The Magic of Storytelling at South Mountain Community College

LynnAnn Wojciechowicz
Innovation Showcase

Storytelling is the oldest form for communicating events, beliefs, traditions, values, and goals that people have. It is an interactive art form that relies on the relationship between the teller, the listener, and the story. Storytelling brings people together in community. The story of storytelling at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona, begins in the fall of 1994 when two faculty members, Lorraine Calbow and Liz Warren, attended a statewide Tellers of Tales conference where they experienced the magic of this ancient art form.

On returning to campus, Calbow was amazed when 14 of her co-workers told her about the importance of stories in their lives, so she convened them to share their stories. The enthusiastic group wanted to write a proposal for a storytelling grant. In the process of writing for the grant, the South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute was born under the direction of Calbow.

Money followed the excitement of storytelling. Over the next three years, the Maricopa Community College District provided close to $50,000 and over the next 10 years, the college provided $5,000 each year in carry-forward money and much more in in-kind costs, such as teachers' salaries, staff development funds, International/Intercultural funds, use of facilities, audiovisual equipment, plus other staff time such as maintenance, public relations, web page design, and audiovisual personnel. Two years ago, the college institutionalized the academic side of the Storytelling Institute by providing a $5,000 annual budget line and approving two faculty positions: one English/Storytelling and the other Humanities/Storytelling.

In October 1995, the storytelling program began with the first Fall Festival funded with matching funds by an Arizona Commission on the Arts grant, followed by intensive noncredit storytelling training for 45 faculty and staff members. In the spring of 1996, the Storytelling Institute offered its second Storytelling Festival. The demand grew for more storytelling classes. Our curriculum has grown from one three-credit class (The Art of Storytelling), to a 21-credit-hour program of study a year later, to our current 30-credit-hour Academic Certificate in Storytelling. In fall 2001, we offered six classes, serving 79 students. Then, in fall 2002, we doubled our offerings with 13 classes, serving 143 students with eight of the classes being late-start classes. We continue to grow and add new courses, such as Irish Storytelling, Bilingual Storytelling, and Using Storytelling in a Variety of Settings, which attract veteran as well as new students.

We also continue to work with our community. For three years, three SMCC storytellers offered story circles for docents working in a wide range of museums around Phoenix. This resulted in a one-credit Using Storytelling in Interpretive Settings class being offered at both the Arizona Historical Society Museum and the Phoenix Art Museum. Last summer, 12 members of the Univision television station sales staff took the one-credit Using Storytelling in Business Settings class at their location, just down the road from the college. Last year, the leader of the South Mountain Village asked our public relations director if they could have a storytelling activity on campus in November as part of their Festival of Thanksgiving celebration, and faculty coordinated a story circle activity for them. They were so pleased with the stories that were generated that faculty will facilitate a story circle this fall at a church next to a Neighborhood House in South Phoenix for a celebration of its 94 years of existence.

In the past two years, 11 people have achieved their Academic Certificate in Storytelling: one has a doctorate in psychology, four have master's degrees, two have bachelor's degrees, one received her associate's degree at the same time, and three have course work but no degrees beyond high school. Four of these graduates teach storytelling classes as adjunct faculty members for South Mountain Community College and our sister colleges in the Maricopa Community College District; a fifth will start teaching for SMCC in the spring 2007 term.

From the first year, people in our internal and external communities have come to our festivals and attended our classes and workshops. The Arizona Historical Society, Phoenix Art Museum, Pueblo Grande Museum, and other area museums, as well as the Phoenix Zoo, the Desert Botanical Garden, the Roosevelt School District, the WHEEL Council, Phoenix Elementary School District #1, Gila River Indian Reservation Schools, Paradise Valley Elementary Schools, City of Phoenix Head Start, Bookstar, Phoenix Public Library, and the Phoenix Aloha Festival have asked to partner and work with us.

Our first festival attracted an audience of 300, and each festival since then has averaged 200 to 300 in attendance. We select our regional and national storytellers to reflect our service community. Over the years, we have had Latino, African-American, Asian, Native-American, Caucasian, and Hawaiian storytellers. This fall we are featuring one of our own faculty members, Latino storyteller Ricardo Provencio, along with Pat Mendoza, a Cuban-American storyteller living in Colorado, for a Latino Storytelling Concert. In the spring, we are partnering with the Phoenix Aloha Festival for the second year to bring in a traditional Tongan teller, Emil Wolfgramm, along with a Japanese-Hawaiian teller, Kathy "Tita" Collins. Emil Wolfgramm is going to stay after the festival to offer a short-term, one-credit special projects class in Tongan and Polynesian myths.

The energy of the Storytelling Institute has been fueled by four residential faculty members. To stabilize the Storytelling Institute, the group held a retreat in January 2003 and hired a consultant to take them through a process to determine the direction of the institute. Vision, values, and mission statements for the SMCC Storytelling Institute were created. Our vision is education that cultivates the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual growth of each student because we value education of the whole person, storytelling as an effective teaching tool and as a transformative learning process, and the compassion, trust, and wisdom that evolve in a story-based education. Our mission is to teach and practice the art of storytelling in order to educate hearts and minds and develop community.

This fall, SMCC is embarking on the first stages of our self-study in preparation for our North Central Higher Learning Commission Accreditation Review in 2009. Our vice president of academic affairs approached two of the institute's faculty members to ask for their help in gaining faculty support for using narrative in the report that will be written. They designed a story circle activity for all residential faculty members during the vice president's meeting with them on the first day of accountability. She set the tone by telling the faculty her story of her passion for higher education, particularly in the community college, and what brought her to her current position at South Mountain. Faculty members were then put in groups of eight with a storytelling facilitator and given the opportunity to share their stories of why they teach and why they are at SMCC. The facilitators then asked faculty to share common themes that emerged in the circles, and these were recorded. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Our goals of achieving community among residential faculty and developing a positive attitude toward our self-study were achieved.

We continue to pursue our foundational goals, established in 1995:

  1. To enhance teaching and learning through storytelling;
  2. To recruit and train people who are interested in becoming storytellers;
  3. To develop community interest in storytelling as a means for connecting and bridge building in the South Mountain community; and
  4. To provide opportunities for professional and personal growth through storytelling.

LynnAnn Wojciechowicz is Director of the South Mountain Community College (AZ) Storytelling Institute.

This article first appeard in the October 2006 issue of Learning Abstracts.