Jack Zipes Faculty Profiles
Jack Zipes, scholar & provocateur, is helping kids to narrate their lives and to read and write in the process.
What’s a distinguished scholar of German and European language and culture doing in a rough-and-tumble place like this—sitting cross-legged on the floor making faces and shouting out words like “baboon” and “balloon” to a room full of rambunctious children? Asking questions like “What if Rapunzel had a buzz cut?” or “What if the Big Bad Wolf was Little Red Riding Hood’s next-door neighbor?”
If that scholar is Jack Zipes, he’s teaching those children to tell their stories—and, not incidentally, to love learning. And the place is a Minneapolis public school.
“If you’re a real scholar, you have to be interested in life and society,” says Zipes. “You
have to open yourself up to all possibilities.”
Back in his native New York,Zipes—who set out to be a novelist—never dreamed that he’d end up on the German faculty of a Midwestern university,much less that his students would range in age from 5 to 75. But along a career path marked with many detours and lined with serendipity, he not only stopped off in Germany—where he taught American literature at the University of Munich—but met up with the Brothers Grimm and a colorful assortment of familiar characters: Billy Goat Gruff, the Big Bad Wolf, the Frog King, a few princesses, and a dragon or two.
Today he is a professor of German and director of the Center for German and European Studies (an interdisciplinary collaboration with the University of Wisconsin), and editor of eight scholarly journals, with 25 books and 107 articles to his credit, an international reputation as an expert on fairy tales and folklore, and a gift for connecting with kids through storytelling.
For 25 years, Zipes has spent countless hours volunteering in public schools to teach
critical literacy and life skills through storytelling. In 1997, with Children’s Theater Company (CTC) director Peter Brosius, he founded the acclaimed Twin Cities Neighborhood Bridges Program (NBP) to enable kids to “deepen their sense of themselves, develop their confidence, and improve their ability to read and communicate.”With support from the Annenberg Foundation, the program today takes Zipes and trained actor-educators into 15 inner-city classrooms for two hours each week to lead storytelling activities in active collaboration with the classroom teacher.
The goal, says Zipes, is for kids “to narrate their own lives instead of having their lives narrated by parents, teachers, the media, or corporations.We want children to take charge of their lives; you can do that through the arts.”
Sitting at tables arranged in a circle, groups of grade-schoolers play games like “Fantastic Binomial”: Zipes suggests two nouns, like “balloon” and “street,” then asks the children to choose a linking word.“Then I start a story,” he says. “‘Once upon a time, there was a balloon on the street. It was crying because no one would play with it.’ Then I turn to a kid:
‘What happens next? ’We go around the room and keep modifying the story.”
Zipes also has kids write their own stories and present them to the class, then retell their tales from a different point of view—a grandmother’s, perhaps, or a pet rabbit’s. Or they play a writing game called “What if?”—imagining what would happen if, for example, Cinderella couldn’t care less about marrying the prince, or the seven dwarfs were seven giants.They also play theater games,writing and performing skits. In the end, they take their talents to the CTC’s mainstage, for an enthusiastic audience of family and friends.
“The kids love the program,” says Zipes. “The day we come in, the absentee rate drops. They’re having so much fun they don’t even realize they’re learning to read and write. I think this really is a new and innovative way of schooling. It makes learning extremely pleasurable and gives kids a chance to voice what they’re feeling in a free space. They’re not concerned about failing or succeeding. They simply get into the acting, writing, speaking, moving, drawing, even composing songs.
“They also love ‘the mysterious stranger’ coming in once a week.”
NBP is a refreshing counterpoint in today’s schools, says Zipes:“Good arts programs stimulate the desire to learn in very exciting ways. I’m very much against the rote learning that has overtaken public schools. Kids are eager to rebel against all this. The fact is, there are many different ways of evaluating how kids are doing.You don’t need to focus exclusively on standardized tests, which take up an enormous amount of time, take away from teaching, and leave so much out.”
Theater meets pedagogy
Zipes and colleagues at CTC have developed training programs for both teachers and actors: “We teach the teachers, and they teach us. It’s a sophisticated and complex operation,” he says, noting that to be effective, program leaders need both theatrical and pedagogical skills.
Zipes has even taken his show on the road, leading workshops nationally—most recently in Albuquerque, N.M., where he demonstrated before a large audience how the class works. “We showed how kids could get into it even on a one-time basis,” he says. “Even shy kids, who don’t normally participate in class. Two kids in Albuquerque spoke no English at all— we got those kids to speak in their native language. Even though the whole class couldn’t understand, there was still communication happening, and learning.
“After these workshops, teachers bubble over with enthusiastic comments along the lines of ‘This is great, it really opened my eyes to creative ways of teaching and learning….’ They can see the potential of what we’re doing even in just a few hours. It’s very gratifying.”
