Making storytelling a shared, interactive learning experience


March 01, 2002|By Betsy Diehl | Betsy Diehl,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

IT SEEMS obvious that a good storyteller would be good with words. But for raconteur Baba Jamal Koram, words are only part of the story. During his two one-hour presentations of African folktales at Laurel Woods Elementary School last week, Koram communicated via assorted languages, songs, musical instruments and gestures.

Koram mesmerized pupils and teachers even before he uttered a word. Dressed in a cobalt blue Nigerian outfit adorned with ornate gold designs, he thumped his jembe drum as the children filed into the auditorium. Without prompting or instruction from teachers, the youngsters began to clap rhythmically along, until Koram had everyone's undivided attention without so much as a "hush!" or a "quiet!"

"To the general eye, it's just playing the instrument," explained Koram, 52, after the first performance Feb. 21. "There's a deeper significance. Rhythm creates unity. We establish order in the beginning. We create a silent contract. I'm the teller and they're the listener."

If you imagined a room full of sleepy listeners nodding off to the drone of a familiar bedtime story, you're in for a surprise. Koram's intonation fluctuated between boisterous and serene, at times bursting into a booming song or barely whispering. The children followed his cue, getting up and dancing and playing African instruments - such as shakers and agogo bells - when asked, then listening intently at quieter moments.

"I want them to understand the storytelling process; when to speak, when to call out," Koram said. "I set up the storytelling environment so that it's shared."

The atmosphere was truly interactive - Koram paused every now and then during tale-telling to ask questions of his young listeners. Just when he seemed to be going off track, he would weave the diverging pieces together to finish the yarn.

When the children got overexcited, Koram calmly reeled everyone back in with an echo technique he learned in Ghana on one of his eight sojourns to Africa: "Ago," he chanted as a call for order, to which the children responded, "Ame," as a signal of acknowledgement and respect. After a few repetitions, order was restored and Koram moved onto his next tale.

Koram, a native of Westchester County, N.Y., lives in Alexandria, Va. He has been a professional storyteller since 1980, when he was a student at the University of Virginia, studying to be a school administrator. "A teacher came and asked me to go in the schools with her for Black History Month," he said. Koram so enjoyed it that the following year he put his own program together and embarked on his storytelling career.

Laurel Woods Principal Rosanne Wilson first saw Koram perform for pupils about eight years ago, when she was principal at Stafford Elementary School in Virginia. "Jamal offers so much," she said. "I think they learn a lot without even realizing it. They walk away rejuvenated and with knowledge."

For Koram, storytelling is part of a lifelong quest for knowledge and wisdom. "It's not just what I do, it's who I am. It's deeper than just telling the stories - it's a motivating, healing, problem-solving function," he said. "It's a two-way process, and we all enjoy it."

Lively silent auction

How about getting a great deal on a week in the Shenandoah Mountains, or on a pair of preseason tickets to see the Redskins? These are a couple of items that will go to the highest bidder at Bollman Bridge Elementary School PTA's Silent Auction from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. March 8 in the Great Room at Historic Savage Mill.

The adults-only event, catered by Putting on the Ritz, will feature an auction emceed by magic man Dean Turner. Other items on the block include a day at Laurel Park racetrack, a guest appearance as a weather presenter on television news, and a Maryland state flag, donated by former Bollman Bridge PTA executive board member Sandra B. Schrader.

Tickets are $5 in advance; $7 at the door, and include complimentary hors d'oeuvres and a beverage. A cash bar will also be available. Proceeds will be used for PTA programs at the school.

Information: 410-888-9151.

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