Whether you teach kindergarteners or high school seniors, storytelling has a place in your classroom.
Storytelling is not just a performer standing in front of an audience or an elderly person in a rocking chair lost in the past. Effective teachers are often natural storytellers. Storytelling is the basis of our communication with others. It makes us human. Storytelling in the classroom provides an open door for children of all ages to reveal gifts and talents, insights and creativity, critical thinking and development of skills that help us all understand others. Storytelling adds depth that traditional methods of learning do not always inspire.
Teach your students to think of the events in their lives as important stories. If people begin to see their life’s events as stories, they can also see how they can change future stories by the choices they make. Explore “what if” to inspire learning.
Storytelling in the classroom is one of the “user-friendliest” techniques a teacher can employ. There are no papers to grade, yet the storytelling experience touches all communication skills and teaches meaning, fact and process.
Before presenting various storytelling activities, there are some basics students must learn. One is that storytelling has three parts: telling, listening, and discussing the story afterwards.
Telling stories comes naturally to most people. To those who doubt their abilities, suggest they run “mind movies” of their stories in their heads. Then simply describe what they see, allowing themselves to feel the emotions of the various characters, thereby coloring their voice and body movements. Tell them that the brain automatically searches for logic and sequence. Storytelling is not memorization of a story. Stories, never told the same way twice, change as we change, as our understanding changes and as we grow.
Active listening components include: respect for the teller, eye contact, expressive reaction (such as appropriate laughter, smiles, sympathy, empathy), sitting close and asking questions for clarification. Model those. Practice those courtesies at the beginning of each storytelling activity.
The third part is discussion. The teacher should model how the discussion should progress and then let the students conduct it. Discussion includes compliments, comments, concerns, respect and questions. Before parting, students should thank those who shared their personal stories, inventiveness or knowledge. List and rehearse appropriate compliments, concerns and comments ahead of time.
The following activities can be used at any level from child to adult, from “Show ‘n’ Tell” to college physics. These are very simple but offer much room for change and modification to fit any teacher’s needs at any given time.
Building teams through storytelling
Building cooperative, friendly teams and classrooms that can cross barriers of prejudice, shyness and just plain differences allows utmost learning to take place. You can do one or more of these activities in one class period. If people ask why the kids seem to be socializing, note that this is “team building at its best.”
You will prevent future problems and disruptions by making time for these activities throughout the year.
Scar story telling
Telling scar stories is a wonderful getting-to-know-each-other activity that works for any age group. Everyone has a scar, whether visible or not. Everyone has a story about a scar, exaggerated or not. Students tell five-minute scar stories in partners. Then partners change, and the students tell their stories to new partners.
Students write on a nametag or index card, “Ask me about _______,” filling in the blank with something they feel comfortable sharing with anyone. The teacher should give guidelines on what is appropriate to share for that age group and can choose a general theme or give opportunities for an open-ended subject. General themes might include “something you’re proud of,” “something you want people to know about you that you think they do not,” “what you know about a particular subject,” and, when the class has reached trusting levels, “something embarrassing or funny.” This activity can be done in partners or in small groups, assigned or random. Encourage students to partner with those they do not know well.
Storytelling in a bucket
Every area of curriculum has its own set of vocabulary words. This activity takes those words from the page and gives them to the learner for life. Vocabulary words written on small cards are put into a bucket from which students draw a word.
Then students move around the room looking for others who have words that go with theirs. Choose your groups of words so the students have to struggle a bit to make the connections, yet they are still able to accomplish the task. Each set of four or five words should be different enough from other sets to define their separateness.
The teacher acts as a coach, guiding the formation of the groups with gentle nudges and whispers as needed. Once they have found each other, the groups then brainstorm how to tell their story using those words so that the other groups can not only guess the words but can gain a sense of their meaning from the story. Students should not need more than 10 minutes of preparation time.
Dictionaries and textbooks should be available for reference. After 10 minutes, whether ready or not, the planning stops, and storytelling begins. This is group storytelling (about three or four minutes per group) with dramatic and/or humorous overtones. How the group members tell the story should be left up to them.
Learning takes place most fervently when it connects to our own lives. Whether working from a literary, historic, mathematical or scientific base, “real-time storytelling” brings the children in touch with themselves and each other.
In partners or three-person teams, the students are told they may have to relate their partner’s story to a larger group—so they must listen with the idea of remembering. The students tell each other a true personal story that relates to the predetermined subject or object. For example, with a subject of “empathy,” whether a vocabulary word or in relation to a story students are reading, the student must relate a time when he or she was empathetic to someone, someone else was empathetic to that student, or the student witnessed empathy in action. If the student cannot think of such a time, encourage him or her to tell when empathy should have been in a situation but was not.
Allow about one minute of closed eyes for students to scan their memories, then about three to five minutes for the storytelling. Ring a bell half way through to let them know they need to conclude their stories and switch storytellers.
When everyone is finished or after five to seven minutes, the class comes back together, and the teacher asks for a volunteer who has heard a story that he or she feels especially defines what empathy is all about. Each student tells his or her partner’s story. In a large class or where there are many students wishing to share, divide the class into two or three groups, allowing individuals to tell to the smaller groups. This allows more students a telling opportunity. Encourage active listening at all times.
Creative object storytelling
Give an unusual, antique, common, odd, historic, indefinable, photographic or artistic object to partners or small groups with instructions to create a story as a team around that object. Certain vocabulary words or events can also be with the object to incorporate into the story. The teams brainstorm ideas about the object, preparing their stories in about five minutes. Two teams then pair up to share, giving feedback to one another on their presentations. Then teams separate, make changes, re-plan and reconfigure their stories as needed. They tell their enhanced stories to another team.
Many times, students will be so delighted with their stories that they will beg to write the stories. Let them! These storytelling activities make wonderful creative-writing prompts, and most of the rough drafts are done orally during the team planning and presentation time.
Stories can be told with movement, sound, drama, pantomime, rhyme, poetry, dance, chant, song, comedy, art, slapstick, and a sense of great seriousness or silliness. The form doesn’t matter, but the expression, the creativity and the respect for listening and responding matters. The communication matters. We learn who we are by our stories. Will our students know what kinds of stories to live, to tell, to choose for the future if they have no chance to practice in school? Storytelling is the most human of all communication tools, and it belongs in our classrooms.
Growing up a storyteller
Jefferson City high school teacher Sheila Plummer says she has been performing stories “forever,” although she’s performed professionally for 10 years.
“I grew up surrounded by the oral tradition,” she explains. “At suppertime, grace was given, and food passed by the oldest member at the table. Each person at the table was expected to share the events of the day beginning with the eldest. All the adults around me related their day in ‘character.’
I thought that was just the way it was supposed to be done. Now, I find it was storytelling.”
Plummer, Jefferson City CTA president and member of the MNEA Board of Directors, says that storytelling is especially important in times of tragedy.
“It is stories that bind us together,” she says. “My personal story of Sept. 11 is a source of healing for me and has helped those who have heard it. It is through stories that hope is given a face and maintained. Storytelling should be one of the Red Cross offerings.”
With storytelling always a part of Plummer’s life, it’s only natural for her to use those skills in her classroom. She’s taught since 1972, currently teaching emotionally disturbed students. She says a day doesn’t go by without a story becoming an integral part of her presentation and interaction with students.
To invite Sheila Plummer to perform in your community, call her at (573) 449-5068.