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Ten Years of Teaching #10: The Importance of Storytelling

Stories are powerful. Children weave storytelling into play, make up exciting and often unbelievable stories to share with friends and glean important lessons from story books. Embracing storytelling in both my classroom and in my educational philosophy transformed my teaching. My classroom is now full of times to tell and appreciate great stories, but it wasn’t always that way.

A few years ago I was teaching a K/1 class at a small progressive school. I had been reading about a way to help students expand on their verbalization as a pre-writing skill and we were all having a lot of fun with the exercises. I would draw a really rudimentary picture without any color and the kids would share what they saw- dog, tree, house, pig, etc. And then something almost magical would begin to happen, they would go from the concrete level of what was on the page to making inferences about what was likely happening in the picture. If there was a picture of a cabin with smoke coming out the chimney, students would say, “someone’s home and they started a fire.” From there, they could expand about the story. I would say, “tell me more” and the kids would describe intricate details about characters, the setting and sometimes problems that might exist in the imaginary world they were collaboratively creating. It was a fun activity that I’m just now realizing I haven’t used in a long time… huh. I might dust that one off for tomorrow.

Anyway, one day something exceptional happened while working on this verbalizing activity. We were looking at a picture that was a simple sketch of an old man feeding a squirrel while sitting on a park bench. My class began from the concrete elements and then I witnessed one of those amazing teaching moments that was unplanned, effortless and awesome. The students began to weave an interesting story about the old man taking the squirrel home because he was lonely. The squirrel was a good pet at first, but it trashed his house and was a bit of terror as time wore on. The kids were all contributing equally without raising hands or interrupting one another. They built an amazing story from a quick sketch. Their interest and energy facilitating a truly amazing exchange with ten highly invested young learners. I honestly was able to step back and watch the process unfold before me.

When they were done, the class had created a lovely story about the old man and the squirrel with a perfect story arc. I suggested that maybe we should write the story down and make it into a book, but the class didn’t like that idea. The oral story telling had flowed effortlessly, but writing was challenging for the young group and they feared something would be lost. We decided the story would live in our hearts and, in that moment, that would be the end.

As luck would have it, fate intervened and that night when two of my students who were twins went home and told their parents about the old man and the squirrel. The next day the parents donated a video camera to the school and, with that one act of generosity, completely transformed the way I teach and totally ruined my sleep schedule for the next two weeks because that camera and computer editing was very new to me.

We began production of The Old Man, the Old Woman and the Squirrels the next day. The kids decided to add characters so everyone would have a part. The movie’s audio was really hard to hear and some of the cuts were a little rough but the film was Oscar gold in all of our hearts.

The Old Man

On a cold December evening The Old Man, the Old Woman and the Squirrels debuted to a classroom packed with students, parents and siblings. The kids gasped as each of their names graced the big screen and they laughed themselves silly during the funny scenes.

Seeing how powerful and engaging movie making and storytelling can be changed me as a teacher. Since then I have been part of making about twenty movies with students and it’s become an activity that each class requests. I’ve also fully embraced story telling in my classroom and we frequently drink tea and have large blocks of time to practice storytelling and listening. I love to hear about what the kids are playing and how their imaginations are forming complicated games and pretend bakeries just outside the classroom window. I feel so lucky to hear, see and experience my students stories and share my own from time to time.

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