The Storytellers’ Student Workshop At Johnson Elementary School
Officially, the city of Athens has to wait til next fall for the Storytellers’ Festival to invade our town and send kids and adults alike into gales of laughter, with perhaps the shedding of a tear or two. What started off six years ago as something about which kids had doubts, has now turned into one of the most anticipated events of the school year.
Because of the fundraising work of Rep. Dan Williams, recently students at Johnson Elementary School had a rare treat: they got to have a weeklong intensive workshop with Bobby and Sherry Norfolk, where they broke into the art of storytelling.
I received the following letter from Johnson Library Media Specialist Nanci Spears, inviting me to come and see what the Norfolks were up to:
“As you know, students in our third, fourth, and fifth grades attended
the Storytelling Festival last week to listen and observe the art form
of storytelling. We are very excited that Johnson Elementary was given
funding by State Representative, Dan Williams, to take advantage of what
they were just exposed to at the Festival by following the Storytelling
Festival with a Teller-in-Residence school program. Students will hear
stories being told and learn to re-tell them in large groups, small
groups and individually. Bobby and Sherry Norfolk, who performed for the
students, will be at Johnson Elementary this week- beginning today!
Prior to arriving, Sherry collaborated with our teachers to ensure that
information and activities provided are in-line with the Alabama
curriculum standards. Sherry will engage students in the content and
then deepen their understanding of the content by spending one hour a
day in each classroom for five days. Bobby Norfolk will end the week by
performing stories specific to each grade level’s project content.
Educators in others schools, who have used the Norfolks, report that
writing produced in this way is far superior to students’ usual
efforts. Also, students’ scores are much higher on statewide
standardized creative writing tests. More than that, students are
excited about their stories, proud of their results, and motivated to
I would love for you to visit JES any day this week to observe our
classrooms since this has never been done in Limestone County or Athens
City Schools! If you would like to come on Friday, Bobby will be
performing and Representative Williams will be here to observe the
classrooms. Please let me know if you plan to come.
By the way, thank you for the wonderful article you wrote promoting the
So I took Miss Nanci up on her kind invitation, and had a delightful morning watching wondrous things unfold on several fronts. First, I got a chance to chat with teller-in-residence Bobby Norfolk, who overcame stuttering as a child through the patient individualized attention of teachers and drama coaches. As a young adult Bobby was working for the Park Service, attended a Storytelling event, knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, and as an extra bonus met his wife Sherry, who also wanted to be a “teller” full time. Bobby has gone on to win Emmys, and his effect on the Johnson students and staff alike was mesmerizing. Sherry is not one whit behind him, and having heard them both at the Storytellers’ Student event was pure delight.
They both are funny, engaging, do amazing sound effects, draw in the kids, keep their attention, and cause them to participate in the story, all the while knowing little of what was coming their way ahead of time. Bobby’s version of “The Bremen Town Musicians,” performed in the Johnson Elementary Library was unforgettable. All of that is well and good, but as a former educator, I get concerned when kids are just entertained, no matter how skillfully. But that is not at all what happened at the workshop.
The students spent all week learning from the Norfolks how to write stories, tell stories, refine stories, and become comfortable performing them in front of their classmates. Sherry moderated in the class room, along with each teacher, and the kids were truly in their element while improving every aspect of their language arts and team building skills.
One 5th grade girl gathered a team of her classmates and had them perform as various animals. She even had her friend prove to be most convincing as a worm. The kids and teachers gave positive feedback after each performance, and I could have stayed all day.
Many thanks to Rep. Williams for having the vision for this project, and to Nanci Spears for inviting me. I hope this becomes an annual adjunct to the Storytellers’ Festival, and that scores of Limestone County students get to have the opportunity for years to come to improve their language skills in such joyous surroundings.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner