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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Why Storytelling in the Classroom Matters

What is "storytelling"? Telling stories, of course! In 2014, there are so many diverse, wonderful, and sometimes overwhelming ways to do this. What I want to explore is traditional, oral storytelling, which has been a part of human life since we first left Africa 200,000 or more years ago. Perhaps storytelling was the reason language developed in the first place, as our minds began to inquire, wonder, think.

Why Do We Tell Stories?

Whether in caves or in cities, storytelling remains the most innate and important form of communication. All of us tell stories. The story of your day, the story of your life, workplace gossip, the horrors on the news. Our brains are hard-wired to think and express in terms of a beginning, middle and end. It's how we understand the world.

Storytelling is the oldest form of teaching. It bonded the early human communities, giving children the answers to the biggest questions of creation, life, and the afterlife. Stories define us, shape us, control us, and make us. Not every human culture in the world is literate, but every single culture tells stories.

Can You Be a Storyteller and a Teacher?

You already are. Teachers are storytellers, and storytellers have been teachers for millennia. In reality, teachers don't see themselves as storytellers. Or rather, they see the occasional storyteller and think it's a theatrical, exaggerated show more akin to acting. But hang on a minute -- being a teacher definitely involves acting and theatrics.

Interactive Storytelling

It is important at this stage that I describe my particular style. I don't rely on just "speaking" the story. I don't sit still in a chair. I talk slowly, with alternating rhythm. I walk around. I use my hands a lot. And, most importantly, I invite children from the audience to act out the story as I tell it. They dress up in funny hats and other props, and they follow the instructions in the story and repeat the dialogue I say. I stop and start the story a lot, asking the audience to contribute sound effects, to answer questions, to make suggestions.

The Many Benefits to Storytelling

When you tell your first story, there is a magical moment. The children sit enthralled, mouths open, eyes wide. If that isn't enough reason, then consider that storytelling:

  • Inspires purposeful talking, and not just about the story -- there are many games you can play.
  • Raises the enthusiasm for reading texts to find stories, reread them, etc.
  • Initiates writing because children will quickly want to write stories and tell them.
  • Enhances the community in the room.
  • Improves listening skills.
  • Really engages the boys who love the acting.
  • Is enjoyed by children from kindergarten to the end of elementary school.
  • Gives a motivating reason for English-language learners to speak and write English.

That last point has really proven powerful this year. My school is 97 percent English-language learners, and I have many children in my class who arrived speaking little or no English. The single biggest factor to their incredible progress in English has been their wanting to become storytellers.

So How Do You Become a Storyteller?

I recommend the following:

  1. Read as many different world folktales, fables, myths, and legends as you can.
  2. Watch professional storytellers and take notes about how they do it. Every storyteller is different, and you can learn something from them all.
  3. Build your confidence by reading your students picture books or chapter books with an interesting voice. Stop to ask questions. Make the book reading interactive. It will help you create a shared event with a story.
  4. Pick stories with small numbers of characters and repeating events, as these are easiest to remember. Having said that, pick any story you like -- no, that you love! If it captivates you, it will captivate the younger ones, too.
  5. Write the stories down in a notebook. Writing helps you remember a story, and it models the same to the children.
  6. When you start "telling" your story, it's OK to have the book nearby and to take a look at it if you forget a part. Don't be too hard on yourself. You are a student again.
  7. Get yourself a "prop box" made of old bits of linen, and fill it with hats from charity shops and random objects that children can use imaginatively. I got a lot of my materials from recycling centers.

So What's Next?

Sure, becoming a storyteller takes effort and inclination on your behalf, but with so many benefits, isn't it worth trying? You might surprise yourself. You will certainly surprise your students. In relatively little time, you can be telling stories, running storytelling clubs, capturing the attention of the whole school assembly, contributing to school events and PD training schedules. I never thought I would be doing any of this when I started my teacher training seven years ago.

So what's stopping you? The next story starts with you . . .

