For 35 years now, the Wren’s Nest has presented professional storytellers at the house and at schools and community centers across Georgia. That’s a lot of storytelling! This summer, we’re adding a plot twist: We’ve asked our regular storytellers to tell us about their stories and to talk about their craft.
Starting this week and continuing every other week into August, we’ll post interview videos with our storytellers on our YouTube channel and website. Chetter Galloway is first up on Wednesday, followed by Gwendolyn J. Napier on July 22, Esther Culver on August 5, and Akbar Imhotep on August 19. They’ll talk about how they first discovered storytelling, how they came to the Wren’s Nest, how they frame Uncle Remus stories for modern audiences, what other kinds of folklore they mix in to their performances, and interesting experiences they’ve had as they present the adventures of Brer Rabbit and other critters.
You’ll hear some surprises. Akbar Imhotep, who has been telling stories at the Nest since the fall of 1985, confided that he didn’t know a single Brer Rabbit tale when he began. After several months of telling African folklore tales, it was gently suggested to him that perhaps he should learn a few Uncle Remus stories. He’s been performing them ever since. You’ll also hear Chetter Galloway talk about the one story by Joel Chandler Harris that he avoids telling because it’s too easy to misinterpret. Can you guess which one?
The Wren’s Nest has contracted with numerous storytellers over the past four decades. It has been one of the best things we do to make our legacy come to life and connect this institution with the tales that made the Joel Chandler Harris home a museum in the first place. We are so pleased that you can finally hear some of these talented artists talk about their lives and work. It was fun doing these interviews.
We hope you’ll enjoy listening to them.
In the strange, tumultuous months since The Wren’s Nest closed to the public in March, our 100-plus-year-old institution has had to adapt and change repeatedly. One of those adaptations has been taking our programs virtual — including our regular Saturday storytelling. And, we have to say, these performances have certainly been a silver lining for us!
While Joel Chandler Harris may be the reason The Wren’s Nest was preserved as a museum, at the heart of our history and our mission is storytelling. We love our Saturday storytelling and the opportunity they provide to share these tales in the form in which they were originally told. We hated the idea of discontinuing them during our closure.
So we adapted. And on Saturday, April 18, we launched the first virtual storytelling session, livestreaming the performance on our Facebook page at 1 PM (our regular storytelling hour). Visitors to our page could watch, comment, and share in realtime. We are very grateful to our regular Wren’s Nest storyteller Chetter Galloway for agreeing to be our first guinea pig for the experiment.
Since then, we’ve had 10 online storytelling performances with eight different professional storytellers ,with another scheduled this Saturday with Wren’s Nest storyteller Gwendolyn J. Napier. You can find all the performances on our website or YouTube channel.
Virtual storytelling has created exciting opportunities for us. First, we can now share the stories that entertained, inspired and taught so many (including Harris) to a wider audience than ever before. We can also introduce them to new audiences who may not have had access to Wren’s Nest storytelling in Atlanta.
Second, we were fortunate enough to receive a matching grant from the City of Atlanta to help fund this program. In this fundraising campaign, the City of Atlanta has agreed to match each $1 up to $2,000. The campaign ends tomorrow, Wednesday, June 24th and we hope you will consider donating. All donations will go directly to supporting the professional storytellers performing for virtual storytelling.
Third — and perhaps the most exciting opportunity for me personally — we have had the chance to share the talents of some professional storytellers who are new to us. With virtual storytelling, we reached out to the Kuumba Storytellers of Georgia and the Southern Order of Storytellers to enlist new performers for the virtual program. It’s been a delight to see the different, but equally talented performing styles and to infuse new stories into our Saturday storytelling. In addition to our beloved Brer Rabbit stories, we had a performance of a Nigerian folktale from Gloria Elder called “Why the Sky is Far Away.” We also had a performance from Barry Stewart Mann of a trickster tale called, “Coyote and Mouse,” which originates from the Native American and Hispanic traditions of Northwestern Mexico and the Southwestern United States. Stewart Mann even incorporated Spanish into the story, teaching our audience (and honestly, me) some new Spanish vocabulary.
But we are forever grateful to our Wren’s Nest storytellers for jumping on board with this program. Our regular storytellers — Esther Culver, Chetter Galloway, Akbar Imhotep, Gwendolyn J. Napier — have helpfully rolled with the new circumstances, figuring out how to do their performances online and, in some cases, mastering new technologies to make it happen. We are lucky to have them on our team.
And we want you to get to know them better. So in addition to continuing with Saturday virtual storytelling this summer, The Wren’s Nest will be sharing interviews with our storytellers. The interviews will be released every other Wednesday starting on July 8, culminating in a longer interview with Akbar Imhotep in celebration of his 35 years of storytelling at The Wren’s Nest!
As summer begins and reopening remains uncertain, we are glad we still have storytelling to look forward to on Saturdays.
In January, when we asked students in our Scribes writing program to pick a topic for their stories, we suggested that since it was 2020, they look 20 years ahead and describe the world of the near future. Our students are middle-schoolers and love science fiction, so many of them imagined doomsday scenarios involving meteors and climate disasters.
