History/MyStory/OurStory: Crafting and Telling Historical Stories

PAEP believes everyone has a story to to tell. With a new pilot program, History/MyStory/OurStory, focused on using storytelling, folk arts, oral performance, we hope that the traditional storytelling practices will be integrated into arts-based curricula across the city. In the process, we hope to educate students on the history of slavery, and show the ways in which these practices offered these people a chance to build communities.

The program began during the the 2010-2011 school year, and was helmed by Denise Valentine, an accomplished Philadelphia storyteller, educator and writer, who partnered with Cliveden House, a local historical mansion in Germantown and the home of seven generations of Chew family members, to bring archival primary source documents to high school students at Lankenau Environmental Science Magnet School.

As Valentine described, “We attempted, through storytelling, to illuminate the individual lives of the enslaved Africans, drawing from African and African American folklore, culture and oral history to fill in what has been lost to distortion and neglect. The hope is to give a sense of the agency and dignity with which they faced the institution of slavery as they struggled to raise their families and build community.”

The lessons married social studies, science and math to examine the many facets of slavery, attempting to “address untruths and misconceptions about slavery.” In this process, Valentine attempted to engage students in a meaningful dialogue about slavery. As she explained, “A lot of questions are raised. There is a wealth of complexities, grey areas to work through. The challenge is not to rush through the process but to take the time to thoroughly address their concerns.”

From these discussions, Valentine taught the students the storytelling practices that empowered these slaves to speak of their experiences, and preserve their history that could so easily be forgotten. By teaching the ways folktales, hand-claps, dance, and call-and-response intersected, Valentine wanted to show “the role of expressive arts…and the struggle for liberation.”

This sense of empowerment was transferred to students, allowing them to “give voice to their innermost thoughts and feelings, and to take pride in and ownership of their stories.” The arts-based component of the project was developed as the students were asked to construct their own interactive storytelling performance based on these early lessons, and the encouraged to draw upon their own stories that arose in the the exploration of these historical documents.

Given the success of the residency at Lankenau High School, and the enthusiastic response from teachers and administration at the school, PAEP hopes to expand the program to other area schools so that students can learn, as Valentine explained, “stories about the enslavement of Africans in Philadelphia, with the exception of recent stories uncovered about the President’s House, are relatively new.”

With these expanded program, we hope to show the powerful impact these practices have had in shaping an underground history of slavery in Philadelphia, led by students through self-driven, collaborative projects that have become a hallmark of PAEP’s commitment to innovation in education.

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