10 ideas for bringing storytelling into the school day

My storytelling career began back in Rochester, New York, where I was a school librarian in a suburban community (Greece) north of the city. I didn’t think of it as storytelling when I told high school students stories in order to lure them into reading. Sometimes it backfired when a whole classroom of students would rush to borrow the one copy of the book.

It wasn’t until I asked the school district to move me to an elementary school that I began to put a name to what I was doing. Placed in a school with grades K-3, I found myself with 24 classes a week trooping into the library. Teachers got a 45-minute break, and I got a library full of squirmy children. They did not need the research skills I’d been teaching teens. They did need stories.

One day I decided to try telling them a story, instead of reading it. “Where’s the book?” the kindergarten class wanted to know.

“In your head,” I replied.

As I started the story, I felt an unfamiliar stillness in the room. This class had always enjoyed hearing books read to them. This was different, as if every child in the room was holding his or her breath while the story unfolded in their heads.

A five-year-old with straight brown hair and wide brown eyes leaned closer and closer as the story unfolded. When it ended, her eyes were still glazed, as if she were reluctant to leave the landscape of the tale. Finally, her whole body relaxed and she sighed, “That was a good story.”

Delight on listeners' faces

During a very special fifteen months, I was Storytelling Director for Stagebridge, the oldest senior theatre troupe in America. This was a scene I saw over and over, delight on the faces of intergenerational audiences, listening to Stagebridge storytellers.

I was hooked. I still read books to all the classes, but I also told stories, letting the words spin through their minds, triggering a kind of intense listening unlike anything else I did with them.

When I left teaching to take to the road as a professional storyteller, I discovered that intense listening occurred with people of all ages. And I realized the teachers who still shine in my memory were all storytellers.

Here are ten suggestions for making storytelling a natural part of classroom culture.

1. Use stories to explore various phenomena: stages of growth, old age, customs and traditions. Stories abound on the Web. A good place to start looking for them is on Jackie Baldwin’s Story Lovers Web site.

2. Enliven the study of history by telling anecdotes about the famous and not so famous.

3. Read or tell stories to begin the study of a new country, a new concept, or a current issue.

4. Reluctant or struggling scholars like to know that Einstein had problems in school or that Galileo got in trouble for telling the truth. Share with them the people behind the scientific discoveries.

5. Tell stories about yourself: childhood memories, struggles and triumphs, humorous anecdotes.

6. Share your excitement whenever you read or hear a story that moves you to laughter or tears or a sense of wonder. Don’t worry that you may not remember all the details. Your enthusiasm will tell them more than the words alone.

7. Encourage students to share their own stories: the puppy’s mischief, the monster in the closet, the first lost tooth, the first week in a new school. Having a chance to be center stage, to have everyone listening is a powerful experience. So is learning to be sensitive to an audience, to shape a story so that it captures the listeners.

8. Examine television and newspaper for stories. Talk about them with your students. Look at story structure, the natural rhythms of the story, character motivations and types, differences in styles.

9. Watch for story references in advertising. What familiar characters do you find? Share them with your students. Have them find others.

10. Tell a story for no reason, which is often the best reason. Revel in the pleasure of watching students listen to you more closely than they do at any other time. Know that your stories, told with enthusiasm and conviction, are one of the greatest gifts you can give your students. Don’t give a thought to technique while you are telling. Enter the story wholly. Your pleasure will be contagious.

©2010 Cathryn Wellner

Storytelling in the Classroom
15 ideas for expanding students’ understanding of a story
10 tips for turning students into storytellers

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Liz Weir - January 4, 2010

Excellent stuff, Cathryn!

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jeanne haynes - February 1, 2010

Cathryn – your beauty shines through this site. Felt like Id had a visit from you. Taking time out at the moment – never have enough time – to read a bit and watch first of all the video about changing the story. magnficient. watched it twice. plan to share it as a story. can you give me the translation of what the sign first said? something about compassion…
I assume this finds you well, as indeed you radiate wellness. xx’sJeanne

storyroute admin - February 1, 2010

Thanks so much for visiting Story Route. I still miss our wonderful conversations and hearing your stories. The sign means, roughly, “Have pity. I am blind.”

Much love headed your way.


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