It’s especially gratifying at a time when public schools are under duress and so many kids need help with language skills. Zipes notes that disadvantages begin early, in poor families especially. In Minneapolis, with its growing population of immigrant families, many kids show up at school with limited English proficiency, also in many cases bearing the scars of traumatic histories. “We’re not social workers,” says Zipes. “But if we can somehow instill love for learning and various skills, the kids can better fend for themselves. Programs like this give kids hope.”
For his dedication to NBP, Zipes was recognized last year as one of KARE-11’s Eleven Who Care and named to the Volunteer Hall of Fame by Minneapolis/St.Paul Magazine. But what means the most to him, he says, is watching the children develop: “Going back in a classroom where half have had the class already for a year—say, some of the 6th graders—just to see the confidence, ingenuity, willingness, the zest of those students as they begin the second year, and to see how they mentor the younger students—that’s terrifically exciting.”
The roots o f involvement
“[My life] has been surprising,” says Zipes, who joined the Minnesota faculty in 1989 after 14 years at the University of Wisconsin and three years at the University of Florida. “Surprising because I never expected to be a university professor. Also surprising because I never expected to cross the Hudson River, much less spend half my life in the Midwest.”
From the beginning, he was driven by three impulses: a love of writing (a passion since childhood), an insatiable curiosity, and a deep commitment to social justice. “I never publish or write just to do it, but as an act of political or social commitment,” he says. “I’m not an armchair scholar. I’m a political animal. I feel like if you’re teaching young people it’s almost an obligation: you should be out in the community doing something.”
Zipes’s storytelling days began in 1978, in a school “in the ghetto district of Milwaukee.” Earlier, inspired by an innovative German theater called GRIPS (German slang for “using your noggin”)—“like CTC here but more radical”— Zipes had translated five plays and tried to bring them to U.S. stages. Ultimately, he turned his attention to storytelling to “continue to work with kids without having to round up actors and deal with all those hassles.” Zipes the master storyteller was born.
A scholar of and for the world
Zipes the scholar is working these days on two new critical projects related to fairy tales and folklore, and he has recently coedited with colleague Leslie Morris a book on German-Jewish relations. Yet his energy for community engagement is undiminished.
His research is driven by a kind of acutely sensitive intellectual radar, whose readings of the cultural and literary environment translate into prodigious scholarly output. “I generally work on two or three things at the same time,” he says. “If something comes along that stirs me, then I’ll turn towards my curiosity.”
That curiosity has often led Zipes to pose unsettling questions about how we teach and socialize children. His challenges to “standardization and homogenization” in education and culture are intended, he says, to “encourage people to be more critical—of literature, and of society, and even critical of me. I think of myself as a provocateur and also as an animator—helping people to animate ideas, literature, and themselves. I want to engage people, provoke them, and also stimulate them. I want to initiate dialogue.”
And so he does, not only in his books but also in classrooms both on and off campus, turning his insights and inspirations into teaching moments. “My work is for the future, helping to form the perspectives and abilities of young people so they can think autonomously,” he says. He invites his college- age students to view literature through new lenses, and to see how stories shape values and assumptions about race, gender, class, and good and evil.
Such cage rattling doesn’t endear him to everyone, Zipes acknowledges, but he is quite comfortable with his role as cultural critic. After all, he notes, “the purpose of education is to provide students with the ability to question things. The better educated people are, the less prone they are to dictators and situations of injustice. The more thinking people there are, the better the chances for an enlightened society. So my hope and passion and faith are geared to young people—and committed to public and democratic engagement.”
Perhaps that’s one reason why Zipes believes the real heroes in today’s world are the teachers: “They’ve taught me so much about caring. So many are dedicating their lives to children in wonderful ways, fighting to bring about creative education.
“They really are at the forefront of everything our future hinges on. They are neglected, berated, falsely judged—often given no understanding or support, especially in the political climate of the past few years. They’ve truly become my heroes. There may be lousy teachers, but I haven’t met them.”
FOCUS: Contemporary German lit; folklore & fairy tales; German, women’s, & Jewish studies.
EDUCATION: Ph.D., M.A., Columbia U (English & comparative lit).
RECENT PUBLICATIONS: Unlikely History: The Changing German-Jewish Symbiosis (with Leslie Morris; Palgrave, 2002). x Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of
Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter (Routledge, 2000).
FAMILY: Spouse, Carol Dines, a writer of fiction for young adults (and volunteer storyteller for NBP); daughter, Hanna, a senior at the Perpich Center for Arts Education; dog, Shana (“a terrible standard poodle”).
HOME: A 3-story white house near Lake Calhoun in Southwest Minneapolis.
LAST GOOD BOOK READ: Troy, a British young adult novel by Adele Geras. “It’s essentially the Trojan War from a modern perspective. It’s a brilliant novel about war—very timely today, and worthwhile for people of all ages.”
PUTS DOWN THE BOOKS FOR: Basketball at the Y (previously played semipro soccer). “Most of my leisure time goes to the Neighborhood Bridges Program.”