One of the first ideas we had for our kids podcast channel was for a segment called Story Chef. We imagined Story Chef as an improvised storytelling activity where we would “cook up” a children’s story “from scratch,” based on listener submissions, which they would record and send in.
For our first real episode of our show Podikins Presents, episode 002, we decided to try it out. So one Tuesday morning last summer, we put together a list of miscellaneous ingredients we’d received from friends and family, took a deep breath, and dove in. The story we “cooked up” in that recording session featured a magical gorilla, a lost baby, and a rose fairy (among other things), and it was immediately a hit with our new audience.
But even though this episode is full of hijinks, there is in fact an educational goal underlying it all, but more on that in a minute.
STORY CHEF I: THE LAST MAGICAL GORILLA
The story we came up with for the first Story Chef was very much improvised. In fact, most of it was recorded in that one single take, but the performance was only the start of the process.
Over the course of the summer, we edited and refined the recording and added a whole host of sound effects and music. (I even attempted some clumsy scoring with my midi keyboard.) We topped if off by running our improvised dialogue through a bunch of vocal effects to make the whole thing more exciting and, even, we hoped, a bit more magical.
To give you a sense of what it looked like from my perspective, here’s a screenshot of one section of my Protools session. (While I’ve learned a lot about organizing my sessions since then, it still shows just how much is going on.)
The feedback we received confirmed our hopes that kids would appreciate this weird and wacky mixture of sound design, freewheeling narration, and strange cartoonish voices. We knew we'd make another Story Chef in the future, but first we wanted to try out a few other concepts, like an interactive listening game (ep 003 & ep 007) and we wanted to introduce Podi, the character on our logo (ep 004 & ep 006), so Story Chef moved to the back burner for the time being.
BACK IN THE KITCHEN: STORY CHEF II
For the second edition of Story Chef—Episode 008: The Adventure of Cave Baby and The Magical Etching Device—we decided to get more ambitious, both in terms of the number and complexity of the ingredients we used in the story, and in terms of the sound design of the episode.
For our first Story Chef, I was just learning Protools and it was my first time attempting sound design—and it took FOREVER! It was also Andrew’s first time behind the mic. Now, with seven episodes under our belt, we were confident that we could take Story Chef to new zany, absurd (and possibly even preposterous) heights.
First, we needed some great new ingredients—the wilder, the better—and our listeners answered the call. We received some wonderful and truly original ingredients. (Listening through new submissions is becoming one of the best parts of the process.) There were so many great ingredients that we decided to tackle as many as we could muster, all while trying to maintain some sense of coherency (if not plausibility) in the narrative.
But, like foolhardy home cooks let loose at a farmer’s market, we may have overstuffed our baskets.
The sheer number of ingredients, along with their wonderful specificity, proved too much for us to handle in a single improvised recording session. Although we tried improvising it again, we just couldn’t do these ingredients justice in a single take—the story we came up was unwieldy, discongruous, and, frankly, a bit rambly.
But, it wasn’t all waste.
It turns out that this was actually part of the prep, since the improv exercise helped us figure out the basic arc of the story in a spontaneous way, which then informed our writing as we tackled the script.
The script…well…the script was pretty wild, and it took some serious editing to bring together ingredients as varied as a 56 wheel bicycle, a pineapple character with two mouths, and a dinosaur with a banana stuck to its head (and, believe me, there are many, many more…check out the episode for the full list).
After a lot of work on the script and many, many more hours editing in protools, we ended up with our longest and most intricately produced episode so far—and it might be our wackiest (at least, according to Andrew’s sister).
But, if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that kids seem to enjoy stories that really go for it, stories that are a bit out there, stories that take chances.
To give you a sense of the density in the production of this episode, check out this screenshot, which captures the sound effects, voices, and ambient beds for a two minute sequence that introduces the dinosaur:
MAKING STORYTELLING VISIBLE
If the Story Chef series seems like a bit of high wire act (and it is), it’s because that’s what storytelling is; it carries an inherent riskiness—the risk of creative iteration, of taking a chance and coming up with a story—and that's what we’re trying to explore in this freewheeling segment.
Of course, we’re having a whole lot of fun coming up with these stories, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be educational. In fact, from the very start, we’ve hoped that the Story Chef segment would be able to encourage young storytellers in the process of entertaining them, through the act of modelling the storytelling process. Admittedly, that’s a bit of a mouthful, so let me explain...
The idea is that by constructing a story, almost arbitrarily, using listener submitted ingredients, and by including a “prep” (brainstorm) montage in advance of the story’s performance, we hope to model the way in which storytelling is a process of thinking and give a glimpse into the creative work which results in a story. We want to show that stories, even seemingly spontaneous ones, require thinking, planning, and iteration.
In the editing of Story Chef, we chose to keep some of the asides and questions we’d had along the way for the very same reason: if we offer a peek behind the storytelling curtain, as it were, we make some of the thinking that goes into storytelling visible—all of which usually happens in the background, especially in the polished kids stories that we find in the mainstream.
To this end, even in our scripted second edition of Story Chef, we added asides and tried to retain the sense of discovery that characterized our own process in creating a story out of wild and incongruous ingredients.
Now, we could go even further with this, offering a fully improvised Story Chef, stutters, digressions, and all. We could forgo the sound design, and drop the wacky voices. But, instead, we’re hoping we can find a middle ground that offers the immersion kids expect from a story, while also retaining the sense that the story has been constructed and that storytelling is part of a thinking process.
Our hope is that our listeners, too, might feel more inclined to construct a story or participate in the storytelling process after seeing it modelled in this way.
PROJECT ZERO AND MAKING THINKING VISIBLE
Our pedagogical inspiration for Story Chef comes via Project Zero, an initiative from the Harvard Graduate School of Education that promotes active, independent, and engaged learning environments.
I highly recommend their website and their book Making Thinking Visible—both are great resources for educators (and, as it turns out, kids podcasters too!)
Story Chef was partly inspired by the host of classroom activities outlined in Making Thinking Visible, but we needed to adapt the concepts of engagement and interaction from the two-way interactivity of a classroom setting to the confines of a prerecorded audio program.
EARLY RETURNS: STORY CHEF JR.
We weren’t sure if any of this would work—and I’m sure we can improve on things—but some recent feedback we received suggests that it’s already having an effect.
An old friend of mine, whose 6 year old is a big fan of Story Chef, mentioned that he’s noticed a change in how his daughter has been responding to her bedtime stories. While in the past she’d been happy to just listen, lately she’s been taking a more active role, suggesting they come up with their own stories, together, from scratch.
My friend thinks this is the result of Story Chef, and, maybe he’s just being generous, but if that’s true, if our little segment has played a role in encouraging one little storyteller out there to join in on the fun, then it’s all been worth it.
INTRODUCING: STORY CHEF - TAKE OUT EDITION!
Bolstered by this feedback, we’ve decided to drop everything and put out a special bonus activity—Story Chef: Take Out Edition—which allows our listeners an even bigger role in the storytelling process.
In Story Chef: Take Out Edition, we provide a selection of ingredients that we found kicking around the Podikins Pantry and we ask our listeners to see if they can come up with their own stories.
We’re hoping that this will be a fun activity for the whole family, which will take the activity that we’ve modelled but will enrol our listeners more directly in the storytelling process. We hope you like it and we hope it gets you cooking!