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Comments (14)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

norairis's picture

This is a wonderful article and very timely. With advancements and availability of technology we are experiencing a decrease of face to face socialization. Where everything we say is in writing. Story telling requires no technology and no materials. All that is needed is an audience and a person deveoted to telling great stories. Most of my memories of my early learning come from a story I was told. I think that story telling is essential in developing social skills by helping us increase our verbal skills and helps many concur their fears of speaking in front of an audiencee.

(2)
Judi Pack's picture
Judi Pack
Life long early childhood teacher and administrator.

There is nothing that surpasses Vivian Paley's Storytelling and Story Acting approach with children. When children can tell and then act out their stories, magic happens...in all areas of development. ESL students learn their second language much more quickly because they get to see and act out the language. I've done this with preschool through 3rd grade students and have had older children take the dictation of the younger ones. Also, Keiran Egan has written wonderful books about teaching as storytelling. Very compelling.

(1)
KJLuna's picture

I really enjoyed Mr. Friday's article on storytelling. As a first grade teacher I never considered myself to be a storyteller. After reading this article I can see how important it is to be a storyteller in my classroom. In first grade we are very focused on getting our students to become writers and I think being excited about telling stories and sharing that with our students can help them become the writers we want them to be. I would love to hear more about how storytelling has worked in other classrooms to help benefit students in becoming better writers and storytellers themselves.

Matthew James Friday's picture
Matthew James Friday
International School Teacher, Literacy Manager and Professional Storyteller

Hi there.

I started out in Grade 1 and had three very happy years there. I totally understand when you say you are tasked with the responsibility of inspiring your students to become writers, which was the same for me in England. While we worked enthusiastically on curriculum text forms together, the students were happiest when writing stories to 'tell'. They wrote these independently and profusely at home, some writing at length for the first time. Some of the more advanced writers loved being in total control of their work and created mini-chapter texts. It was this process that first got me excited about storytelling and its potential to inspire writing. I'm excited for your students to think you might be telling the stories this coming year. The response of the students is a magical one that will further inspire you... Matthew

(1)
Diana Lynn- Jones's picture

Hi,
I enjoyed your post. I teach in an urban setting; many of my students are struggling readers who have yet to find the joy in stories. I always try to read to my students, but I have never tried story telling. I do see the more excited I am and the more animated I become the more my students participate. I will definitely try to this strategy this year. Now to find more stories and pick the right ones. Thank you so much for sharing.

Rusul's picture
Rusul
Professor of English composition and literature

Hi Matthew, I enjoyed this post too because like you I thought it was such a great way to inspire students to write about the stories they tell in class. It's so interested to hear that your students were very happy to write about their stories. It just goes to show how important it is for students to be given a choice in writing in order for them to feel excited about the whole process. Chapter texts seems like a great idea. Do you mind if I ask you what medium students use to write these awesome stories? Would love to hear more about your writing process with students.

Denise M. Cassano's picture
Denise M. Cassano
Artist, Educator, Dog Lover

I've noticed this a long time ago: The next time you're in class try this- in the middle of speaking during the lesson, segue into a story and carefully watch the students' body language. Every time I do this, without fail, students look up, sit up straighter, make eye contact, basically their body becomes more alert. If their minds were wondering, they are not any more.
Sensory awareness, visualization and imagination that Mike Raven mentioned are key. Mr. Friday mentions the use of props- which is a great idea. I would add illustrations to the 'prop' list, as students are visual by nature. Students work seamlessly between words and images (transmediation) and we can use that in the classroom to inspire stories- visual and written.
You can find more art for storytelling and writing inspiration here: http://corndogart.com/

ELIAS LEOUSIS's picture

Very timely article.
I too am a story teller and I would like readers to check out my blog. I would appreciate if you would also leave a comment: Any constructive criticism is helpful.

