to a storyteller, says Susan Danoff ’75, can lead to
a love of learning and reading. (Courtesy Susan Danoff ’75)
Danoff ’75 Bringing stories to life
Susan Danoff ’75 has seen time and again how listening to
a storyteller can pull a child into the world of words and literature.
By “storyteller,” Danoff isn’t referring to
someone who simply reads a story from a book. Instead, storytellers
retell folktales and stories from mythology without using any books.
They reinterpret the tales by adding dialogue or changing details,
for example. They gesture with their hands and bodies as if they
are reliving the tales themselves.
Danoff has resurrected the ancient tradition of oral storytelling
through Storytelling Arts, a nonprofit organization she founded
in 1996 that is based near Princeton. Each year Danoff and her crew
of storytellers, including Tara McGowan ’90 and Joanne Epply-Schmidt
’82, work with students in 10 to 20 low-income urban school
districts in New Jersey such as Trenton, Ewing, Passaic, and Roselle,
conducting 15 to 30 sessions in a classroom per year.
Before founding Storytelling Arts, Danoff, who majored in East
Asian studies and taught writing at Princeton from 1982 to 1992,
had been a freelance storyteller for the New Jersey State Council
on the Arts. She saw how children, many of whom had poor literacy
skills, were drawn to the experience of listening to stories and
responding to them through discussion, retelling, and writing. “They
couldn’t wait to hear the stories,” she says. By retelling
stories, students gained confidence, says Danoff.
Determined to make storytelling more than an occasional activity,
she founded Storytelling Arts so that more students could have a
long-term storyteller. Her storytellers also train teachers to become
storytellers themselves. Storytelling can transform a classroom
environment by encouraging better student-teacher relationships
and helping build community and trust, she says.
Several Princeton alumni have been involved with Storytelling
Arts’ board of directors. Elliott Lee ’74 *86 was the
organization’s first board president. Currently on the board
are Gordon (Sandy) Millspaugh ’56 and Daniel Gardiner ’56.
Epply-Schmidt has brought storytelling into Mercer County’s
Youth Detention Center, which temporarily houses teenagers who have
been charged with crimes. One day after she had told a Haitian story,
an illiterate boy with a broken front tooth volunteered to retell
it. With emotion and great detail, he reset the story on his own
street and changed it into a story about a drug deal. “Everyone
was so impressed,” says Epply-Schmidt. “He had gone
from being a nobody to a person of great wisdom.”
With storytelling, you might see “a light go on in a student,”
says Danoff. Recently, a former Trenton public school student e-mailed
her out of the blue to tell her how much she had changed his life
by teaching him 20 years ago how to tell stories. He has earned
two bachelor’s degrees and is engaged. He even reminded Danoff
what his favorite story had been: The Five Chinese Brothers.