A semester to learn, connect and do social work

Spring Semester of 2016 Aprendiendo a enseñar
This is the report of my activities and accomplishments during the Professional Leave awarded to me for the spring of 2016. I began this project with the idea of building community around the cultural practice of storytelling, with emphasis in the development of bilingual stories, English-Spanish, performed rather than read. I managed to do a number of things as offered in the initial proposal, constituted by the three main aspects I worked on.
First, I continued my personal preparation to further advance in the field of storytelling in its bilingual and digital versions, and the exploration of its scenarios in the US, particularly in Florida. In addition, I explored those of Spain and Latin America, which led me to work on developing a course on “Latin American Storytelling” that could have two functions, substitute one of the Introduction to Literature (SPW3xxx) courses with a service learning component.
Second, I did a sort of pilot study with a couple of high schools in the area to test the waters as to how much they can get involved in a multi-layer project like this, receiving directions by volunteers from the University of Florida, and performing for preschools, elementary, and intermediate levels.
Last but not least, I made a good attempt at improving and introducing changes to my work within the community through my monthly storytelling presentations at a local library. I ventured to introduce zarzuela for future performances by the high school students, as well.
A detailed list of activities for each area of work follows.

I.- My preparation and exploration of the field
A. Academic advancement
1. I enrolled and took a course on Digital Story Telling (by PBS–online) and received a certificate. It was offered as “Digital Storytelling: Online tools for Sharing Students’ Voice.” (April 2016)
2. I enrolled and participated in a webinar organized by The Story Center, whose methods of group and “story creation serve as a reflective practice, a professional development tool, a pedagogical strategy, and as a vehicle for education, community mobilization, and advocacy.” (http://www.storycenter.org/about/ May 27th, 2016).
3. I became a member of The National Storytelling Association dedicated to help activists, parents, teachers, and students work effectively with storytelling. As they put it, “We’d like that all people value the power of storytelling and its ability to connect, inspire, and instill respect within our hearts and communities.” (http://www.storynet.org/about/index.html)
4. I read a good number of articles on the subject of storytelling for the course I took, and the one I’m developing and to further advance my knowledge of the subject in fields that use or study it.
5. I began and, am currently working on the development of a syllabus for a class for our undergraduate students (SPW3xxx) in our department on the subject of storytelling within the field of literature studies. I’d love for it to give the student the opportunity to do community service by helping me prepare the performances with the different levels of high school. This presents a useful approach to literature that gives them a viable and immediate opportunity to practice their skills, while getting involved with their community in something meaningful with a purpose.

B. Resources
1. Bank of Stories. As I wanted to introduce variety, and to get out of the most traditional story-types (fairy-tales and fables), I explored the web in search of good stories by Hispanic authors and found several, though not all of them suitable for acting. To increase my bank of stories, I went to the local libraries and found a nice set of stories authored by people of Hispanic descent. Many of them are in bilingual editions. The bank is growing.
2. Creation. I authored three stories in the bilingual and the script formats. I made a few more masks, bought, adapted and created new props (toys, staffed animals, drawings etc.) for my new stories.

Accomplishments: As a result, I have gained a more ample and solid knowledge of the scenarios in which storytelling moves and the useful inroads it’s making within education, public policy, and even politics and economics. I also learnt a lot about “digital storytelling” and its growing incursion in the education field for instructors (K-12 and beyond) to use it in the classroom, the psychology field,
I am connected with storytellers from Florida, Texas and California under the notion that I can learn from them, and maybe they can come to UF/Gainesville one day. I feel quite ready and well prepared to teach this interesting class and to advance in my involvement with the community, both within the schools and with the public in general. As The Story Center puts it, “We create spaces for transforming lives and communities through the acts of listening to and sharing stories.” (http://www.storycenter.org/about/)

II.- What I did with the high schools, instructors and students

1. I wrote to several Spanish instructors of High Schools of the Gainesville area. I invited them to allow me to bring to their students the idea and the plan of working on performing in a bilingual format, traditional and not so traditional stories for younger audiences—elementary school students and preschoolers.

