To read - by telling stories

School tries novel method to encourage love of books

June 13, 1999|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

For children with dyslexia or other learning disabilities, reading can be a difficult, tedious struggle.

But a thrilling yarn by a professional storyteller might awaken an excitement about books and a desire to read in those struggling with the written word.

That's the hope of educators at the Valley Academy, a Towson private school for children with learning disabilities. In an effort to inspire its students to become avid readers, the school, with a grant from the Margaret Alexander Edwards Trust, invited storytellers this year to share their legends and folklore.

"Storytellers encourage reading and make it fun for the students," said Helen Armiger, development director at the academy, which serves a unique mission in the Baltimore metropolitan area as a college preparatory school for students in grades five through 12 with "learning differences."

"Oral stories enhance their listening skills, develop imagination and enlarge vocabulary," Armiger said.

Recently, storyteller Candace Wolf shared with students a chilling tale of murder from North Carolina, an adaptation of a West African folk tale, an Alabama ghost story, a Japanese legend and a Civil War tale of heroism.

"One of my main goals is to promote literacy in its broadest sense through a love for stories and an inquiring open-mindedness in the people who listen to them," Wolf said.

Wolf, 49, of Takoma Park said she has traveled around the globe collecting stories -- from migrant Gypsies in Europe, fishermen on the Canary Islands, goat herders in Italy, coal miners in Appalachia and rice farmers in Indonesia. She has also gathered tales in Mexican marketplaces and the coffeehouses and inns of Jerusalem.

"Even in our high-tech era there's nothing like the spoken word," Wolf said. "Stories have the power to inspire a love for language and can reach people of all levels of ability and personality."

Students listened to her stories and participated in creating and acting out their improvised tales.

"I thought Candace Wolf was amazing," said Holly Utz, 14, an eighth-grader who played a role in one of the improvisational skits. "She used a lot of drama when she was telling her stories. I have a ton of books at home and I already have a bit of a knack for reading. She's encouraged me to try some new levels of reading."

While learning to read may be a struggle for some Valley Academy students, once they have mastered the skill they often become avid readers and "a whole world opens up before them," Armiger said.

"Reading used to be hard for me, but I just kept on reading and reading and I finally got it," said eighth-grader Marjorie Edlow, 15. "I like reading mysteries and love stories. It's fun and you can learn a lot of neat stuff from reading. Sometimes if I already read a book, I read it again because I liked it so much."

Valley Academy is the only school in the Baltimore area serving students beyond eighth grade who have the learning disorders dyslexia, dysgraphia or dyscalculia (reading, writing and math, respectively), auditory perceptual difficulties and attention deficit disorder.

Its 93 students are divided into classes of four to seven, where they have a highly individualized curriculum, individual attention and specialized teaching methods designed to prepare them for college. The academy says nearly all go on to college. Tuition is $15,000 per year.

"Many of our students may struggle with language but they may be gifted in other areas such as science," Armiger said.

At Chesapeake and Bosley avenues, near the heart of Towson, the campus includes two buildings -- an old white house for administrative offices and the middle school, and a former nursing home used for the high school program.

Enrollment has doubled in the past few years and the school has a waiting list for students. Valley Academy is embarking on a $3 million fund-raising drive to expand its facilities and increase enrollment to as many as 150 children, Armiger said.

The Margaret Alexander Edwards Trust, which provided the grant for the storyteller program, was established in the will of a former Enoch Pratt Free Library official who worked with young adults for 30 years and left the bulk of her estate "to further the personal reading of young adults."

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