10 tips for turning students into storytellers
Someone said to me the other day that good storytelling can’t be taught. People are storytellers or they aren’t, and no amount of coaching can change that.
The same could be said about the best dancers, musicians, and painters. Some have such innate talent that, when they move to music or pick up an instrument or brush, inspiration seems to flow from them.
On the other hand, I’m reminded of the oft-quoted Henry Van Dyke, “Use what talents you possess, for the woods would be very silent if no bird sang except the best”.
I would argue that what Barbara Ueland, in If You Want to Write, says about writing is also valid for storytelling: “Yes, when you get down to the True self and speak from that, there is always a metamorphosis in your writing, a transfiguration.”
When someone tells a story from the “True self”, both the teller and the tale are transfigured. Sometimes all a person needs is permission to be her true self or to speak from his deepest wisdom.
When I began teaching storytelling, I tried all these tips with students. I soon found they were just as successful with adults.1. Use pantomime as a means of preparing students to tell stories. Push a heavy box across the floor, up a hill. Walk on a log high over a rushing river. Eat a banana. Be a slug, a seagull. Learn to ride a bicycle.
2. Do action-conversation skits. Be three fish and a heron in a polluted inlet. Be a garbage can, being filled, being emptied, standing in the rain. Be a car with a nail in its tire. Be the tip of an artist’s paintbrush. In each case, accompany the action with the character’s verbal reaction to the situation.
3. Convey impressions through gestures. What kinds of gestures, motions, poses, and facial expressions convey confusion, concern, friendliness, gregariousness, boredom, shyness, tension, fear, joy, confidence, uncertainty, surprise, interest?
4. Tell a story solely with gestures. Have a partner mirror them.
5. Use a painting or photograph as the basis for a story-building session.
6. Pose a character and a conflict, and do a story in the round. The leader starts the story; each person adds a few sentences, and on through the conclusion. Have students rewrite their own versions, letting their minds free for wild flights of imagination.
7. Make up excuse stories: Why I didn’t do my homework. Why I can’t clean my room. Why I lost the library book. Why I’d rather eat with my fingers. Why I can’t comb my hair.
8. Tell personal experience stories: I was so embarrassed… I’ve never had a pet like that before… That was my best birthday ever… I was so scared… I really got in trouble for that… I laughed until I cried… I’ll never forget my favorite tree…
9. Tell stories into a tape recorder. Listen to them. Improve on them. Add vivid description, lively dialogue. Record them again. Tell them to other students, to your family, to the class.
10. Tell folk tales. Learn the story as a series of images rather than as memorized words. Read the story over and over. Draw pictures of the important scenes. Use them to tell the story, then just tell the story.
NB: In my opinion, Barbara Ueland’s book on writing is still one of the best. I’m delighted to see it is still in print.
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