Once upon a time there was a little girl
from New Rochelle, N.Y., named Ann Shapiro.
Ann felt she was the luckiest girl in the world. Her
life was filled with stories, from the intricate tales
her father would tell on long car rides, to the larger-than-life
performances on Broadway to which her Nana Sally would
And then there was the time she not only went to the
Howdy Doody Show, but Clarabelle the Clown chose her
to her to be in the Peanut Gallery.
As she grew, the girl discovered that she had talent
as a performer. Her parents encouraged not to simply
memorize facts and figures and not just accept what
books said, but to do her own research. Her parents
encouraged her to follow her dreams by asking, "What
is it that YOU want to do?"
She decided, upon graduating from high school, to forego
college. Instead, she took guitar and voice into schools
so she could share her stories and songs with children.
She started as a teacher's aide, then became a freelance
It was fun. And it made her happy.
And then Ann met a man named Tom Callinan, who upon
meeting her called her a "quality bohemian woman."
They got married and moved from New York to Connecticut
in 1972. And of course, they sang songs and told stories
together, creating a company called Crackerbarrel Entertainments.
Eventually they had two sons, Eli and Emmett who, once
old enough, got in on the act too.
That's the fairytale-like story of Ann Shapiro's life
Today, 42 years after graduating from high school,
Shapiro is still singing songs and telling stories as
a master teaching artist with the Connecticut Commission
on the Arts. And she still partners with her husband
in their business, which is based out of their home
It's the only career Shapiro has ever had and she says
she still feels like that fairytale version of herself,
that she's the luckiest girl in the world.
"I'll go anywhere to tell a story because it does
two powerful things: It allows those who are listening
to find a unique place inside themselves and at the
same time creates a sense of community."
Part of what makes storytelling unique, she says, is
the absence of the so-called "third wall,"
an imaginary boundary, such as in a play, that separates
the action on stage from the audience.
It's this aspect of storytelling that highlights Shapiro's
talent. She's a character in her own story, and at the
same time she engages her audience and makes eye contact
with its members.
"My story might change depending on the audience's
reaction to it. I may write it out ahead of time, but
I don't memorize it. I must first get connected to the
audience and then see where the story goes."
Her favorite stories are folk tales for children, especially
if they involve music. If there is no music, she'll
"Songs are important because it helps kids focus
on the story. They wait for their part to come around."
She uses colorful costumes in her performances and
instruments like a guitar, ukulele, strumstick, dulcimer
and anything else that could be used for percussion
or rhythm. Using big movements that can be easily imitated,
she weaves mesmerizing stories and yet remains warm
and approachable to her audience.
When she's not in front of an audience, Shapiro has
what she calls her "real job," executive director
of the Connecticut Storytelling Center at Connecticut
College, which hosts the annual Connecticut Storytelling
Festival. She's held the position since 1999.
And while she never did go to college, it turns out
that all along she's been providing a crucial element
of literacy to schoolchildren - the ability to visualize,
an essential aspect of literacy.
"The first three components of being literate
are listening, speaking, and visualizing," says
Shapiro. "If you can't do all three, you can't
While oral storytelling - which is distinct from simply
reading books aloud - is an ancient art and form of
communicating used for centuries by some cultures to
preserve their history, Shapiro believes it's more relevant
today than ever.
"With computers, video games, and texting on cell
phones, not to mention television, there's not much
visualizing or face-to-face verbal communication going
on. We are constantly bombarded with the visuals of
Jane Gangi, a literacy specialist and an associate
professor with the Instructional Leadership Program
at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury,
calls Shapiro's work heroic.
"We know that No Child Left Behind doesn't work.
We know that sound-to-letter correspondence doesn't
always work. Storytelling always works. And so Ann is
doing heroic work. She is a dynamic performer who engages
young people every time she encounters them.
"Kids comprehend more when they are engaged. Reading
comprehension comes from listening, not from reading.
The old way was to look at what poor readers do and
then figure out how to fix it. Now we understand that
the key is to observe what good readers do and how to
teach that. What we've found is that the best readers
are able to create sensory images for themselves as
they read. They are able to make predictions and inferences.
Nothing helps that process along better than the emotional
connection made when being told a story."
But the impact of storytelling goes well beyond literacy
and language skills. It's a way of making a direct connection
with students that can last forever, Shapiro says.
She recalls a time while walking to the New London
Board of Education offices and two teenaged boys quickly
approached her from behind, mumbling under their breath.
"I hate to admit that I was a little worried,"
Shapiro says, "but then they said, 'Mrs. Ann? We
remember when you read The Cat Came Back to us when
we were little.' They were six when I taught them that
Sometimes, she says, the impact can be heartbreaking.
"There's a song I sometimes sing called 'It Takes
a Worried Man To Sing a Worried Song,' by Woody Guthrie.
Afterwards we talk about things we're afraid of and
one time a boy told me that he gets worried when his
uncle comes over with a gun. I didn't know what to say
so we just put it in the song."
Although she doesn't often go to middle schools or
high schools, when she does, sometimes the biggest boys
in the room get so caught up in the stories they suck
"It's touching, worrisome and delightful all at
the same time."
Part of Shapiro's responsibilities at the Connecticut
Storytelling Center are to oversee Tellabration, an
event involving simultaneous storytelling across the
state, and the Connecticut Storytelling Festival.
This year Tellabration will be held Nov. 20. Next year
marks the 30th Connecticut Storytelling Festival, scheduled
for April 29 to May 1, at Connecticut College.
For more information:
Connecticut Storytelling Center
National Storytelling Network