Reading to children is universally acknowledged as an important way to foster literacy, and there are many picture books and novels that are a delight to share with a class. This article makes a plea for reviving the art of oral storytelling in schools, an ancient practice that can stimulate the hearts and minds of listeners leading to an increased engagement in learning and a cohesive classroom community.
What is a story? It’s a group of words telling a narrative but that doesn’t express the essence of a story. Perhaps the best way to understand is through metaphor.
A story is a nourishing soup, it can feed the heart, provide comfort and be deeply satisfying.
A story is an artifact, it reminds us of ancient things. Stories link us to the past and the present in human culture. Stories describe universal needs like love, security, honesty, adventure, and discovery. The fairy tale archetypes of heroes and fools are universally familiar.
A story is a good friend, someone we turn to when we seek empathy and understanding. Stories are the social glue that mold a society transmitting common values in an imaginative rather than a didactic way.
A story is birdsong, it can entertain and sound musical and sweet. Oral stories in particular establish a connection between the storyteller and the audience. There is often a ritual to the beginning, “once there was and once there was not” and to the end, “a day will never end, a day continues to be.”
A story is a game we play with reality, it takes us to another place where we can make meaning, find patterns and perhaps gain insights and understanding. In a story we are safe from consequences, we can play with conflict without actually getting hurt. Through story the world can begin to make sense. Seeing how the characters in a story solve conflict and resolve problems we develop empathy, we see our own lives through a story lens.
We know that the mind is a storyteller. The mind looks for patterns in events around us and makes up a story about it. We seek to impose meaning on apparently random events. Our storytelling mind can get us into trouble if we misinterpret something we see or if it actively causes harm. We are hardwired to tell stories so it behooves us as teachers to enrich children with stories that will enable them to develop in healthy ways. People who are starved of stories will turn to those who can provide them, however negative the message.
Why should we tell stories to children in elementary schools? We should become storytellers because children at this age are living in a world of imagination. Think of their play world, how all-absorbing, complex and imaginative it is. Why would we not harness the power of imagination and play to teach? Waldorf School educators acknowledge the importance of the child’s imagination in learning using an oral story-based curriculum. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the worldwide Waldorf School movement, talked about imagination as something living and vital. By engaging the children in stories instead of delivering abstract concepts, seeds are planted for healthy development. (The Foundations of Human Experience: R. Steiner, Lecture 2). Judy Willis, neurologist, on the website Edutopia in September 2017, writes that delivering content in any class through a story has positive effects on students’ information retention. The positive connection established between the storyteller and the children establishes supportive conditions in the brain for learning and remembering. Feelings are engaged and more learning happens. Oral storytelling fosters that magical sense of flow in a classroom.
Stories are play. Stuart Brown writes that “Play isn’t the enemy of learning, it’s learning’s partner. Play is like fertilizer for brain growth. It’s crazy not to use it.” (Play, How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul: Stuart Brown, 2010) The play that elementary age children engage in is storytelling, it comes from inside, from an imaginative capacity that allows the child to integrate their experiences and grow as human beings. When storytelling is used in classrooms, learning becomes play.
Here’s an example of a math story that could be used to teach the concept of fractions.
Once there was an Italian named Antonio Pizza. Now Antonio liked to cook. It was his favourite thing to do. One day he was in his kitchen making bread. He mixed up flour and water, added the yeast and kneaded the dough. He left it to rise while he made some tomato sauce for a soup he wanted to make. Then he came back to the dough and punched it down.
“Now, what kind of bread shall I make today?” he thought. As he was thinking he was stretching out the dough this way and that way. Then he had an idea.
“I know,” he said, “why don’t I make it flat like a plate and put other things on it, like my very best tomato sauce here.” He spread that on top, and put on mushrooms and salami and pineapple and what else? “Cheese, that would be good.” So he got some cheese out of the fridge, grated it up and sprinkled it on top.
“Now, into the oven,” he said.
Soon the kitchen was filled with the most delicious smell. Antonio opened up the oven and took it out. Then he tasted it.
