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

Storytelling in the Classroom

What Robert Frost said of a poem can also be said of a well-told story. “It begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” There are few more effective tools than storytelling for developing listening skills, teaching predictive thinking, enhancing language and communication skills, and building a positive atmosphere in the classroom.

William Smith

William Smith, one of my favorite Oakland (California) storytellers, could enchant an audience of any age

Best of all is the power of the story itself. The imagination is freed to create, the heart to feel, the mind to understand.

As a salute to the new year and as a gift to teachers, the next three Story Route postings will be suggestions for bringing storytelling into the classroom.

The suggestions are not meant to replace that simplest and best way of sharing a story—telling it when the urge is strong and with no educational motive in mind. Rather, they are meant to encourage you to include stories in as many different parts of the school day as possible. They come from many years of teaching storytelling workshops and hearing feedback from participants who tried these out in their classrooms.

Watch for:
10 ideas for bringing storytelling into the school day

15 ideas for expanding students’ understanding of a story
10 tips for turning students into storytellers

From Service Dog to SURFice Dog

A big vote of thanks to Publicity Hound’s Joan Stewart for linking the video below to her latest newsletter. What a beautiful story to end the year.

Ricochet failed the training to become a service dog. Bird chasing was just too instinctual to his joyous nature. So the woman who worked with him looked for other strengths and found them. This little video tells a beautiful story that brought tears to my eyes. Let me know what you think of it.

And for those wanting some great “tips, tricks and tools for free publicity”, check out The Publicity Hound.

Believe Me: Why Your Vision, Brand, and Leadership Need a Bigger Story

Religious leaders, teachers, grandparents, politicians, and advertisers have long understood the power of storytelling. In recent years business and organizational leaders have caught on, thanks, in part, to the work of people like Michael Margolis, Annette Simmons, Lori Silverman, Steven Denning, Seth Kahan, Shawn Callahan, and Rick Davies.

Now Michael Margolis offers the gift of a free download of his insightful small gem, Believe Me: a storytelling manifesto for change-makers and innovators.  In the introduction he sets the stage for his premise that our “vision, brand, and leadership need a bigger story.” He writes, “If you learn how to change the story, you can change anything.”

Margolis structures Believe Me as a story in three acts: How ideas become reality; Engaging the status quo; and Finding relevance. Each “act” begins with a story that provides an over-arching metaphor for the chapter’s content. As he builds the case for story as an essential business tool, the author makes an equally strong case that narrative is the primary building block of all change.

I wish I had had this poetic little guide to organizational storytelling when I began my career in community development. What I came to understand through direct experience, Margolis articulates so clearly I would have re-read Believe Me every time I began a new project.

Every section of the book is filled with gems. While Believe Me is short enough to read in an hour, it is meaty enough I found myself slowing down to reflect. Much of my professional life has been about working with groups to move beyond a broken or limiting story. Both my successes and my failures have taught me the truth of Margolis’s statement, “We cannot force our beliefs onto anyone. We must create a story worth believing. The future rests in our ability to tell these kinds of stories.”

Margolis has plans for guides that will add the practical side to this philosophical treatise. Those planned are: “1) what stories every entrepreneur must master, 2) how to use stories to effect large-scale change, and 3) the powerful elements that can transform any brand into a cultural flashpoint.”

The initial taste offered in Believe Me will have readers returning for the full story.

9/11 from two sides of the US border

A Storied Career has become one of my favorite blogs. The tag line gives a sense of just how widely the author ranges over the field of storytelling: “Kathy Hansen’s Blog to explore traditional and postmodern forms/uses of storytelling.”

Shortly after I began following Kathy’s blog, she wrote an entry entitled, “We will Always Tell the Stories of this Tragic Day”. In it she wrote, “I continue to be fascinated, perhaps morbidly, by the idea of a post-9/11 culture, a notion first suggested to me by an art historian speculating about what would come after postmodernism.”

Having lived outside the U.S., except for a 15-month period, since 1990, I have watched in anguish as the country of my birth has circled the wagons in response to the tragedy. The erosion of freedoms and the rise of xenophobia known as “homeland security” have made me feel a stranger to my own country. I had to respond to the blog entry. Kathy posted my response as a guest essay, “Stories Should Honor 9/11 Victims But Not Define Pre- and Post-9/11 Culture”.

Kathy’s response was as articulate and thoughtful as I’ve come to expect. She wrote, “I think it is inevitable for historians and sociologists to examine pre- and post- eras: pre- and post-World War II, pre- and post-Vietnam, pre- and post-JFK assassination, pre- and post-election of Barack Obama. An event that shifts the cultural landscape and national/international psyche as cataclysmically as any of those changes history.”

