentor suggested oral storytelling once again and this time, as she had more time, she offered to train me in basics of storytelling.
The first oral story I ever shared was “Scat the Cat”, in which a cat that is unhappy with her colour, goes through a series of colour changes, using her magical powers and is still unhappy until she changes back to her original realizing, she’s perfect just like she is. There is a catchy phrase that’s repeated throughout. “I’m Scat the Cat, I’m sassy and cool, and I can change my colour just like that”, and fingers are snapped at the last word. It was magical to experience my first story and the positive response to it. The story was simple enough for children to enjoy and held the seniors’ attention as they were learning English and needed simple stories.
There are always elements of storytelling that would mesmerize me. I would use the story as a catalyst to have a discussion, welcome participants to share similar stories from their culture or ask them how they say different nouns from the story in their own languages. For instance, how do they say “cat” in their language. By the third oral story I shared in the group, my confidence in this brand-new skill had increased. I also started doing some research on oral storytelling. It became clear to me that my grandmother must have picked up the skill of storytelling through practice and I researched the India of her times. The pandemic brought me closer to my grandmother and other ancestors. One thing that I know from my mother was that my great-grandmother passed away in the Spanish flu in 1919. Such was the impact of her death that it sent her children on a different trajectory. Her loss at a young age, impacted generations after her. Did my grandmother become a storyteller to ease her sense of loss and turmoil? My research also showed that India during the Mughals just before the British Raj, had a thriving tradition of oral storytelling, this was called “dastaan goyee” and this culture died out when printed books became more common. So, someone like my grandmother would have had a rich presence of storytellers in her life but the next generation was more into written books. Many awkward mannerisms of my grandmother also started becoming clearer to me as I experienced a similar pandemic that she had seen devastate her world. I understood her paranoia keeping things clean and disinfecting surfaces. She would cover her face and mouth when in large gathering, not because of cultural practices but because she feared infections. Maybe now that we have experienced this current pandemic our future stories are forever changed. We will forever be afraid when hugging or shaking hands with others just like my grandmother hesitated.
3. The third reason for my interest in storytelling is that I was a part of a local museum that was starting a new gallery and wanted newcomers involved in the project. I was amazed by how the curators meticulously preserve articles, artifacts from history and personal narratives of people from local community. It made me think of all those stories that died with my grandmother because no one learned from her enough. I wanted to preserve some of those remaining stories.
In the early days of being introduced to storytelling, I was drawn to storytelling like a thirsty person craves water. I came across new stories, like Mr. Wiggle and Mr. Waggle https://youtu.be/oGLAvmkgNUg and I changed the ending to make it more relevant to our experience of not being able to meet and asking the participants to brainstorm other ways of communicating instead of meeting in person.
Now it’s been a year since the pandemic started and I have probably shared 30 plus stories with participants. One story in my earlier days that had a huge impact on me was “Stone Soup”. Even though it seems like a trickster story where a bunch of soldiers or an old woman pretend to make soup with a stone, getting the community they are passing through on their way back home, to reluctantly bring their limited resources together to create something magical, where in the end everyone enjoys a delicious, rich soup together. The beauty in that story is the main character brings the community together with limited resources to help make the soup and, in the end, everyone benefits. I feel this story symbolizes many things for me including the power of bringing people with diverse skills and limited resources together for a win-win situation.
I was looking for more stories recently, perhaps about two months back, and came across one of David Heathfield’s videos for the Hands Up Project where he is sharing the Wooden Sword with young learners in conflict zones https://youtu.be/F6-m4yVAWm8. I loved the story and the style of student involvement and wanted to learn more. So here I am, in this course, receiving more than I could ever imagine. I know I’m still at the beginning stages of storytelling, but it has opened many new opportunities for me, including developing training material for service providers in resiliency being approached via the lens of storytelling.
