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Teaching and Storytelling

May 20, 2018

Holy Rosary


It was a field day for the 5th and 6th graders of Holy Rosary School at Camp Casey near Coupeville on Whidbey Island. The day had been sunny and full of outdoor activities. Now, at dusk, it had become rainy and cold. The hall selected for the storytelling had no heat; the kids were shivering – and I left my jacket on. As I launched into the session, they huddled together – but they were listening.

I told them about the 6th graders who were my test audience many years ago when I was a beginning teller – and how valuable their feedback was. As I did, their faces melded into the faces of all the middle school groups I have faced- as a teacher and a storyteller. Sixth grade, for me as a storyteller, is an IDEAL audience: old enough to have really mature insights and still young enough to let their imaginations run free. Though I was cold and they were cold, we were together; a community.

When the session was over, they all applauded and then, trooped out: the usual noisy, boisterous middle school bunch. As I watched them go, I wondered – as all teachers have done since the beginning of time – did they really understand? Did they “get it”? Storytellers don’t have much more indication than classroom teachers do about things like this. Oh yes, I have slam bang sessions where the kids are so jazzed and wired afterwards that I KNOW I have made an impact. But many sessions are much like this one: i.e. the kids are attentive listeners, responsive, present – but, in the end – non-committal. And you wonder….

And then I received the above in the mail – neatly stapled to a piece of construction paper. After almost forty years, it still amazes me when kids actually LEARN something I taught them. To the fifth and sixth graders of Holy Rosary School: thank you. Teaching and storytelling: a sublime combination.


Finally… a video!!

May 10, 2018

It’s only taken me four years to do it – but I finally have a video. The performance took place in the town of Bauan in the Philippines: the same town where I taught ESL as a Peace Corps Volunteer almost fifty years ago. A roomful of third graders… some hesitant but willing teachers… and an eager storyteller ready to share.

Go to the “Links” site on this website and then click on “Storyteller Jill Johnson in the Philippines”. ENJOY!!


Storytelling Between Generations

March 14, 2018

Oh no, the kids aren’t interested in my stories.”

Are you kidding?? They’re only interested in what’s on their cell phones!”

These are the kind of remarks I get at presentations for elders: in senior centers, assisted living communities… at a hospice recently in New Zealand.


But -for thousands of years, elders were the primary educators of children and youth. These educators taught many things: practical life skills, the history of their people to give the young a perspective on current events, and the values and beliefs that formed the cornerstone of their society.

Question: Are these things still relevant and valuable today? Of course, they are!


I am sure you have heard – as I have – children or grandchildren at a funeral, lamenting… ‘Why didn’t I ask questions? Why didn’t I listen? Now, s/he’s gone – and I can’t do either…’ As a storyteller, I am committed to demonstrating to elders how valuable their contributions are. Yes, they need a little help sometimes – to structure their stories, to make them relevant to young people in the 21st century. But, most of all, they need to have the faith that they have something valuable to contribute to younger generations. And they DO. I have seen kids – 10, 12, 14 year olds – sitting, dumbstruck, as an elder describes riding a horse to school, or searching for a child lost in a snowstorm. At the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee, I watched hundreds of kids, bussed in for a special day, sit rapt, listening to the stories of a wonderful 84 year old storyteller – Kathryn Windham. “She is SO cool!” said one teen. And she was….







However, elders, you don’t need to be Kathryn Windham to tell engaging stories to young people you care about. Yes, the world is changing. But stories of persistence and humor and courage and wit are always relevant – no matter when they took place. And when those stories come from someone you know, someone you love, the impact can be even stronger.


At the hospice in New Zealand, things really began to pop when a great-grandmother finally spoke up. She described telling stories to her great-grandchildren – and their reaction: “Granny… you DIDN’T??!” There were smiles, laughs, nods – and suddenly everyone wanted to talk. Stories poured out of them; stories that their descendants needed to hear. My last words to them were, “Tell them. Tell those stories.” I hope they do.



