Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Literacy Development in the Storytelling Classroom

The book I'd like to share today is Literacy Development in the Storytelling Classroom.

Edited by Sherry Norfolk, Jane Stenson and Diane Williams, this collection of about seventy essays, written by storytellers and teachers, holds a lot of valuable theory, tips, activities, and food for thought for the classroom teacher. And therein lies a challenge for me– how can I suggest that storytelling be added to everything else already in our jam packed days?

I'll start by saying storytelling should not be thought of as an add on, but a valuable tool that gets at the heart of what we strive to do with students, regardless of the grade taught. We all know that learning begins with oral language. For most teachers I would be preaching to the choir by pointing out that oral language precedes reading and writing, and therefore children must be exposed to literate, clear, and expressive spoken word. As students grow they are continually building upon their language base by being exposed, in meaningful context, to more and more language. Research tells us children who are exposed to few words have a poor foundation for learning.

Children must do more than just hear the words, but be able to create mental pictures to create meaning. When children hear language within a story context, the cerebral cortex, that area of the brain in charge of higher neural functions, must create new neural cells and pathways in order to comprehend the story. This is an active process of actually growing the brain. Allowing students to hear stories is critically important and that can be accomplished through read alouds, to be sure. Our brains seek out and respond so well to stories that read alouds are a favorite part of the day for teachers and students alike.

If read alouds accomplish this growth, do we need to tell stories as well? Yes. There is a critical difference between storytelling and the read aloud, and that hinges on relationship. The more research we do on learning, the more we realize just how critical the teacher-student relationship is– good teachers intuitively know the value of strong relationships, as they see the results with their students. When we tell a story, as compared to read a story, we build connection through eye contact. When a teacher as storyteller looks the listener in the eye, the relationship is strengthened each time.

Listening to stories in my old classroom... well, except for one distracted by the camera
Oh, no, Kathleen, you can't mean that on top of everything else, you want us to memorize stories for our kids! To that I say, you already have! Think about fairytales and the important role they have in elementary classrooms, because so many language arts lessons come from them. You already know these stories! So when you launch a fairytale unit, tell the story to your students the first time, instead of just reading it.

Another time when you can purposefully use storytelling is during writers' workshop. Small moment writing is crucial to our writing instruction, and what is a small moment but a story from one's own life. You already know your story, so tell that story to your students each time, before you take up the pen to write it.
Listening to stories in my current classroom
But I've heard storytellers and I can't tell a story like they do! I'll say what I say to teachers who tell me they can't sing– the kids don't care. You don't have to tell long stories with hundreds of characters, twisting plots, and special voice inflection. Whether telling a fairy tale or a small moment story you are telling a story that is yours, and your students will love your story and you, just for the gift of sharing this way. Remember this is about building oral language and relationship. And besides, the more you tell on a regular basis, the better you'll get at it.

You can do it. You are a storyteller. And to help you further the goal, I recommend you read Literacy Development in the Storytelling Classroom.  It's a fast read because each selection in the book is just a few pages long and there are lots of used copies available on line to save a few bucks, too. This collection not only gives teachers a rationale for why storytelling should be in every classroom, it talks about great stories and great ways to expound on them. Tell to your class and you'll be surprised at the many benefits you and your students reap!

I would be remiss if I did not mention that Donna Washington, storyteller from North Carolina, recommended this book as a book club selection for my storytellers' guild. She did several storytelling sessions for students, and a teacher workshop for our district last year. She is also a featured writer in Literacy Development in the Storytelling Classroom. Check out her blog by clicking on her picture.

Thanks to Deanna Jump for her Book Talk Tuesday Link-up. Click to find more great books!

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