This current course with David is a real treat. I feel I need a lot more time to implement all the new and engaging ways of sharing stories and getting creative responses from participants. It’s also an amazing learning opportunity meeting people in deep ways in different stages of their storytelling journeys. I’ve really picked some wonderful gems in this process. Whether it’s Hanaa’s remarkable and unique storytelling style of moving in and out of Zoom screen while storytelling or Ahn Sook’s sharing of how in Korea grandmothers are being trained to be traditional oral storytellers and are invited in their traditional Korean outfits to share traditional Korean folklore with preschoolers, preserving for young Koreans traditional stories and allowing older women to be involved with communities across generations at a time when Korea has become mostly nuclear families. Or Jean Hale sharing how in Central Park, New York City, every weekend there is a tradition of sharing stories dating back almost 60 years. The picture Jean has shared on Padlet is of herself sharing a story from Central Park. And learning from Archana the beautiful story she shared from her unique Nepalese culture about the Pumpkin Boy. I feel a special connection to Bina and Archana as we share similar geography, being at the foothills of the magnificent Himalayan Mountain Range, spanning from Pakistan, India and all the way to Nepal. I really enjoy how the group has participants from so many time zones, some are just starting the day while others are winding the day. I also love learning from the stories participants have shared like the frogs that fall into milk and survive by swimming until the milk turns into butter, enabling them to climb out of the butter.
At this point in my storytelling journey, I need to work on improving skills of delivery and making the stories more engaging. Storytelling has become one of the most fascinating ideas I’ve come across recently and I hope to continue this journey for the rest of my life for work, collecting and preserving family history, and for a way to make sense of the world around me.
The following is an article I wrote to see where storytelling journey took me in just a couple of months since March, 2021.
My Storytelling Journey Part 2 (December, 2021)
Beyond the CrEST Course and AW88T (Around the World in 88 Tales) Project
It’s been almost 2 years of the pandemic and I have since really embraced storytelling as a tool to develop workshops and run online programs. Many of the people I work with in programs are coming to Canada as EAL (English as an Additional Language) learners and even though the main purpose of the workshops or programs isn’t learning English as an addition language, storytelling and rhymes really reinforce language learning. Now that I have a comfortable repertoire of oral stories that can be shared in all settings including with preschoolers, older adults and parents of young children, I can’t imagine life without it. Oral storytelling also connects participants to their own heritage folktales and in programs, we make it a point to honour mother languages of participants by asking them to share words from their languages or sayings from their language.
Once a facilitator and trainer like me tastes the immense potential of oral storytelling, it’s natural to keep working on those skills. I have possibly now shared 100 oral stories in programs for service providers, parents, immigrants and refugees.
And in the quest to learn more I was thrilled to be asked about participation in a brand-new storytelling project, Around the World in 88 Tales (AW88T) https://rammuseum.org.uk/around-the-world-in-88-tales/ initiated by my storytelling teacher, David Heathfield, connecting artefacts from RAMM (Royal Albert Memorial Museum) in Exeter, U.K’s collection to a global audience by a global presence of storytellers, some professionals, others just starting out their journeys like me. This beautiful project helped me dig deeper into stories both locally in our own museum collection and in my personal history. It led eventually through a chance to take another storytelling course with David, Beyond the CrEST, to discovering those stories embedded in distant memory that my grandmother used to share. I was fortunate enough to share that story from my grandmother live on November 18th https://youtu.be/Mg4MIQmjZ9M and then again during the project finale, on November 28th. AW88T is not only a great resource for language learners but also those studying global cultures and understanding each other in a world that may seem more polarized than the pre pandemic world. I’m so grateful to have met through this project some of the warmest people around the world many of whom are teachers of English language and have welcomed me into their fold, encouraging and cheering on new storytellers.
Figure 1 "Kujja" storytelling for RAMM Museum Figure 2 AW88T storytelling in November 2021
This beautiful storytelling journey has also helped me create a new workshop for my work where storytelling is used as a family literacy activity to increase attachment between preschoolers and fathers, because oral storytelling does not confine dads to sit down with books. This form of sharing stories is especially important for newcomers because English reading and writing skills may come later than oral language. Even though I’m not an English language teacher, one thing that comes out again and again in my interactions in workshops and parenting and literacy programs is how much easier it is to pick up English language when it’s done in a playful way through storytelling, rhymes, creating a friendly space to interact and discuss things.
I’m excited for the endless possibilities of using oral storytelling in both personal quest to understand my own history better and leave those stories with the next generation and also in work to make participants engaged, connected and empowered through learning about each other and as a bonus picking up language skills as well in a friendly and interactive environment.
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My Storytelling Journey
Amna Burki, Canada
The Pudding is in the Proof
Christopher Walker, Poland