Year Nine at Rangitoto

March 6, 2018


Rangitoto College is the largest secondary school in Auckland: 3000+ students Year 9 – 13 from 60 countries. These kids study from 12 different curriculum departments including 4 years of creative arts: graphic arts including photography and sculpture, dance, drama and theater, music: choirs, instrumental ensembles, bands, an orchestra…sigh. I remember student teaching in a similar school in the US – over fifty years ago. I have not been in another since.

So – it was doubly fun to perform for the Year 9 students (13 – 14 yrs). These students chose to take these courses; no sullen, reluctant faces. They were bright and energetic. Sensing their enthusiasm, I juggled stories at the last minute. I decided to first share a story about my daughter when she was their age. I described the dust-ups we had – and her success years later. Later, I asked what images or pictures they had seen as I told the story – and hands shot up.

That’s the first level of connection we storytellers reach for. We want listeners to enter into our stories through their imaginations: to see and hear and smell and touch and to emotionally identify – to feel – for and with the characters of the story. But our task goes deeper.  Then I asked: while listening to this story, did you remember a story from your own life? It took a few minutes of discussion; some students thought their own stories had to mirror mine. But when I assured them that no, any remembered event was fine,  several students stood up and told brief but solid stories of their own.  If, as a storyteller, you can get your audience to participate in your story and, at the same time, remember one of their own – you’ve done it. You’ve reached the second level….

The students asked such good questions – and listened to the answers. We spoke – with feeling – about the superb speeches made by the students of Parkland, Florida following the massacre. Looking into those earnest, lively faces, I felt a deep joy – and a new hope.

Elders in Auckland

February 27, 2018

Jill Johnson 001

This morning I did a presentation for a  group of elders at the Hospice North Shore here in Auckland. Before I started, I had a short conversation with “David”, who came in NZ over 75 years ago by boat – which took four and a half weeks. Then, I was introduced to others: “Edgar”, a dapper 90ish fellow who had been a Primary Teacher for over 40 years and an animated Chinese lady who spoke little or no English. Can you imagine trying to learn another language at age 85? But she was really working at it!! “Duane”, a large bushy-bearded fellow, relished entertaining  the others with his  saucy and politically incorrect statements; he obviously enjoyed his reputation as the group’s “bad boy”. When the program started, I told several stories, which were well received. But – what happened afterwards was much more important.

“Nan”, a sprightly lady in her late 80’s began talking about sharing stories of her childhood with her grand-children – and their stunned reactions: “Granny, did you REALLY do that?” Faces all over the room came alive and  animated conversations began about how to successfully  share life experiences with your progeny. Some felt it was very important to write it down; others preferred reading “stories” to grandchildren and great-grands – and then adding a personal story that reflected the theme of the other. But the best part was watching the faces of the skeptics: those convinced that their past was unimportant; irrelevant to successive generations. Very slowly, the quizzical looks began to soften. The discussion continued as we adjourned the session and went in for lunch. Several hospice volunteers eagerly joined in, sharing their experiences. It became more and more obvious that this group was sharing a common experience that suddenly seemed much more valuable than many had previously thought. There was a growing realization that- despite technology and our current access to incredible amounts of information- this was something only THEY could provide for their families.  THIS …. is  why I do this work.


February 21, 2018


There are times when I will do almost ANYTHING to get out of a rehearsal. I’ll take out the garbage, do the laundry, cook a meal, clean out my email files, or –in desperation – even clean the refrigerator. Of course I understand it’s importance. And once I get started, nine times out of ten, I really do enjoy the work. But starting is the sticking point.

Now I believe it is the easiest thing in the world to tell a story – and the hardest to be a fine storyteller.” Ruth Sawyer

Ruth Sawyer, author of the iconic storytelling book, “The Way of the Storyteller” is right. It’s easy to tell a story; all of us do it – all the time. But to tell a story that is vivid and real; a story that rings true to an audience; that makes them laugh or cry or think – that is another thing altogether. When I watch and listen to a fine storyteller, it looks so easy. But I know about the weeks and months of work it took to make that story come alive.

