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A squad of storytellers

Each week, associate professor Brian Sturm and his group of students from the Carolina School of Information and Library Science bring the traditional art of oral folktale story telling to a local elementary school.

Whenever associate professor Brian Sturm and his group of Carolina students walk into Estes Hills Elementary School ready to tell a story, librarian Laura Fox prepares for a spike in students browsing the shelves.

“I find out through the students what’s been read because they want to get the book,” said Fox. “They’re excited about reading it once they hear the story.”

Each week, under the moniker of “Story Squad,” Sturm and students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science bring the traditional art of oral folktale story telling to the elementary school.

By performing — and not reading line-by-line — the stories, the group encourages the young students to use their imagination while also developing pre-literacy skills that will help them transition to reading.

“Listening and interacting with a story requires different literacy skills than reading,” said Mark Riddle, a master of science in library science student and member of Story Squad. “The hope is that if they enjoy listening to the stories, they might come and grab a few more story books from the library.”

Telling stories at schools, public libraries, day care centers and even senior citizen homes, the Story Squad specializes in cultural folktales — a genre best enjoyed out loud.

“The oral tradition, and folklore in particular, is an amazingly immersive form of language and literature,” said Sturm, a professional storyteller and coordinator of the master of science in library science program. “Anything that comes from an oral culture, if it survives, has to be good. If it isn’t good, it’s not told. These stories have been around for generations and it means that they’re fabulous stories. They come readily to the tongue, and they have very important teaching lessons that are cloaked in a wonderful story, so the kids get the moral.”

Last year, Story Squad began telling folktales to first grade students at the elementary school as a way to pique their interest not just in the genre, but in different cultures.

“I like looking for stories from areas that people haven’t heard of,” Riddle said. “It increases knowledge of the wider world.”

By teaching stories originating in other parts of the world, Sturm believes it helps the students develop empathy and openness to other cultures.

“Because we tell stories from all over the world, kids get the sense that there are interesting things in other countries,” he said. “It’s not just about the United States.”

Although Story Squad aims to provide tales outside the norm of every day life for the students, Sturm always sticks to the books readily available in the school’s library.

After recently receiving a $5,000 grant from author James Patterson and the Scholastic Reading Club to grow the folktale section of the library, Sturm and Fox have been able to bring more folktales to an even younger audience this year.

As the library purchases folktales designed for lower grades, Story Squad has started making weekly visits to the school’s three kindergarten classes to get students excited for the genre.

“Our folktales tend to be on the higher side as far as reading level — they’re more for fourth or fifth grade,” Fox said. “The goal was to get the younger readers involved, to get them excited about these stories. Folktales are rich, and they can be complex stories, so maybe a little less likely for a student to choose. With the Story Squad coming, that builds the excitement and the students’ desire to get those books.

“It’s exciting for me to see that, and it’s exciting for the students to feel like the folktale section of the library belongs to them, too.”

Now, a Story Squad member captivates the kindergarten classes every Tuesday with stories ranging from the African folktale trickster Anansi the spider to Chinese tales of frogs and geese.

And it’s not just simply reading pages of a book. It’s a performance, with sound effects and unique voices for every character.

“My philosophy about story telling is that it’s not about the plot, it’s about the emotions,” Sturm said. “It’s the emotional connection with the audience that’s the powerful communication tool.”

It’s a style that quickly draws in the kindergarteners.

“This is fun because it’s a special weekly event,” said kindergarten teacher Claire Ross. “They look forward to him coming, and they know that they’re going to actively participate in the story with him. He let’s them make funny noises, and they love his movements. The children really have just taken to it.

“They are completely zoned in when he’s speaking. He has all 20 of them: their attention, their eyes, their ears, their bodies are facing him. They want to know what happens next.”

And then, like clockwork, Fox will get another surge of students looking for the tales the Story Squad told.

“It’s really broadening their reading,” Fox said. “They’re trying different things. That’s what I talk about a lot. Don’t read the same things over and over again. With the Story Squad coming in, they really want to try it. I don’t have to suggest anything. They go right to the section where those folktale books are and look through it.”

But for many of the students, the books aren’t even all that necessary. They already remember the story, and are quick to add their own imaginative spin in their retelling — extending the oral tradition to the next generation.

“I want them to have an immersive experience with narrative,” Sturm said. “I want them to realize that the imagination is just magnificent and that they can do it. I want to empower them to think that they can do this kind of imaging and that story is an integral part of their lives whether it’s folklore or the story they tell their friends on the blacktop.”