Spellbinders has revived a near-lost oral art for the iPhone generation by sending older storytellers into the classroom. A local chapter is dedicated to Cherry Creek Schools. Photo courtesy of Spellbinders
BY PETER JONES
In an age where it is difficult to sever kids from electronic devices, a group of retirees has somehow revived the near-lost art of oral storytelling.
The iPhone is usually a tough act to follow for a generation that has never known life without the internet, but these seniors are not just storytellers—they are spellbinders.
“What has surprised me is how rapt the students get from kindergarten all the way up to eighth-graders. We have their attention,” said 64-year-old Cathy Lichty, who pulls up a chair and spins yarns in Cherry Creek classrooms several times a month.
Whether the story is a fictionalized historical account or an ageless tall tale from Asia, Lichty will spice the foundational narrative with spontaneous flair, character and audience interaction.
“Because we are telling—not reading—a story, we are always recreating it from memory and imagination as we tell it each time,” Lichty said.
The retired business trainer, who spent a career telling stories of another kind, is one of many mostly-older volunteers who have found their latest act in the classroom. Spellbinders is a growing association of trained storytellers who have recharged the ancient tradition while fostering intergenerational bonds with 21st century children.
“That brings tremendous benefits to both the children and the storytellers,” Lichty said. “So many of the children have very little interaction with people in a senior generation. You walk into a class and you have all these faces just light up. For the seniors, it keeps you active and alert, keeps you learning new things and interacting with young people.”
Spellbinders was founded in association with Denver Public Schools in the late 1980s and has since birthed chapters in school districts ranging from south metro’s Cherry Creek Schools to across the United States and Canada.
Volunteers commit to about 12 hours of training, then enter a mentoring period before soloing in the classroom without benefit of a book or notes, much less a PowerPoint demonstration.
Lichty, who also serves as a Spellbinding trainer, stresses that the stories, which range from the common folk tale to the contemporary slice of life, are not memorized per se, but learned—and often embellished—in the classic oral tradition.
“Once a storyteller knows the basics of the story, then it’s a matter of seeing the characters and the setting in their mind and describing what they’re seeing. That way, it’s creative each time they tell it,” Lichty said.
More experienced Spellbinders are given leeway to relate stories of their own histories or even spin new fiction right on the spot, oftentimes in collaboration with students, who range from kindergarten to middle school. The same storyteller goes back to the same class each month, developing an ongoing relationship with the kids.
Middle-schoolers are not as tough a crowd for storytelling as one might expect, Lichty said, once they realize that stories are not just for the little kids anymore.
“Maybe the first session they have to figure out who you are and what you’re doing, but after that it’s great,” the five-year veteran said.
Spellbinders is always looking for new volunteers. Although the program is more popular among seniors, there are no age restrictions. The youngest storyteller is in his early 30s. A background check is required.
“It’s usually people who are somewhat outgoing and feel a little creative,” Lichty said. “So you get these people together and start encouraging them and fostering them to use their creativity, and it’s a great deal of fun.”
The whole experience has also been useful training for Lichty, a new grandmother who will soon be at the ready with a wide range of bedtime stories.
“My oldest granddaughter is not quite 2 yet, so they’re not the best audience for my stories yet, but I still tell them,” she said with a laugh.
Those interested in volunteering are encouraged to visit spellbinders.org.
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