Old method teaches anew

Register Reporter


Register/Anne Kazmierczak
Manhattan storyteller Richard Pitts visits the sixth grade social studies class at Marmaton Valley Elementary School Thursday. Pitts will be in residence at Iola elementary schools the next three weeks. From left, Chad Starliper, Sterling Lawson, Keagan Boyd, Kory Bauer, Marc Waggoner and Gage Adams join in an African call and response tune being taught by Pitts.

MORAN — Storyteller Richard Pitts began his visit to Derek Trabuc’s sixth grade social studies class at Marmaton Valley Elementary School Thursday by asking each student to give his name and one thing he liked to do. After the introductions, Pitts told them “I am Richard Pitts and I like to tell stories and play drums.”
Pitts, from Manhattan, incorporates African drum rhythms into some of his tales. He tailors the stories to the grade level and maturity of the classes, he said.
Pitts’ stories for the social studies class centered on the history of slavery, the Civil War and the Underground Railroad in Kansas.
He said slaves traveling the Underground Railroad often communicated in coded language through songs or rhythm beats that acted as passwords to allow entry to safe houses.
He taught the class a song, “John the Rabbit,” sung by slaves working in fields. The song seems to be about a thief who absconds with garden produce, but Pitts told the class to interpret the song based on their new knowledge.
“John the Rabbit was really John Brown,” he told the class. “His really bad habit,” Pitts said, referring to a line in the song, “was going to Missouri and pulling slaves to freedom.”
Pitts asked the class if they had heard of John Brown. “He came here and decided his mission in life was to free slaves.”
After an attack on pro-slavery supporters, “Kansas became known as Bleeding Kansas,” Pitts said.
Pitts, who is also a historical researcher, told the class that at Gettsyburg, Pa., “more than 60,000 people died in three days over this slavery issue.” The battle was a turning point in a war that divided families and neighbors, Pitts said.
“I’m thankful, because otherwise I would be here under a different set of circumstances.”

PITTS MOVED to Kansas in 1985. After leaving the military at Fort Riley, he attended school at Kansas State University, where he met his wife.
That he tells stories to schools is his “daughter’s fault,” he said. “She asked her teacher if I could come tell stories, and I had never told stories before to group of people,” he said.
His daughter, Parre, then in elementary school, was accustomed to hearing her father’s tales at home and felt her class would enjoy them, too.
They were so well-received that Pitts, cofounder and executive director of the Wonder Workshop Children’s Museum in Manhattan, made a career of the hobby.
He added African drumming to his performance because of his heritage, he told the students.
His great-great-great grandfather was from Africa, though he doesn’t know where on the continent, he said.
As a gift one year, his wife sent his DNA to National Geographic, which offers a service that determines where one’s male ancestry originates.
“I love West African drumming, so I must be from West Africa,” he said. His wife countered, “I’ve seen your skinny little legs — you’re from Kenya.”
“So I took the test,” he told the class. “And do you know where my ancestors are from?”
All eyes starred at a map at the world’s second largest continent while Pitts slowly pointed to — “France.
“Sometimes you don’t know where you’re from until you do the test,” he said. “In America, we’re all so mixed.”

PITTS BECAME interested in history as a youth growing up near Atlantic City in Pleasanton, N.J. He spent countless hours on the pier, he told the students.
One day, after spending all his money on carnival games “trying to win my mother a $2 bear,” he used his last 25 cents to enter the boardwalk’s wax museum.
“We saw presidents, kings and queens,” Pitts said.
As they left the museum, however, they came upon a “diorama of Africans in loin cloths. They had bones in their noses and plates in their lips.” Underneath was a sign that said “Savages.”
Pitts was troubled. “I thought, they look like me, except for the bones and the plates.”
At home he told his mother about the sign.
Pitts’ mother told him about explorers who sailed the world before Columbus, seeking trade routes to Asia. She told him about Columbus getting lost, thinking he’d found India, but he really found the Caribbean.
She told him how some “Africans were willing to sell other black people into slavery” to work the land in this new world.
“‘That sign that says savages,’” Pitts said his mother told him, “‘there’s no such thing. That’s just somebody’s way of trying to make themselves feel better.’”
Pitts agreed. “We are all the same,” he told the class. “We all have special abilities. I can’t play football, but I’m not bad at telling stories.”