To take it from the page, to create it again into living substance, this is the challenge… for the storyteller of today.” Sawyer

But why is it so hard to get started? I think it has something to do with momentum. Once you have launched into a rehearsal period, you are moving forward- toward a goal. It’s such a good feeling; we’re moving – at last! And as you work, you begin to get new insights into the story or your prospective audience. Then, you start noticing tiny improvements you hadn’t even thought about.. You discover new challenges and eagerly try out different strategies to solve them. But sometimes, things don’t go so well…. The goal eludes you or you get stuck. But, even then, you can look back and realize that you HAVE moved forward from where you began. Sometimes the goal changes. Suddenly you realize that the goal is really not where you want to be at all. But even then – you don’t go back to square one; you move on from that point.


Rehearsals, as any performer can tell you, are like riding a roller-coaster. A good one fills you with confidence; yes! I can do this…. A bad one makes you wonder why you ever took up this line of work. But the momentum has been established – and slowly, almost inexorably, your program starts to jell. A story you were sure couldn’t be told in less than fifteen minutes suddenly takes ten. The order of the stories you have chosen finally starts to make sense. In reading through the written story for the umpteenth time, you finally realize why the main character laughs in that scene… duh, it was right there all the time! All of those little discoveries begin to add up.






I have many quotes about storytelling and performing, – on notecards and pieces of paper -taped on my office door. The Ruth Sawyer quotes above are among them. I don’t read them every day- but, if they weren’t there, I would miss them. And every now and then, I really need one of them. When it comes to the subject of rehearsals, this is my favorite:

The legendary cellist, Pablo Casals, was asked why he continued to practice at age 90. Because I think I’m making progress,” he said.

That says it all….


Noa Baum: Peace-making Through Storytelling

February 6, 2018


She started her presentation, of course, with a story – about a park here in the US where she met a young woman with a baby – the same age as her son. The young woman was a Palestinian; storyteller Noa Baum is, as she said, “a proud Israeli Jew”. Over a period of seven years, they became friends… they never talked about their former homes – “mostly Mom stuff”, said Noa, smiling.

Then, one day, Noa was putting together a story about her childhood during the Six Days War in Jerusalem. Her friend, Jumana, had lived in Jerusalem, too… and she wondered what HER experience had been like.

Thus began a process – sometimes painful but also powerful – whereby Noa examined her own world view by carefully listening to another radically different view – through story. And through this process, she realized that storytelling could be a tool for peace-making – not just between Israeli and Palestinian, but in any situation in which people have diametrically opposed views and beliefs.


She talked about the need we all have for affirmation; the need to feel that we are good people. She acknowledged the strong impulse in everyone to stick with their own tribe, the difficulties of being with those who are ‘different’, and our inclination to stereotype them; shut them out.

But – what if we could approach those others by simply sharing stories together – just as she and Jumana did. Recent scientific studies have concluded that when two humans sit down together, face to face, and share life experiences – something happens. First, there is an emotional connection; then a shift in cognitive thinking – because story allows us to “imagine” what it would be like to be that person – without surrendering our own beliefs. And eventually this process (and here, the process is more important than the story) can – if we stick with it – lead to compassion and an increased ability to deal with paradox; to accept the real complexities of the world all around us.


As I listened to Noa’s words, I thought about similar experiences in my own storytelling: bringing elders and young people together as “Story Buddies”; helping families bring two and three generations together at reunions through story; and using story to help teens and parents see one another in a new way. But the challenges in our highly polarized world are so great. Could I somehow use story as a tool in this terribly difficult environment? I honestly don’t know…but it’s something worth thinking about.

Note: The full text of this presentation can be found here:

I guarantee – an absorbing and thought-provoking experience.


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