2. I took GHS as my base, as they offered me all the support I needed. I worked with instructors Janet Hill (Chair Person) and Claude Owens (Instructor of 2nd and 3rd levels of Spanish.) I also did some work with students of Buchholz High School—class of María Morales de Lewis and Mary Elizabeth Duncan, and agreed to plan to work with instructors Grissel Santiago (P. K. Yonge), Libby Karow (Oak Hall), in the fall (2016) to prepare their students for poetry readings.

3. I met with each one of the two classes of GHS, once a week for 50 minutes each, during 6 weeks. The groups worked on each of the steps (see #4) with the help and supervision of their instructor and me. The students were not assigned a particular book. The groups read several of them and chose the one they liked best. Many expressed to have been attracted by the art of the books’ covers, in the first place. The groups discussed interesting aspects of the stories that had to do with culture differences between the country of origin of the author and those of the United States: habits–music, food, and clothing, forms of celebrating, race and class composition, history and politics and family relations.

4. In our workshops, we did several things: Selected stories, read them in groups, in class and observed the language used (dialog, monologue, description, simple, complex etc.), summarized the stories in English, created scripts in Spanish, and, in groups, chose parts (narrator, characters) and decided what format, masks and other props to use. We also read the scripts and practiced; made appropriate changes and corrections to scripts, decided what prompts to use and created them, rehearsed and performed the story. We video-taped almost all the dramatizations of the stories and some of them have been filmed and saved onto a CD.
5. I served as a judge for the “2016 North Central Florida World Language Festival” held at P. K. Yonge this past spring.

Accomplishments: As a result of working with the high-schoolers and their teachers, I have now a better sense of what the schools are willing and/or able to do with regards to a project of this nature. I was able to assess the extent to which students at the different levels are able to do with their language skills—English/Spanish, when it comes to working with the stories. I also saw that some—about half want to explore their acting and singing abilities to go beyond just reading a story and, instead, act it out at a basic level for their younger audiences. Last but not least, I’m more knowledgeable of ways to guide my future UF students to prepare the high school students to do a story performance for a much younger audience, at times, the rendition of a poem at a Language Conference.
The doors are open for our students to enter some high school classrooms and find that learning Spanish Literature has a value and a purpose that transcends the mere academic requirement. Studied this way, and with a hands on approach, it takes you to the fascinating world of the artwork of plots/words by others, listen to their stories and poems, and try to go beyond the surface and the superficial to plunge deep into their concept of the poetic and the real, via their story-lives and poetic lines.

III- What I did within the community

The shows. As part of my work with the community, and as I have done for the past 4 years, I made 4 presentations at the Library Partnership–Neighborhood Resource Center of the Alachua County Library District. The stories presented were two of the ones I wrote and two adaptations of songs into the “zarzuela” (Spanish musical) type. For these performances, I attempted an interactive and participatory format to engage the audience by getting them to do parts of the story or the songs. The kids attending can be of help to characters in the story or get to wear similar gear (costumes, masks, etc.) They are asked to sing after learning brief song lines, or to repeat a sentence that is used several times in a story. They are invited to play small parts (e. g. take the presents to the bride who just got married in the story). They answer questions asked by the presenters about the characters or the animals in the story (characteristics, habits, appearance, habitat and more). At the very end of the story, actors and audience interact more closely. They can sing the song again, or do another one they all know very well together, play a game, and talk a bit more about the story, among others.

Accomplishments: Every time I perform, I learn something new. This past spring was no different. The greatest lesson—as I performed by myself this time—is that it the shows work best when there is more people involved, such as students from the high schools: The more the merrier. The new community needs all of us as we are all it. I can help with audience control or preparations, while the HS students sit on the floor with the kids and do the story as a dialog, a casual affair that involves a lot of learning. If someone wants to stand up and perform, they can do so. The format is relaxed, not forced, as natural as possible, and playful. “Zarzuela,” in particular, needs a team for getting the attendees to do different things; at times the kids were asked to do the same gesture, or remember the moves of the dance—all of which makes it more “community oriented” and fun. That’s why I believe that projects like this—although seemingly complex are doable but with the help of several people, and hopefully some funds. That, I’m still working on.

Acerca de Clara Sotelo

Born in Bogotá, Colombia. Studied and specialized in languages--maternal and foreig, anthropology, feminism, literature, social change and justice, environmental issues, and more.
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