Once upon a time, in a classroom not very far from where we are right now, a pair of storytellers descended upon the third grade. Now, these two characters were known throughout the land as Mitch and Martha, and they traveled throughout the school, spinning yarns and encouraging even the most reluctant sharers to tell tales of their own.
This is no fairy tale: storytelling is still alive and well and, in some schools, considered a vital element of the educational experience. Authors and storytellers Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss have made it their lives’ work. Known collectively as Beauty & the Beast Storytellers, the couple has published numerous collections of fables and folktales, and they travel the country as Artists in Residence at elementary schools that recognize the value of storytelling to the elementary curriculum.
Harrison Elementary School in Livingston, NJ, hosts Mitch and Martha annually. (This program is paid for with PTA fundraising efforts.) Several weeks before their arrival, teachers begin to prepare students for the storytelling unit. The children read a collection of stories representing cultures from all around the world. Media specialist Colleen Caulfield helms this effort, and connects it to what she has taught the kids about the Dewey decimal system. During the spring, visitors to the cafeteria are likely to hear a chorus of “Fairy tales, tall tales, pour quoi too! / Look in 398.2!” Each student selects a story to develop, and begins to read and re-read.
Mitch and Martha then arrive to great fanfare. At a schoolwide assembly, they present one of their much beloved “Noodlehead” stories (more on these later), and then rush off to spend a week working with the third graders and their teachers to hone each student’s presentation. The unit culminates with the Storytelling Festival. Parents and families are invited into the classroom, and each student commands the room with a story well-told. A numbert of them will subsequently develop a taste for attention and applause, but that’s show business.
“Just telling a Story?” In my opinion, there’s not a more practical life skill to be taught to these nine-year olds. Fast forward twenty-five years. In this “real life” scenario, any math situation that stumps them can be farmed out to a colleague or friend. Sorting creatures into phylum/genus/species might be interesting on a hike in the woods (I’m assuming we’ll still have woods), but will be more quickly and accurately done by the Google implant hidden just below our hikers’ left ears. But telling a coherent tale from beginning to end? That just doesn’t have a date with obsolesence.
Consider just a few of the many applicable skills being addressed in a story telling unit:
- Mapping a story to find a beginning, middle and end
- Sifting the wheat from the chaff to distinquish important elements from irrelevant details
- Memorizing for theme and content
- Improvising for syntax and compelling delivery
- Speaking in front of a small group (rehearsal)
- Receiving and offering constructive criticism in a peer group
- Speaking in front of a large group
- Communicating values through story
Quaint, to be sure, but NOT antiquated. Even in our increasingly e-content world, interpersonal communication still matters. Speaking, listening and understanding matter. Always will. There is no e-substitute on the horizon for delivering a story with the eye contact and give-and-take between audience and story teller that is so essentially human.
We accept that children develop a written vocabulary through their lives as readers, right? They work toward a mastery of idiom, hyperbole, character development, plot and other tools by encountering them in their reading, understanding them in context, and finally developing the confidence to use them in their own writing. But storytelling aloud accelerates this chain reaction. Furthermore, this process is an equalizer that levels the playing field, enabling students of all abilities to succeed. In fact, this wiping clean of the slate can give a jump start to struggling writers and readers, providing a platform on which spoken and written language powerfully connect.
A squishier element of the storytelling unit is the delicate matter of values. Values in the classroom…it’s enough to trigger an audit of public education dollars, no? But the oral tradition of myths, fables and tall tales has historically been the means by which we communicate wisdom and life lessons to succeeding generations. In the Teaching Guide to their six-week curriculum Children Tell Stories, Hamilton and Weiss cite Joseph Campbell and Bruno Bettelheim, among others, in asserting the benefits of storytelling. “Folk and fairy stories teach lessons without didactism, and stimulate emotional development. These stories, which have been refined in their retellings through the centuries, convey at the same time overt and covert meanings…Children identify with characters who struggle to overcome difficulty, and in the process they are provided with numerous problem-solving and decision-making exercises.”
Hamilton and Weiss outline an eloquent defense of storytelling’s place in the classroom. In brief, they assert:
- Hearing stories stimulates the imagination.
- Hearing stories instills love of language in children and motivates them to read.
- Hearing stories improves listening skills.
- Hearing stories improves many language skills, such as vocabulary, comprehension, sequencing, and story recall.
- Hearing stories encourages creative writing.
- When students listen to stories as a group they pick up on the many catchwords and phrases that are found in the tales. These references become the basis for a classroom subculture.
This last point is not to be underestimated. Stories (such as those of a hardworking ancestor or an unlucky nephew) are the connective tissue that keep a family whole and bonded. Legends (the blizzard of ’94) bond a community. Other groups, like Steelers fans, are glued together by a common folklore, too. In a classroom, the stories shared with one another serve to gel a group.
In storytelling, this bonding happens though a shared reaction. In an elementary school classroom, the most desirable shared reaction is laughter. Hamilton and Weiss know this, and they also know that nothing guarantees laughter like a numbskull. To that end, their book Noodlehead Stories: World Tells Kids Can Read and Tell features the rich global folklore of fools so silly that their heads may in fact be filled with noodles. There’s no place for mean-spiritedness here. In both their live performances and their written curriculum guides, they emphasize that these stories should be told in a way that celebrates the noodlehead in all of us. We’ve all been foolish at one time or another, and laughing together at our common noodleheadedness is a great place to begin.