“Mmm,” he said, “this tastes really good. But I can’t eat this all myself. I’ll invite my neighbour in.”
So he called his neighbour in and Antonio cut the pizza in two and they each had a half.
The next day Antonio made pizza again and this time he invited both neighbours in so they had to divide the pizza into three equal pieces and each person had a third. By this time more people had heard about Antonio’s pizza. The next time Antonio made it four people came and he cut it into four equal pieces.
Eventually Antonio’s pizza became so famous that he opened a pizza restaurant, named after himself, and spent his days doing what he loved best.
The stories don’t have to be sophisticated. From my experience in elementary classrooms, I found children received these stories as a gift, however simple, and would recall them in future years. The important thing with these “teaching” stories is to be sure of the curriculum concept that you are trying to convey in an imaginative way. More than just a “hook,” oral stories of this kind feed the imagination, arouse feeling and engagement and relieve the tension that some children associate with academic learning. Stories can be used to enliven any curriculum area; it may be a challenge to translate learning outcomes into stories but it can be done.
Stories don’t have to be ones you make up. You can tell stories about the lives of mathematicians, scientists and explorers which bring topics to life. For example, you can introduce Arabic numbers with the story of Fibonacci, and describe the travails of Alexander Mackenzie as he trekked across Canada looking for a navigable route to the Pacific. Everything can be made interesting, it’s a question of finding the story in a topic.
It is also important to tell stories that speak to the developmental capacity of a child at a particular age. Fairy tales appeal to the dreamlike state of consciousness of the primary school age child. Then, around age 9 or 10 there is a profound change in consciousness. Children come to realize that the world is a complicated place, reality sets in, subject and object are differentiated. To meet this time, the Norse followed by the Greek myths are perfect with their tales of heroes and villains. The story of Loki, which tells how he starts off as a fairly benign trickster character but morphs into something altogether more evil, mirrors the disillusionment that can be quite profound at this age.
Oral storytelling has a key role to play in the Language Arts curriculum. In their book The Storytelling School, Handbook for Teachers, Chris Smith and Adam Guillain describe a sequence of activities that can be used to foster oral language and written language skills from telling one story. In my classroom, I used developmentally appropriate stories (for example, the Norse Myths in Grade 4) to teach specific writing skills by retelling and writing together. Children can become storytellers themselves, which enhances their oral language skills. Cultural awareness can be fostered by telling stories from different parts of the world. Story structure can be taught by telling varying kinds of stories (for example, stories that use repetition like The Gingerbread Man or number patterns like the 3s, 7s and 12s often found in fairy tales). There is a vast array of oral literature that can be introduced and played with: chants, rhymes, ballads, riddles, epics, tall tales, myths, fables, legends.
Finally, oral storytelling can be used in a therapeutic way; a classroom problem may be addressed in a story in a gentle way that restores harmony. Susan Perrow has written several collections of therapeutic stories for young elementary age children.
Embracing oral storytelling in a classroom takes some courage but the response from your children will be empowering. Here are a few resources that may help on this transformative journey:
Storytelling, Process and Practice by Norma J. Livo, Sandra A. Rietz
Storytelling for Life, Why Stories Matter and Ways of Telling Them by Josie Felce
The Art of Storytelling by Nancy Mellon
Suddenly They Heard Footsteps, Storytelling for the Twenty-First Century by Dan Yashinsky
An A-Z Collection of Behaviour Tales, From Angry Ant to Zestless Zebra by Susan Perrow
Storytelling for a Greener World edited by Alida Gersie, Anthony Nanson and Edward Schieffelin
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kate Reynolds taught in elementary school classrooms in Ontario, Alberta and BC for 32 years. Trained in both Public and Waldorf methodology, she retired in 2017 but continues to be actively involved in the art of oral storytelling. She will be co-teaching a course “Teaching with Heart” with the West Coast Institute for Studies in Anthroposophy in Duncan in July 2019. For more information or to share storytelling experiences, contact Kate at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2019 issue.