Professional storytellers, poets visit PUSD classrooms

Poet and storyteller Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer involves students of Chuck Serventi’s fifth-grade class as part of the Grand Circle Storytelling Festival’s outreach program.

Page held its first storytelling festival last week, with four storytellers taking the stage at the Cultural Arts Building on Sept. 17.

The festival, which lasted a little more than two hours, featured storytellers from West Virginia, Colorado and Arizona. 

As part of the festival, the storytellers went into some of PUSD’s schools the day before and engaged with students in their classrooms. Bil Lepp and Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer visited all six of Desert View’s fifth-grade classrooms and gave presentations about the process of crafting a story from inception to finished piece that’s ready for the page or stage. The storytellers spent nearly three hours at Desert View, spending around 45 minutes with each class. 

“My kids loved it,” said fifth-grade teacher Chuck Serventi.

“Students enjoy and deserve to have the arts shared with them in a different way. Any time we can have visitors who have specialized strengths and skills is a great thing for us. They may have inspired the next generation of storytellers and writers.”

Two of those students were Harper Keisling and Etta Prall, who enjoyed the visit from the storytellers quite a bit. 

Rosemerry Trommer was the visiting storyteller in Keisling’s class. Trommer spent the first part of the class going over the elements of writing and what should be included – and excluded – from a riveting story. For the final 10 minutes of the presentation, Trommer invited a group of eight students and their teacher, Chuck Serventi, to act out a short play.

Steven Law, who organized the storytelling festival, arranged for Trommer to visit Keisling’s classroom.

“Without any coaxing from anyone else, Harper wrote and produced two plays for her classmates last year,” Law said. “I was very impressed by how creative they were, and the fact that she had the initiative to do it and see it through. I wanted her to meet an adult female who has had a successful career in the creative arts.”

Keisling is writing two new plays this year. One is a Halloween-themed played titled “The Town of Glow,” which she hopes to have ready for the Desert View stage in November. She is also co-writing a second play with her friend and fellow fifth-grader, Etta Prall, called “The Young Detectives.”

The two young writers are writing all the dialogue and action themselves, which usually occurs during recess or on weekends.

Professional storyteller Lepp, who has been visiting classrooms at nearly every storytelling festival he attends, said the classroom visits and instruction from visiting storytellers has a great impact on students.

“One benefit is that kids who are maybe poor readers or have difficulty writing are introduced to a new way to share their creative talents orally,” said Lepp. 

“Kids at the fourth and fifth grade level are really beginning to understand the power of language. Concepts such as puns and metaphors are beginning to make sense. And listening to and creating oral stories is a fantastic way to explore the many uses of language. Listening to stories, and creating stories, increases vocabulary, comprehension and speaking skills. Telling stories increases self-confidence. Even if kids don’t plan to tell stories in the future, exposure to language use is never wasted. The better people speak and write, the better they will do in most any career.”

While Trommer and Lepp were spending time with Desert View fifth graders, a third storyteller, Navajo Poet Laureate Laura Tohe, spent her time with students from Page High School and Page Middle School’s Navajo language and Navajo government classes. Tohe spoke to the Navajo students about the role that storytelling plays in preserving and celebrating Navajo history, heritage and culture. In doing so, Tohe shared stories from her own childhood and background.

“It was very effective,” said Kimberlee Williams, who teaches Navajo language and government classes for Page High School and Page Middle School. “They were able to connect with her, especially over their shared kinship. The middle school students really enjoyed the stories she shared.”

Williams said she would like to see Dine’ writers and poets visit the school throughout the year.

Page Unified School District Governing Board President Des Fowler sat in on one of Tohe’s presentations with the middle school’s Navajo government students and was impressed by what she saw.

“I think the students were engaged with her story,” she said. “At the end of her presentation, she opened it up to a Q and A with the students who wanted to ask her questions. They asked her a lot of questions about Navajo culture.”

Fowler believes a key factor in the students’ interest was having a shared kinship, a shared background and a lot of shared life experiences with Tohe.

Fowler asked Tohe what interested her in becoming a storyteller. 

“She said she loved to read as a child, and using her imagination took her to new places and that [inspired] her to go outside the box. Once that started, she continued to build upon it,” Fowler said. 

Before Fowler and Tohe parted company, Tohe promised to send Fowler a list of other Native American authors and poets who might be interested in visiting the school district to give workshops. 

“We all have our stories, and those stories are important,” said Fowler. “Sometimes you just need to bring a storyteller into the classroom who can show the students how to get started telling their own stories.”

Fowler agreed with Williams, in that she’d like to invite Native American to visit the district throughout the year and conduct workshops with the students. 

The festival was organized and produced by Steven Law, PUSD’s PR coordinator. Law was also one of the storytellers at the festival on Sept. 17. Law was encouraged by the turnout at the storytelling festival and how much the students enjoyed spending an hour engaging with the visiting storytellers in their classrooms.

“One of the greatest things about stories and a communal storytelling gathering is the ability it has of bringing a community together,” Law said. “Page is already a tight-knit community. I hope something like this will only enhance that.”

Law says he plans to make the Grand Circle Storytelling Festival an annual September event and invite more storytellers into PUSD’s classrooms as part of it.

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