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Weaving wonder with words is all in a day's work for Eden Prairie's tandem storytellers

Of all the Wonder Weavers’ performances, the one that best displays the storytelling duo’s captivating act was one of their high school workshops, rather than one of their frequent children’s shows.

Eden Prairie’s preeminent storytellers, Colleen Shaskin and Tina Rohde, led a personal narrative workshop for teens at a small high school in western Minnesota a few years ago, the pair told Eden Prairie News. The course culminated in an evening event, an opportunity for the students to share their work. The principal expressed concern that only a handful of students would show up, but on the night of the event, 120 teenagers arrived, eager to share their stories, the duo recalled.

“It was standing room only,” said Shaskin, 69, with a smile.

The pair founded the Wonder Weavers in 1993 after Rohde met Shaskin as her children’s nursery school teacher. They became fast friends and traveled together with their families for years, ran art summer camps in Rohde’s backyard and attended a fateful storytelling conference that planted the seed of the Wonder Weavers.

“That’s where we fell in love with the art form,” recalled Rohde, 68. “We discovered we really liked working together and teaching.”

The Wonder Weavers employ soft puppets, from dogs and frogs to mystical creatures, in their act, as well as plenty of audience participation. That keeps 2- and 3-year-olds engaged and helps children who are English language learners or have disabilities follow the story more easily, they explained.

“They have a true understanding of children,” said Kathy Hopkins, director of Crocus Hill Preschool in St. Paul, where the Wonder Weavers have performed monthly for years. “Their laughter is infectious.”

“We just enjoy getting kids to laugh,” Shaskin said. “Having a good story is like having a good friend.”

There are only around 12 tandem storytellers in the U.S., according to the Wonder Weavers. Because of their small numbers and tight community, Shaskin and Rohde have found themselves featured in several books and studies about storytelling, presenting at various conferences, and recording their stories for a CD of children’s storytellers.

They stand out in the community, partially because of their longevity and partially because their act is entirely unscripted. When recording the CD, “We made the sound technician crazy” because they didn’t have a script, Rohde laughed, “We just tell them from the heart.”

That rapport makes for an almost-telepathic connection during performances.

“Tina can say a couple words and I already know what story she wants to tell next,” Shaskin related.

Shaskin’s extroversion, teaching background and family tradition made her immediately at home in front of an audience. Her brother, who died in a car crash in 2000, was also a dynamic storyteller who encouraged her to get onstage.

“He inspired me to feel comfortable telling stories,” Shaskin remembered. “It’s always been in my blood to enjoy being in front of people.”

By contrast, Rohde is an introvert who used costumes to feel more comfortable when she began performing. She honed her skills by performing for her son’s first-grade class.

“They got to be my best critics,” she said. “They were very honest about what they like and what they don’t like.”

The makeup of their audience shapes which stories the Wonder Weavers tell. Stories for senior centers often involve a nostalgic glance back at tools and experiences from the listeners’ childhood, but younger audiences are frequently confused by such references.

“Kids today wouldn’t know what a wringer washing machine is,” Shaskin explained.

“I talk about a telephone with a cord on it and they’re like, ‘Why?’” Rohde added.

While parents aren’t the target audience, Rohde and Shaskin keep them in mind while creating their content. Early on in the Wonder Weavers’ career, as a parent at library storytelling events, Rohde began to pay attention to what the entertainer was doing when she found herself interested, or disengagdd.

“If you see them not on their phone as much, you know you’re getting them,” Rohde related. “It’s that multi-generational content that we look for.”

Regardless of who’s listening, the stories’ core values − kindness, friendship, self-esteem − stay consistent, in part to provide a contrast to the violence and conflict that are often on television, Shaskin said.

“We like to be a counterbalance to that,” she said.

Not every lesson is from the stories the Wonder Weavers tell; some come from showing young people that adults can be goofy, have fun and work together. Rohde particularly loves children’s reactions when characters make silly mistakes in their stories.

“They look at me like, ‘You’re so dumb’ and I love that because adults can be dumb,” she said. “Kids look at you and go, ‘This is your job?’”

After nearly three decades, the pair are trimming back their performance schedule a bit. At their high point in the mid-2000s, they did nearly 300 performances a year, Shaskin said. Now, they don’t feel the same pressure to take every job that comes their way.

“We’re not doing things we don’t like,” Rohde said.

A curious reader can catch the Wonder Weavers at plenty of Eden Prairie public events, like Kidstock, PeopleFest and Winter Blast. The website is wonderweavers.com.

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Minnesota reports third COVID-19 case; Eden Prairie officials advise hand washing, and calm

Minnesota confirmed its third case of COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, on March 10, according to a news release from the Minnesota Department of Health.

The person is an Anoka County resident in their 30s who was "likely exposed through contact with international travelers," the release says. They are currently hospitalized and in critical condition, the release says.

The MDH, with Anoka County Public Health and health care partners is working to find and contact everyone who may have been in contact with the infected person, the release says. They will be asked to quarantine themselves for 14 days from their contact with the infected person and will be monitored for fever and respiratory symptoms.

There are no reported cases of COVID-19 in Eden Prairie, but the city and school district both sent out cautionary messages to residents the week of March 2 as concerns continue to rise over the spread of the virus.

Both the city of Eden Prairie and Eden Prairie Schools said they're monitoring the situation closely and conferring with state and local officials with knowledge of the COVID-19 outbreak.

"We have prepared for disease outbreaks in the past and district administrators are updating our response plans," wrote superintendent Josh Swanson in a letter to families on the district's website.

"Eden Prairie’s Emergency Management Team is working closely with public safety officials in neighboring cities and schools, along with our EMS, county and state partners to be fully prepared to protect our community," the city wrote in a news release. "Eden Prairie, like all Minnesota cities, takes the coronavirus extremely seriously and is proactively working to minimize public health risk."

The state's first cases of COVID-19 were reported after the city sent its new release out, but the city's plan hasn't changed with that development, the city's communications manager Joyce Lorenz told Eden Prairie News on March 9.

State health officials have not recommended changes to school hours or events, the district's letter says, and residents should take the same precautions they do during an ordinary cold and flu season.

Those precautions include:

  • Washing your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds
  • Covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue or elbow, not your hand
  • Avoid touching your face, particularly your nose, eyes and mouth
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently-touched surfaces like door knobs, touchscreens and counter tops
  • Not sharing water bottles, cups, food, cosmetics, etc., with others
  • Staying home when you are sick

Parents of students who are not feeling well should call their school's attendance line to report an absence, the district's letter says. It also advises families to stay calm: "Anxiety and worry can actually make us more susceptible to routine illnesses," the letter notes, and people should focus on eating well and getting enough sleep to stay healthy.

Daily updates on Minnesota's COVID-19 response are available on the Minnesota Department of Health's website at bit.ly/32Xsj8z. Twin Cites PBS also produced an almanac special about COVID-19 in consultation with public health experts.