15 ideas for expanding students’ understanding of a story

The tips below can also be used as writing prompts and not just in schools. I started using these years ago, when I taught a group of third-grade students to become storytellers.

One child in particular stands out in my mind. Robbie was a shy boy, the kind who can easily be overlooked because he never speaks up, never acts out, always does his homework. I was stunned when he applied to join the school’s first storytelling troupe.

Cathryn Wellner in Belfast

Though she had never met me, Irish storyteller Liz Weir, welcomed me into her home and set up a storytelling tour for me. This was back in 1988. Liz was a librarian at the time and has gone on to a distinguished career as a storyteller and writer. Here I

I was a school librarian at the time and asked his teacher if she thought Robbie could learn to be a storyteller. I can’t remember her exact words, but it was on the order of, “If you can teach a dishrag to dance.” She wasn’t being mean, just honest.

Still, Robbie’s mother was my best volunteer. I’m not proud of myself for having approved Robbie’s request to keep his mother onside.

Within a few weeks, Robbie not only chose and learned his own story. He learned everyone else’s. He became the troupe’s coach. When a storyteller froze on stage and couldn’t remember the story, Robbie quietly fed her lines until she recovered. When another fell ill, Robbie stepped in and told his tale.

And Robbie could spin stories like a master. He didn’t just recite the stories. He became the stories. You could see it on the enthralled faces of his audiences, children and adults alike.

Robbie telling stories

Robbie telling stories as a member of the Longridge Elementary Storytelling Troupe

At the end of the year, his mother told me she had been shocked when Robbie asked her to sign his application. “Why do you want to be a storyteller,” she had asked. “You’re too shy.”

Her quiet son had replied, “I think it’s time I stopped being so shy.”

I’ve no idea if Robbie’s life was changed by his transformation from invisible boy to animated storyteller, but I know mine was. If I’d had the slightest doubt of the transforming power of storytelling, I lost it as I watched Robbie take the stage.

1. Identify the beginning, middle, and end of a story. Draw pictures for each. Retell the story using the pictures.

2. Act out scenes from familiar stories. Crawl right into the characters. How would a troll rise from under a bridge? How would a wolf speak to a child in a red cape? How would a chicken run from a falling sky?

3. Compare as many variants of a folktale as you can find. Choose variants that come from different cultures. In a study of world cultures, folktales reveal both similarities and differences. The Cinderella story is a good example. Similar stories are told around the world: Aschenputtel in Germany, The Magic Orange Tree in Haiti, Vasilisa the Beautiful in Russia. Nancy Keane has put together a list of many of these variants.

4. Write a different ending for a familiar story. Supposing the queen had not guessed Rumpelstiltskin’s name? What if the frog had never turned into a prince? What if the three bears had lived in a city apartment?

5. Retell a story from the viewpoint of one of the characters. How would the witch tell the story of Hansel’s and Gretel’s nibbling on her house? How would the oldest step-sister tell the story of Cinderella?

6. Write imaginary conversations between characters. Have Jack and the Giant talk about the magic beanstalk and all the things Jack stole. Bring together characters from different stories. Molly Whuppie and Jack could compare notes on their adventures with giants. They could write letters to each other.

7. Have students retell a familiar story in pairs. One begins; the other takes over when you call, “Switch.” This is a challenge to listening, sequencing, and memory skills.

8. Change the motivation of a central character. Rewrite the story from that point of view. Make Snow White’s stepmother into a sympathetic character. What if Rumpelstiltskin was trying to save the queen from a king who only wanted to marry her because she could spin gold?

9. Describe characters in a story. What does little Red Riding Hood look like? The Frog Prince? The giant who confronts Jack?

10. Describe the landscape of a story. What does the Three Bears’ house look like? What kind of a forest surrounded the house of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother? What was the weather like when the goats came tripping over the bridge?

11. Read pourquoi (how-and-why) tales that contemplate the origins of natural phenomena. Then have students write their own. What are rainbows? How did skunk get his special weapon? What formed the mountains? Why do koalas sleep most of the day?

12. Experiment with body language. What one gesture could characterize the princess who slept on a pea? How would the Beast stand and move in the presence of Beauty?

13. Have students write in a journal as though they were a story character. What would one of the dwarfs write in his on the day Snow White appears? What would a robber write in his after being frightened by the Brementown musicians? What would Cinderella have to say about her stepsisters?

14. Publish a newspaper with folk tale headlines and articles. “Chicken leg fools witch.” “Blowhard wolf meets his match.” “Hundred-year sleep ends with kiss.” (Imagine how the Personals column would read!)

15. Ask students to write a song or chant for the characters in a story. What does Jack sing as he climbs the beanstalk? What does the princess chant when the frog asks her to take him home?

©2010 Cathryn Wellner

Storytelling in the Classroom
10 ideas for bringing storytelling into the school day
10 tips for turning students into storytellers

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Storytelling in the Classroom « Story Route - January 13, 2010

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