Points well taken. (It’s worth reading her entire response.) Much as I dislike choosing 9/11 as a defining story, I acknowledge that it is one. And because it is, I look forward to the time when the U.S. can exchange it for a story that opens the country to others rather than isolating it as target or victim.

In the meantime, we can keep examining the impacts. This series of short videos on YouTube does just that. Dr. Michael MacDonald, Professor of Political Science at Tennessee State University, talks about the Patriot Act and homeland security.

Editing our stories

Years ago I read a book by Elizabeth Stone that I’ll likely refer to from time to time. In Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us, Stone dives into the mythology we create for our own lives.

A new edition of the 1989 book was issued in 2004 so I’m clearly not the only one who thinks Stone did a brilliant job of diving beneath the surface of the stories we tell about ourselves.

Here’s a quote: “…one’s autobiography is made up not just of what happened but of a view of oneself from a certain perspective. Given the perspective, certain facts, though true, are irrelevant, while other facts are accorded importance because they seem to support the vision of oneself, stated or unstated, that governs the autobiography. But even the facts that do matter have to be presented so that their significance is clear.”

Re-reading the quotation reminds me of the differing versions my mother and her two sisters told about the same people and events. Each fit differently into the three autobiographies. I used to shake my head. Now that I’ve spent decades editing my own life, I think it’s completely normal.

NB: Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins is still in print

Narratives for Dummies

Sterling Haynes

Sterling Haynes

[Sterling Haynes is one of my favorite humorists. We went to the same talk on personal narratives, but his response was a poem. I asked if I could post it here.]

The time has come,
the octogenarian said to himself,
to write my own obituary.
Leave all that stuff to my kids?

My real self will emerge
with piece of mind and a clear list
of priorities, plus all in complicated legalese.
Please read the fine lines and then the finer print.

A living will, power-of attorney, a health
care directive, life and disability insurance,
my registered will and executrix along with that
elusive key to my bank safety deposit box.

Then follow with organ donation forms,
complicated health care directives,
bank managers, lawyers, morticians, cremation forms,
pin numbers, bank numbers and noms des plumes [“doctor ex”].

Who am I? what have I become?…
An eight digit social insurance number
with easy access to revenue canada [ press#1 for English] and my charitable donations – $ to go?

What will happen to my facebook?
who will be my friends in my darkest hour?
Will my twittering be 140 characters or fewer
in my personal arena, as my weaknesses are revealed.

Have I lived vicariously? Which canadian
celebrity have I adopted to represent
my ideals in the after world?  Mind boggling,
all these shenanigans just burns me up.

Please… just remove my hearing aids,
open the oven and roll me in,

sunny side up.

[See also Sterling Haynes’s poem, Momma Does Milk, on Catching Courage.]

Sterling Haynes has just launched his new book, Wake-Up Call: Tales from a Frontier Doctor.

Telling Stories: Narratives Are Us!

Dr. Cynthia Mathieson holds up a copy of the September 7, 2007, Globe and Mail. Dated She has clipped a story about Kristen Worley, the transgendered Canadian cyclist who hoped to make Olympic history in 2008.

Mathieson is giving a talk she calls, “Telling Stories: Narratives Are Us!” for the UBC (University of British Columbia) Okanagan Deans’ Lecture Series. She is Acting Dean of the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences at the Kelowna campus of the University of British Columbia.

“The culture would not have been available to hear the story in our grandparents’ time,” Mathieson says. Sometimes a story tears at the roots of stereotypes, as did this one of an athlete who saw herself as a woman born to the wrong gender. “A story may force change in the way people think.”

It’s this kind of examination of the way stories work on us, and the way we work on them, that is the focus of Story Route. As Mathieson speaks, my mind buzzes. She talks about our drive “to make sense of the big story” when something as catastrophic as the air crash in Nova Scotia or the events of 9/11 trigger a profound cultural re-examination.

But it is personal narratives that are the focus of Mathieson’s work. Her enthusiasm spills over as she talks about the way we tell our most important stories, looking back and giving meaning to our lives.

The disruption that comes with crisis always leads to a new search for meaning. Our carefully crafted story no longer encompasses the new identity brought on by divorce, job loss or death of a loved one. So we edit again because our stories are “open ended, recursive” and the meaning we give to them changes.

She says, “self-journaling may be more important now, in turbulent times.” The full talk has been posted on the UBC Okanagan Web site. It’s worth downloading and listening to.

NB: A good read for anyone wanting to know more about why personal narratives are so important to us is Christina Baldwin’s Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story.

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