PLEASE GOOGLE SEARCH : ELIAS LEOUSIS , THE SUBSTITUTE TEACHER
or click blog URL found below:
http://iliasleousis.blogspot.com

CoryJ's picture

Excellent article! I am currently enrolled in a masters program and our assignment this week was to post a comment to an education blog that focuses on improving student learning. I have been a history teacher for six years and I have found that my students learn best when I present the information in the form of a story. Whether it's telling the story about how Private Henry Tandey spared the life of Adolf Hitler during the waning days of the Great War , story telling is a highly effective way to get students motivated to learn and explore beyond the classroom.

Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

Just a great quote I have to share re storytelling. I don't remember where I originally found it... "Storytelling is the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener's imagination."

(1)
Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

Just a great quote I have to share re storytelling. I don't remember where I originally found it... "Storytelling is the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener's imagination."

(1)
Matthew James Friday's picture
Matthew James Friday
International School Teacher, Literacy Manager and Professional Storyteller

Hi there.

I started out in Grade 1 and had three very happy years there. I totally understand when you say you are tasked with the responsibility of inspiring your students to become writers, which was the same for me in England. While we worked enthusiastically on curriculum text forms together, the students were happiest when writing stories to 'tell'. They wrote these independently and profusely at home, some writing at length for the first time. Some of the more advanced writers loved being in total control of their work and created mini-chapter texts. It was this process that first got me excited about storytelling and its potential to inspire writing. I'm excited for your students to think you might be telling the stories this coming year. The response of the students is a magical one that will further inspire you... Matthew

(1)
Judi Pack's picture
Judi Pack
Life long early childhood teacher and administrator.

There is nothing that surpasses Vivian Paley's Storytelling and Story Acting approach with children. When children can tell and then act out their stories, magic happens...in all areas of development. ESL students learn their second language much more quickly because they get to see and act out the language. I've done this with preschool through 3rd grade students and have had older children take the dictation of the younger ones. Also, Keiran Egan has written wonderful books about teaching as storytelling. Very compelling.

(1)
Dean's picture

Lovely read. Thank-you. The photograph that leads your article is of Jan Andrews. Ms Andrews is an award winning author and a professional storyteller. Jan co-founded the Storytellers of Canada. With Jennifer Cayley she began the Epic Series, tellings of the great epics such as the Odyssey and the Kalevala. Ms Andrews has been a teller-in-residence, and continues to give Master Classes about storytelling. As a photograph of a teller in action, you picked a good one.

(1)
norairis's picture

This is a wonderful article and very timely. With advancements and availability of technology we are experiencing a decrease of face to face socialization. Where everything we say is in writing. Story telling requires no technology and no materials. All that is needed is an audience and a person deveoted to telling great stories. Most of my memories of my early learning come from a story I was told. I think that story telling is essential in developing social skills by helping us increase our verbal skills and helps many concur their fears of speaking in front of an audiencee.

(2)
Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.
Facilitator 2014

A facet of teaching is performance art and storytelling is definitely on the top of that list.

1. You don't "need" anything (materials) to tell a story.
2. You can do it in a classroom, in the hallway, in line for lunch, etc...
3. It's almost failsafe. I've seen non-storyteller teachers tell really terrible stories, but the students are "all in." I think it's just the honesty of the story. When students feel the teacher is being real (whether its true or not) and not really "teaching" anything, they are engaged.

I use storytelling in writing to teach Voice and rehearsal.

Storytelling allows you to escape robotic writing. Author, Tom Romano, in his book Crafting Authentic Voice, states that, "Strict from is a voice blocker, a voice stopper, a voice skewer." Storytelling does the opposite by allowing the writer to hear what the story will sound like in a certain voice, which gives the story life --Makes the story colorful with tone, pitch, and also facial expressions that physically show what the character is feeling (Makes for great writing).

Storytelling is also a valuable technique to model how writers "rehearse" their story before writing it down. I often rehearse what I'm going to write in my head way before the pen hits the paper--Jogging, shower, car ride, on the beach, etc... are places where this usually happens. And it doesn't stop until the piece is finished. The storytelling (how it sounds) continues into the revision stages of a piece and I feel comfortable with sharing it.

Great, useful article for all teachers to try. Thanks!

Gaetan

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