We had no idea how eerie it would all seem in a few weeks.
Scribes is one of the best things we do at the Wren’s Nest. Every year, we recruit media professionals to mentor middle-school students at the KIPP Strive Academy, a public charter school that occupies the former Joel Chandler Harris Elementary School building near our home in the West End neighborhood of Atlanta. Lain Shakespeare, our former executive director, started the program in 2010. More than 125 students and more than 110 different mentors — writers, academics, journalists, PR people — have participated. This is our 10th anniversary year.
My wife, Pam, and I — both semi-retired journalists — directed this year’s program in consultation with KIPP English teacher Celeste Clark. Twenty-five students and 15 mentors signed up. We would meet every Thursday after school and spend an hour working with the students, getting to know them, helping them choose their topics, talking about storytelling, critiquing their early drafts in Google Docs. You could feel the enthusiasm.
Then the pandemic struck.
We had just finished our March 12 session when the Atlanta school system announced that all classrooms would be closed because of the coronavirus. We were seven weeks into a 12-week course, and we weren’t sure whether we could continue.
We tried to mentor our students online. But as any teacher in America can tell you now, distance learning, while better than nothing, pales in comparison to classroom instruction. Some of our Scribes had internet connectivity issues. Many were distracted by the strangeness of trying to work in a shelter-at-home environment. Some no doubt saw it as an extended snow day.
The goal of Scribes is to produce a collection of stories that the Wren’s Nest publishes in a book. We’ve put out 10 Scribes volumes since 2010 — that’s last year’s cover on the left. Every Labor Day weekend, we host a launch party for the students and their families at the Decatur Book Festival, one of the largest and best book festivals in the country. I’ve been to many of these parties and have never tired of watching bright middle-schoolers become published authors for the first time.
It’s going to be different this year. More than half of the students have not finished their stories, so we don’t have enough content for a traditional book. Nor is the book festival likely to take place as it usually does, with tens of thousands of people roaming the streets and crowding assembly halls and church sanctuaries to hear authors talk. There will be no book launch party for our Scribes and their families this year.
So we’re doing what we can to celebrate these student authors. We’re editing the stories we have, choosing excerpts from some of the incomplete ones, and publishing samples of their work on the Wren’s Nest website in the coming weeks. It isn’t what we planned, but we’ve all had to change plans of late.
We promise these stories won’t be too apocalyptic. One of the unfinished ones, for instance, was going to describe a world overrun with giant cats. The working title: “Cat-pocalypse.”
“I don’t really remember much about my mom.” That’s the beginning of Amien Hicks’ short story – and I think it’s a grabber. Amien is a student at KIPP STRIVE Academy in Atlanta. I was his mentor last spring in a writing program called Scribes.
Fourteen middle school students wrote short pieces of historical fiction on inventors of color, and Amien was assigned George Washington Carver. He started with Carver’s childhood, when slave raiders stole his mother, and moved through his struggles to obtain an education. Carver overcame racism at every step to become an inventor, college professor, and the most famous African-American of his time. Other Scribes wrote about Garrett Morgan, inventor of the traffic signal, and Charles Drew, who pioneered methods for storing blood plasma for transfusion.
This was the fifth student I’ve mentored, and every time has been an eye opener. Not all the stories are historical fiction. With an agriculture theme, my Scribe wrote about a budding peach tree that blossomed despite being bullied by other trees. When the subject was Atlanta institutions, my student wrote about a CNN reporter who turns back an alien attack on New York City. Yes, their imaginations know no limits.
The Wren’s Nest, the Joel Chandler Harris residence that’s now a museum in West End Atlanta, created and sponsors the Scribes program. Harris, author of the Uncle Remus tales, lived in the Queen Anne style home until his death in 1908.
The mentoring program pairs writing professionals, or adults who simply love to write, with middle school students. The mentor spends around an hour a week for a dozen weeks working with the student in a writing lab at KIPP STRIVE Academy or Brown Middle School – both Atlanta public schools in West End. Mentors have been teachers, journalists, college students majoring in English or journalism, social media managers for corporations and public broadcast writers.
How deeply involved does a mentor become? That depends on the student. Kalin Thomas, the program director, provides daily goals for each session, so nobody goes off track. My last Scribe is a confident writer, so mainly I helped with the online research and made minor grammar fixes. Some of my other charges procrastinated, tried to play computer games or agonized over every phrase. Sound familiar? Mentors see a lot of themselves in these young writers.
A few months after my mentoring duties ended, I saw Amien again at the Decatur Book Festival. The Scribes’ stories had been bound together into a softcover book titled “Bright Ideas,” and a launch party was held in a hotel ballroom. The Scribes sat down at a long table and their parents and friends lined up to get books autographed. These middle school students had achieved something special. They were published authors. It was a proud moment for the Scribes – and for me. Being a mentor is not without sacrifice, and not every student is easy. But every session has been gratifying. The Wren’s Nest always needs mentors, so if you’re interested, contact Kalin Thomas here. If you’d like to hear more about my experiences, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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