Stories of Connection: Acclaimed Storyteller Visits YCIS Beijing
Storytelling is one of the world’s oldest traditions. Before the invention of writing, civilizations relied upon storytelling as a way to teach and to record history for later generations. Even to this day, despite the proliferation of books and digital devices, storytelling is still one of the best channels through which to teach and learn. Used to enhance any curriculum – from history to math to science – stories can be interwoven into any concept to make it more meaningful and memorable.
To highlight the importance of storytelling and to show the ways that it can both enrich students’ learning and foster connections between people, Yew Chung International School of Beijing invited acclaimed storyteller Jaimie Oliviero to campus where he spent the day giving performances for the entire Primary school section. Gathered in the auditorium, children sat listening attentively and cycling through a range of emotions from excitement to surprise to laughter – all-the-while exercising their own creativity through, as Mr. Oliviero put it, “the freedom to believe.”
After the storytelling sessions, Mr. Oliviero shared ideas with teachers about how they could enhance story time with their own students or children. He also spoke of the greatest storyteller he’s ever heard – whose voice still gives him goosebumps when thinking back.
Could you please introduce yourself and your work?
My name is Jaimie Oliviero. I’m one of the storytellers that work for Dream On Productions, which is a company based in Buenos Aires, Argentina that sends storytellers throughout the world to do storytelling performances.
What inspired you to become a storyteller?
I’d been working in schools for a long time, using theatre games to help teachers enhance the curriculum. But eventually, I got to a place where it wasn’t enough and I wanted to find new ways to teach and inspire students. So, I got this crazy idea to go to East Africa, where stories come from. And I started to understand how powerful stories can be. While there, I had some excellent teachers and mentors who made it clear to me that this is what I was supposed to be doing.
What key ingredients are needed for a good spoken word story?
The easiest way to put it is to say, “I’m not going to tell you a story, I’m going to get out of the way so the story can come through”. In order to really experience and make the story come alive, you just have to get out of the way and let the story tell itself.
So instead of thinking about how to act out the story, focus instead on how to channel the story. It’s like for a pianist – at a certain point, they’ve learned the notes and the technique, and they simply have to channel the music.
How do you discover new stories to tell?
It’s kind of like discovering new foods. The first time you have Mexican or Chinese food, for example, you want to try more. And it’s the same way for me when discovering stories. If I learn one story about the Day of the Dead in Mexico, I suddenly want to learn a whole bunch. Every time I go to a new country, I’ll look for stories from that country. It’s also a way to connect with that country and to show respect for their culture.
What online resources are available for parents wanting to connect with their children through story time?
One of the best ways to learn about storytelling is simply to watch a lot of storytellers. No two are the same, and parents could find one whose style best matches their own.
Dream On Production’s website is a great first place to look. It resembles a United Nations of storytellers, with representatives from countries all over the world. After that, there will be videos of individual performances on Youtube or other video sites that parents could watch for ideas, or could even share with their children.
How can parents make reading fun for their children?
Parents have to find their own comfort level. Every storyteller is different.
My wife and I have two sons, now in their early twenties. When they were young, many people would say, “Oh your kids are so lucky that you go home and tell them stories at night.” But I didn’t. My wife was their storyteller. And she didn’t use costumes. She didn’t use props. She also has a very low, gentle voice. But she would simply get out of the way and share the story.
One of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard was when I’d be sitting downstairs at night, and from the bedroom upstairs I could hear her reading to our sons. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, I could just hear the tone of her voice as she read to them at night. It still gives me goosebumps thinking back.
More than anything, parents should use their own style and find a story that they believe in themselves. Feel comfortable as you share the story, and your children will feel comfortable, too.
What benefits can children receive from this type of interaction with a teacher or their parents?
It gives them permission to believe. In the real world, you have to survive; you have to be practical. But at a certain point, in certain situations, you also need to put that practically aside and believe that anything can happen.
As we sit here now, what if suddenly a dragon flew through the window. Or the teacher could turn into a flower. The benefit to children is the encouragement of their suspension of disbelief. It gives them permission to believe and to be creative.
What tips would you offer to a young person wanting to become a professional storyteller?
I never set out to be a storyteller. I think it’s something that just comes to you if you’re meant to do it. I know that’s a strange thing to say, but I kind of believe it. The most important thing is to enjoy the connection that you share with the audience. So, if you don’t really have the passion, it doesn’t work. At a certain point, you’ll just realize that you can’t do anything else.