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Master Of Stories Juices Up Classrooms David Novak, Elvis Of Storytellers Keeps Time Here With Kids

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Owen Brown and Ethan Scruggs listen as master storyteller David Novak claps out a beat with his hands, a beat that the children follow and use to be more engaged with the stories told. Novak's was at Harris Elementary as part of the Wolf Trap Institute

How do you tell the story of a storyteller?

David Novak has told stories at Spindale Elementary, Ellenboro Elementary, and most recently Harris Elementary through a program sponsored by the Wolf Trap Institute For Early Learning Through The Arts.

But wait a minute, that's not the story.

David Novak is an incredibly big deal, rock star storyteller who has been praised by Rolling Stone Magazine and The Smithsonian for his creativity, dramatic skill, energy, just a whole raft of good strong words that make him a little like Elvis.

And he has done his thing to the delight of school children all over Rutherford County.

Now, you're talking.

The Wolf Trap organization believes they can juice up learning among children at the very earliest stages by putting world class performing artists in preschools all over America. Roughly 100,000 children have been touched by the magic and imagination in this program so far.

Novak has been in each school between 11 and 12 times so far this school year and the impact of his work has been finer than frog hair.

In Karen von Biel's Harris classroom he had some mighty fidgety children paying attention, playing along with his rhythmic time keeping rituals and what he calls "classrooms traditions." It was a sight to behold.

How'd he do that?

The three and four year olds kept time with Novak as they patted their knees in time to his chanting about the sun coming out, saying "hello" and being together.

Novak has traveled the world performing for children and adults and has won awards for his work.

But none of that mattered when he kept time with a circle of 15 or so children in von Biel's classroom. And he involved the teacher and her assistant, Anita Carpenter, and the class's family advocate, Melissa Hammond.

He knew their names. It was hard to ignore the light in the children's eyes as this master storyteller, seated on his bottom in a circle with them, called their names.

He expressed empathy. When one child sounded frustrated at not getting a turn at the show and tell game, Novak sought to soothe the frustration with an understanding nod and acknowledgment. "It'll be your turn soon." There is a richness and kindness in his voice that communicates, "I'm on your side. We'll get through this together."

His hands, eyes, and facial expressions are always in motion. A lesser soul might get tired from just watching him.

Novak is clear about what is at stake. Today's teachers need effective tools to work with a student population that is often distracted and inattentive. Asking students to keep rhythm is one of the keys to holding their attention. A local science teacher said recently, "Today's teachers are competing with all kinds of electronic devices."

One of the chants Novak uses as his cadre beats out a rhythm is, "Listen to what I say," in time to the hands clapped on knees.

His sessions at Harris also included work with teacher Linda Kwasniewski and her assistant, Allyson Bradley.

He had high praise for all the staff he worked with saying the creativity of dramatic storytelling is allowing them to work with their charges in ways, "they have always wanted to."

If the whole thing sounds a bit silly, the silliness came shining through as teacher von Biel was spelled with a magic wand during a game of show and tell. She rolled her head and hair in a circle of pretend madness to the delight of her onlooking class.

And again if silliness feels a tad bit out of place, remember these are three and four-year-old children.

The show-and-tell game involves taking an ordinary object and imagining what it can be. One child made a fish from a strip of paper, another a headband and a third a snake. They often add sound effects to enhance the effect.

Another high moment in Novak's work comes at the end of his sessions. He takes lyrics from an old Pete Seeger song and using hand movements to engage the kids to chant with him, "One grain of sand. One drop of water. One little you. One little me makes one big family." The children both chant the song and use sign language to carry the universal theme.

Wolf Trap has engaged dance and music teachers to continue the program in local elementary schools and around the country. After all, what could be more important? Showing teachers and students the fun of stories, dances, and music might just prompt both groups to fall in love with school. Imagine that.

Novak is recipient of the Circle of Excellence for storytelling, and the Aurand Harris Memorial Playwrighting Award for excellence in professional theatre for children. David's 30+ year's experience as a performing and teaching artist includes a stint as Master Storyteller for The Disney Company, tours for The Lincoln Center Institute, L.A. Music Center, and as a featured storyteller for the National Storytelling Festival. His international appearances include the Czech Children's Theatre Festival, Sydney International Storytelling Conference, and international schools throughout China. He lives in Asheville.

Contact Pat Jobe at patjobe13@gmail.com.

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