Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

December 13, 2006:


Susan Danoff ’75

Listening to a storyteller, says Susan Danoff ’75, can lead to a love of learning and reading. (Courtesy Susan Danoff ’75)

Susan 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. P

By K.F.G.