George Lucas Educational Foundation
Communication Skills

Back to Elementary School With Storytelling

Engaging in storytelling gives students an opportunity to connect with each other and understand classroom expectations.

July 5, 2023
Hero Images Inc. / Alamy

I’ve extolled the benefits of storytelling in the classroom. For this blog post, I want to emphasize the importance of starting the new school year with storytelling. I’ve done this every year for the past 15 years, and next year I will be teaching third grade, and I’ll do it again. Let this be a guide for how to establish storytelling in the classroom, right on the first day. I’ll also describe the many lasting benefits that follow as the school year proceeds. 

Why Storytelling Works

Storytelling is one of the oldest of all communal human traditions, going back tens and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of years. Like music and art, it has been found in every human community and culture. Some linguists and anthropologists see storytelling as intrinsically linked with the development of language, a social brain, and culture. (Kendall Haven’s book Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story also explores the scientific aspects of storytelling in depth.)

What’s not contested is that storytelling has always been a way of imparting knowledge, advice, and culture while at the same time bonding a group of people together. It’s not surprising, then, that storytelling appears to be hardwired into our neurological makeup. We are a storytelling animal—Homo narrator.

Children Love Stories

This hardwiring aspect is part of the reason why children appear to automatically love stories. Every teacher and parent has experienced the magic effect that reading or telling a story has on children.

Recently, two kindergarten classes came to my school as a follow-up to my visiting them as a storyteller. We had an hour of stories: two by me and one by one of my students. Several of the children in the visiting classes had struggled with emotional and behavioral regulation. Yet, when it was time for storytelling, they were just as engaged as their peers. Children arrive with the capacity to receive and process stories. All they require is a willing teacher to share them.

Get Students Involved

My particular style of storytelling is one that I developed while observing storytellers perform in locations around London, such as the British Library and the British Museum. Then I learned through experimenting with my first grade-one class. 

Rather than my just telling a story, I invite the students to become involved as actors. They then enact the story as I tell it. This creates a theatrical element that, amazingly, requires no preparation with the students. The audience will be enraptured. You can also invite them to contribute by making sound effects.

Explain the Process to Students 

I tell my first story on the first day. Before I start the story, I explain to the class the process behind my type of storytelling—a process that will be repeated all year. I do the following:

  • I tell the students that I will tell a story and I need volunteers. “Who can help me?” Most hands shoot up. This is the case from pre-K to fifth grade.
  • I explain how I will audition/pick students based on their responses to a character I describe. I ask them to show me with their body—no sounds at this stage. You don’t want a room full of clucking chickens.
  • I tell the class that everyone will have their turn, but they will need to be patient. I write a visible list on the whiteboard of names of the people I pick.
  • Adherence to our brand-new start-of-the-year, co-created class rules/agreement is essential in being picked. Storytelling is a motivating way to establish and maintain behavioral expectations.

Once I’ve told the first story, the students all know what is expected and often demand more. In my experience, storytelling never fails to foster creativity, community cohesion, and a sense of belonging and enjoyment in school. I want my students to go home on the first day and talk about how fun it was. 

You Are Not the Show

For many years, I’ve created workshops to model this interactive method of storytelling to teachers, always bringing students with me. I try to reassure teachers by telling them that they already possess the necessary skills: You’re already a storyteller because you’re a human. Your whole life has been immersed in stories. Your audience is willing and waiting. You don’t even need to memorize the story. Reading aloud from a book or a piece of paper is just as captivating. This is because you are not the show, the story and your students are. 

Long-Term Benefits

I tell a story every day for the first two or three weeks. I also suggest that the students can become storytellers themselves. All they need to do is write a story at home. After a few weeks of my telling stories, something magical always happens: A student brings in a story. We have the first student storyteller! This is even more fun than having me tell stories, and it inspires other students to write stories. An entire classroom culture can spring up, and your biggest problem will be managing the enthusiasm. Storytelling is just as engaging for students with learning challenges, neurological diversity, and language needs.

I have many examples from my career, but one that springs to mind is a fifth-grade student who had been out of the class for several years, due to challenges with behavior and needing an aide. He became a leading storyteller, which allowed for a complete reintegration into the classroom and the curriculum, as well as dramatically changing the reputation he had gained with his peers.

By beginning the school year with storytelling, you’ll discover the endless, joyful well of imagination that exists in your students. Engaging in this practice will give them a means for expression and opportunities to be role models and leaders. Students will see how fun reading and writing can be, and you’ll foster a community that everyone will want to be a part of. All you need to do is something you were born to do: tell a story.

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Filed Under

  • Communication Skills
  • English Language Arts
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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