A respected storyteller and echoer of the oral tradition of the First Nations, Dovie Thomason is truly a treat to behold. Weaving together traditional lore of the Kiowa Apache, tales of her father, and stories from her work with NASA, Dovie captivates our students. To illustrate the degree to which our students took to Dovie, this conversation took place over an hour after the end of her performance because of the sheer number of students who just wanted a few moments to meet and thank her.
What has been your experience interacting with students at Explo this summer, both during your presentation and in the courses you visited?
The students are extremely willing to trust and go anywhere. They gave a lot of clues about being moral, ethical, having values... they were just throwing clues out again and again. Give us that, give us this, give us that. They were quite rich. There's always this wonderful moment when you get three boys, like the ones in the front row who like sarcasm and Oscar Wilde. Who knew! Who would have known they would sit there and have a fanboy kind of moment with a woman in her mid-60s. "You're so cool!" That's so cool that they think that.
What do you enjoy most about working with students in this age group?
I talk to a lot of storytellers that don't want to go anywhere near this age group, but I think they're the best. They have enough family values, and experience, and culture, as well as 10 years or more of influential teachers, scout leaders, family members... other adults who have been influential, or inspirational, or who have affected them in some way. They are looking for other adults to model from who aren't family. They're building selves — they are actively building selves. In psychology, they call it individuating. They are taking the step beyond clan, family, blood relation, neighborhood, religion, gender, and are starting to step out into it. "I'm in the class of 2016, and I'm in the marching band, and I read Sci-Fi." They're starting to take these things and their parents can no longer influence them in the same way because they can filter now.
If I say something, they're comparing me sometimes to a mother, but I am their grandparent's age (which is kind of cool!). I'm a safe person. I'm asking them to be principled. I'm not asking them to agree with me, but I'm asking them to be principled and to be thoughtful, and to question, and to be analytical, and to be passionate. And they want to hear it! They don't find that awkward, or corny, or like a motivational speaker from high school or anything like that. They take it differently. I think it's because it's sandwiched with story. I go out of it into metaphor, and then come back, and then back out. It used to be that i just did story, story, story, story, story with nothing in between.
How has the way you tell stories changed over the years?
Gaining more confidence in the last 10 years especially, the in-between is me intuiting what is going on in the room before it comes up. It's about good teaching... but for me it's also good performance (and being able to read your audience). "She's puzzled, she's nervous, he's too cool for school but I got him anyway." In performance art, that's called breaking the fourth wall. I'm not a safe performer; I'm vulnerable. I throw it open to whatever they're after. I can also reach out and say, "you liked that, right?" I'd say I learned that performing, but I first learned it in classrooms. You had to know what 30 people are doing. You had to know, if you wanted to be responsive to them. "Did I lose you? Are you with me? Was that confusing?" I understand! I can get confusing, let's do it again. At one point I asked if I lost somebody and the one girl said "Yes!" And I knew it, I could feel it. There was a little, "what is she talking about?"
So as a storyteller, when you're in the middle of a story or performance, how are you able to change tacks and make sure everyone is following you while still remaining true to the story you're telling?
I'm a non-linear thinker and I work on it. I value it because that is a world view I think is helpful for me, and certainly traditional, but what does it look like in the 21st century? It looks sort of manic-y sometimes. It's about teaching, though. It's about making proper connections. The thing that students face, and I've seen it come along, is that kind of blast of information. How do you make sense without getting numb and dulled to too much information, too many factoids, too many bursts of energy, without ever saying, "Stop! Is that real? How do we know? What does that mean?" So in a way, part of what I'm doing all the time is modeling connections.
I also contextualize fast. I hit a word and if there's puzzle — contextualize. I speak a lot in parallel construction. I saw it, I say it again. I say it once, I say it another way. Double words: I use it, then I define it, but never in a condescending way. I usually come in with a tandem word that's just as fancy and then it's contextualized. Nobody feels dumb that they didn't know what I was saying. I do that when I'm working with 4-year-olds. I do that when I'm working with adults. It is the core value of respect that is inherent in storytelling, that's inherent in any kind of teaching. I have to respect their capacity to learn, otherwise I'm going to be sloppy. You have to respect that the people coming over for dinner have had good food before, so you prepare for that. I figure, they're bright in many different ways, in many subjects, with different goals and outcomes in the future. They're bright and they're able. I certainly believe that they're stardust, they're good people who will care about good things and they know that. And I just get such a kick out of them. They're just such a kick.