By MARINA WATERS
The word ‘international’ may be part of the name of the storytelling center located in the heart of downtown Jonesborough, but last week it was all about local kids and honoring America’s veterans with the inaugural Kids Institute event.
The weeklong storytelling event featured two shows Monday through Friday where kids from various Northeast Tennessee school systems experienced a veteran-themed story and interactive radio show activity created by professional storyteller Tim Lowry.
For the International Storytelling Center, the new event served as a way to offer the storytelling center as a space for local students.
“We really wanted to bring kids here so they could experience a cultural arts center and know that it’s there for them in their backyard,” ISC Director of Programs Susan O’Connor said. “Often we go into schools, but it’s hard to convey what you do and where you are. So we really wanted them to experience that and I think we were successful.”
And what better stories to tell than those of our country’s heroes for the event that kicked off on Veterans Day.
Lowry’s story focused on Jimmy, whose older brother served as a tank driver fighting the Nazis during World War II. In addition to educating students on the Great Depression, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the D-Day invasion and the end of the war, the story — which was inspired by a true story from one of Lowry’s childhood friends — illustrated to the students what life was like back then.
“Particularly stories about Wold War II, for these children, it seems like ancient history,” Lowry said. “I knew somebody who fought in that war. Very few of these children know anyone who fought in that war or was alive at that time. They are one, almost two, generations removed from even a senior citizen who would have had experiences like that. In order to help history become more real and not just something you read about and have to take a test on, I think it’s important for them to hear those stories.”
The Kids Institute didn’t only incorporate education; students were given the chance to learn and interact in their own radio show recorded and played back in the ISC auditorium at the end of each session.
Various fifth grades took to the stage to turn plastic cups on a table into the sound of a galloping horse, wadded up paper bags into crackling fire sound effects and clanking chains into the noise a covered wagon might have made during a Gold Rush-era Indian attack.
“Just before the era of radio, we still played our own music and told our own stories because we didn’t have them unless you did it,” Lowry said. “Radio became America’s first nationally known storyteller so to speak. And for the kids, it’s a great, practical, fun way to practice speaking with expression, learn to work together as a team — which are great skills they are going to need no matter what they do for the rest of their life.
“I always like to see them realize, ‘Oh, nobody can see me.’ (These kids) don’t hear dramatic stories on the radio. They think of dramatic stories as something you watch on television or see in a movie. I love to watch the light come on that, ‘I can just read it because nobody can see me.’ It’s a theatre of the mind.”
Each class also left the event with a lesson that could be incorporated in the classroom; Lowry wrote his own show and recorded sound effects with which students can read along. Along with a superhero creation assignment, Lowry sent the materials home with each teacher at the Kids Institute.
“(As a teacher) when I saw real enthusiasm for something, I thought, ‘Let’s just ride that wave as long as we can,’” Lowry said. “When I saw how much fun kids were having with a short experience, it occurred to me that you could pull some writing lessons out of this, history lessons. I especially like the lesson they can take home where their teacher can walk them through steps for them to create their own original superhero and then they write a story from that. I’ve had kids send back to me comic book illustrations they’ve drawn for their hero and story plots. They really came up with some cool stuff.”
Lowry said, above all, he hoped the kids involved in the first-ever ISC event learned that stories are not only fictional tales told on a stage, but they can be found everywhere.
“I hope that when they hear the story about Jack (they realize) I never would have heard this story except my friend in fifth grade introduced me to his grandpa,” Lowry said. “I hope they realize they probably have marvelous stories in their own family or among their friends. There are Vietnam veterans, Korean veterans and veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. Not just veterans, but there are all kinds of just great stories about how things were a generation or two ago that they could hear about for themselves.”
The storyteller also hopes the kids consider gathering stories from their own loved ones — especially with the opportunity Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays present.
“The StoryCorps organization a couple of years ago started a project,” Lowry said. “It’s a nice little app you can get on your phone that gives you a bunch of interview questions. You pick a theme and they give you about 10 questions and they highly encourage people over Thanksgiving weekend to sit down with a family member and just talk. This app will record the whole interview on your cell phone. You push a button and it will save a copy for you and it can send a copy to the Smithsonian Institution to be filed forever and your family stories can become a part of the great American story. I think that is a great thing that people should do.”
Lowry said he also felt it was important for students to hear some of the tough parts of history.
“We’ve all had that experience where we sat in the room and strained to hear what the adults were talking about,” Lowry said. “They were talking about things they thought we couldn’t handle. If they only knew we heard the whole conversation.
“My mom used to say, and I fully agree, ‘if you’re old enough to ask the question, you’re old enough to hear an honest answer.’ About fifth-grade age, kids are starting to realize people die and things are hard sometimes. I don’t think you have to necessarily be gory or tell all the horrible details of a situation, but I think honesty about how life is or was is usually a good thing because they want to know.”
That honesty is an element Lowry said also sticks with students. For the storyteller, it’s those real connections that make stories so powerful and important.
“I have a friend who is a Gold Star Mom. She lost her son in Afghanistan 11 years ago,” Lowry said. “I sent her a little message via facebook and said, ‘This week I’m telling a story that references Gold Star Moms and when I get to that part, I will be thinking of you with a heart of gratitude.’ She sent me a little thank you note back. So oftentimes, something’s going through my mind like that that is a nice little moment for me, but the audience doesn’t even know about it.
“I love storytelling in general, but I particularly like to tell stories that kids can say, ‘Is that real?’, I can say, ‘Yes, it really did happen.’ And if I can’t introduce them to people, I can at least show them photographs or say, ‘this was my friend’s grandpa.’ I think that’s really a key element.”