By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — For years, Marni Gillard encouraged middle school students in the Niskayuna school district to follow their dreams. Then, she led by example and followed her own.
Gillard, 63, said she thinks she would’ve been an actress if she had the support, when she was young, that many kids have today. Instead, she became a teacher like both of her parents.
“It wasn’t like today where you really know a lot about the world of going into art fields,” she said. “My mother said, ‘Just take the teaching courses, Marni.’ ”
But her professional path continued to unfold in the direction of performance and expression. Today, Gillard is a professional storyteller who entertains the old-fashioned way: live, in person, using just her voice.
Early years teaching
The Fulton, N.Y., native became a teacher and started her career at Iroquois Middle School in 1973. She had expected to be a high school teacher, but when she was offered the middle school position she decided to give it a shot, and fell in love with the job.
“I was very young and certainly very naive and new,” she said. “I hadn’t really done a lot of research about learning, except to take the typical college classes, but I had this idea that kids have different gifts.”
She applied her creativity to lessons about reading and writing, since she was an English Language Arts teacher. While she was exploring teaching techniques, Gillard met a mentor who would ultimately change her path.
That mentor was Lucy Calkins, founder of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, an organization that conducts research and develops curriculum to improve student learning in English Language Arts. When Gillard began attending Calkins’ workshops and classes, Calkins was in her early 30s and had already developed a unique teaching style that really spoke to Gillard. “She talked to me about writing in a way that no teacher had ever talked,” Gillard said. “Whatever it is that interests you in writing, let’s go there.”
She was at the workshop to pick up teaching tips for work, but ended up learning a lot about herself, too.
“Lucy made anybody working with her do their own writing, so I started doing some of my own writing about my thinking and teaching,” she said.
She was published in English Journal, Language Arts Magazine, and other teacher publications. Working on her own writing inspired her.
“My mind was just alive with, ‘How can I be the teacher I never had?’ ” Gillard said.
Then, one of Calkins’ advising sessions changed her path permanently.
‘She happened to say to me, as she did to all her students, ‘I want you to think about something that’s your own focus,’ ” Gillard said.
It was the early 1980s, and Gillard had just attended a daylong workshop about storytelling at SUNY Oneonta. The concept fascinated her. It wasn’t just about reading aloud; storytelling was a sort of combination of performance and memorization. The product was fluid, dependent on the audience’s reactions, and never the same twice.
At first, she learned about storytelling alongside her students. She used it as a device to help them absorb important, grade-level subjects while enhancing their own creative sides. She took students on field trips and to conferences. Occasionally, she’d take a personal day to perform one of her own pieces.
The draw of storytelling continued to tug at Gillard. Twice, she took yearlong leaves of absence from teaching, without pay, to travel and practice storytelling.
Finally, her younger sister, a freelance musician, gave her the push she needed to commit to her storytelling dreams. “She said, ‘Why don’t you just quit?’ ” Gillard said.
Eventually, she gathered the courage to do it. She decided to combine her storytelling with her interest in spirituality. She earned a master’s degree in theology from St. Bernard’s School in Albany.
Gillard’s teaching background is hardly in her past. In addition to recreational groups, like a Capital Region story circle that meets and performs at Proctors, Gillard now combines her teaching background with her love for spirituality and storytelling by working with students at St. Kateri Tekakwitha school in Niskayuna.
“I’ve been working with kids on making Bible stories,” she said. “It starts by me telling them the Bible stories.”
Then they try acting out the plot lines, improvising and eventually connecting with the material. Like so many things she has tried, it’s uncharted territory, and encouraging children to improvise rarely goes as planned.
Still, the group is working on a performance piece for the church members, and the kids are having plenty of fun. Second- through fifth-graders work with Gillard throughout the day to learn and practice classic stories like David and Goliath.
Though it took Gillard decades to arrive at her current career, she has few regrets about the winding path she followed. It’s hard to feel bad about inspiring young people, after all.
Just a couple of weeks ago, when author Anne Blankman visited Van Antwerp Middle School to talk about writing to current students, Gillard was in the audience, applauding. Blankman was one of Gillard’s students at Iroquois.
Beaming with pride, Gillard greeted Blankman like an old friend, and they traded signed books. Gillard gave Blankman a copy of her work, titled “Storyteller, Storyteacher: Discovering the Power of Storytelling for Teaching and Living.” Gillard’s work is also included in a brand-new book called “Stories We Tell: Tales from the Story Circle of the Capital District.”
She lives near Central Park in Schenectady with her husband, Bill Wheeler, a former Niskayuna math teacher.
In addition to a sense of satisfaction about the good she was able to do as a teacher, Gillard has a sense of acceptance about things that don’t go exactly as planned. The ability to navigate change and a willingness to try new things was always part of her life.
Her parents taught her learning should be fun, and encouraged her to take risks. That sentiment is contained in a story she loves to share with the children she teaches, about her father, who died when she was a teenager.
“I was learning how to dive,” Gillard said. “I threw myself off the high diving board and flipped all the way over and crashed on my back. My dad jumped in and said, ‘You did it, baby!’
“I thought I was going to die,” she continued. “That’s life. You’ve got to keep trying.”