Nonprofit Spotlight: Spellbinders keeps the art of verbal storytelling alive |

Nonprofit Spotlight: Spellbinders keeps the art of verbal storytelling alive

Caitlin Causey
Post Independent Correspondent
Spellbinders storyteller Norma Barr tells stories at Crystal River Elementary School.
Provided |

Which came first, the story or the words to tell it?

Although this sounds like some kind of riddle, the question is a very real one that many experts continue to ponder. It’s still unknown whether the words of early man gave rise to stories or whether stories acted as the seeds of language itself.

“Neurologists have actually looked into this quite deeply in studying ancient skulls,” said Catherine Johnson, executive director of Spellbinders, a national oral storytelling organization based at the Third Street Center in Carbondale. “They know that humans have been telling stories for at least 300,000 years — but there definitely is a lingering debate about the emergence of verbal language and ancient storytelling.”

Despite remaining questions about historical specifics, one thing remains clear: The telling of tales is as old as mankind itself.

“Research has shown that the human brain is literally hard-wired for story,” Johnson said. “It processes all incoming information in story form, so this is something we take pretty seriously within Spellbinders.”

The organization hopes to convey the importance of oral storytelling to younger generations as an essential component of our shared human experience. With 12 chapters statewide and more in New York, Kentucky and even Ontario, Canada, the organization’s corps of volunteer storytellers works primarily with children in preschool and elementary grades.

“At Spellbinders our mission is to build literacy and strengthen interpersonal connection,” Johnson noted. “The stories we tell impart vocabulary, but also the wisdom and humor of the ages. It’s just a great way to connect kids with other cultures and expose them to role models, both in the stories and in the people who are telling the stories. It builds eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart connections.”

Spellbinders, which began as a small Denver Public Schools pilot program in 1988, was founded by Germaine Dietsch, who at 51 years old had just earned a master’s degree in theatre arts and a certificate in gerontology.

She wanted to find a way to lessen the disconnect between the generations, and ultimately formed the organization as a way for seniors to remain active in the community. Today, Spellbinders storytellers are still predominantly of retirement age and can choose to tell fables, folktales or even personal narratives crafted from their own life stories.

“We encourage anyone of any age who would like to tell stories to get in touch, but the majority of our volunteers are older,” Johnson said. “We do special trainings, so even if they don’t have experience with this kind of thing we can help them along. We provide the resources, and we just need them to have the enthusiasm and the heart for bringing this art form to children.”

Johnson stressed that for students, the experience of oral storytelling differs from simply reading a book or attending a theater performance. Storytellers are trained to learn the bones of a tale, but each of their sessions will differ according to how each one interacts with his or her audience.

“Plus, oral storytelling helps kids improve understanding of all four of the language arts: reading, writing, speaking and listening,” she said. “Improvement in any one of these areas increases skill level in the other three.”

In addition to the Spellbinders national headquarters in Carbondale, the valley benefits from a local chapter that has served schools in both the Aspen and Roaring Fork school districts for roughly 16 years. Led by former children’s librarian Ann Sinton, the 33-member group currently includes 20 active storytellers.

“We encourage our storytellers to get in the classroom at least once a month, but some of our volunteers enjoy helping with administrative work,” Sinton noted. “Right now we are actively seeking new storytellers to replace those who have retired and to be available whenever a teacher makes a request.”

Both Johnson and Sinton would love to see more chapters opened in the surrounding areas.

“It takes a grassroots effort to start up a Spellbinders chapter,” Johnson said. “But it is incredibly rewarding work. We would love to develop a greater presence in the western end of Garfield County, and would love to see a new chapter in Eagle County as well.”

Sinton also envisions expanding the age range of students served by the Roaring Fork Valley chapter.

“I would love to eventually see us begin working with middle and high school students someday,” she said. “Stories can of course open the door to improved literacy for older kids too, so reaching out to them would be a goal of mine.”

Today, the world consumes stories of all kinds conveyed in a dizzying array of mediums: film, literature, video games, comics, podcasts, TV shows, social media and so many others.

However, Johnson asserts that oral storytelling is the age-old predecessor of them all, and its preservation has become especially important in our tech-centric contemporary culture.

“Why is oral storytelling still relevant today? The answer is simple: because we didn’t evolve with screens. Storytelling in oral form is one of the most basic forms of human interaction,” Johnson said. “And it is imperative that we share this tradition with the young people in our communities — instilling the common values of humanity across time, continents and cultures to expand their worldviews and show them that they are a part of something so much bigger.”

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