Telling Tales In School

February 01, 1990 7 min read

For decades, the art of storytelling has been overshadowed by print, radio, and television. Now, Americans are falling in love with it again.

Nowhere is the return of storytelling more obvious than in the nation’s schools. A few years ago, most administrators had no particular interest in storytelling. Now, many are scheduling inservice programs to teach staff members how to integrate the oral tradition into the curriculum, hosting storytelling performances and hiring professional tellers to teach children how to “spin a yarn.’'

“When I first began, nobody knew what a storyteller was,’' says Syd Lieberman, an Illinois high school teacher who first started weaving tales in 1982 and has become one of the country’s bestknown storytellers. “Now, I’m getting calls from all kinds of schools.’'

Schools are using storytelling in a variety of ways. Many simply hire a professional storyteller to perform at an assembly, says Lieberman, who is frequently asked to do “thematic’’ performances such as telling ghost stories for Halloween.

The main purpose is entertainment, but such performances allow students to exercise their imaginations even when they are sitting still. “That’s terribly important because, with TV, kids aren’t getting the chance to do that anymore,’' says Barbara Lipke, a 5th grade teacher and storyteller in Brookline, Mass. “There is this wonderful story about a kid who saw a folktale acted out on TV, then heard the same story on the radio. When he was asked which one he preferred, he said, ‘The story on the radio, because the pictures were better.’'

But in an increasing number of schools, the story doesn’t end with such performances. In Jackson County, Ore., for example, the work of storyteller Barbara Griffin has become part of the curriculum in 10 school districts, reaching more than 13,000 children and 135 teachers every year.

In sessions that are coordinated with the language arts curriculum in grades 1-6, Griffin teaches students how to research, learn, and perform legends from ancient civilizations. She says that researching parallel or variance tales (those from different cultures that have the same theme) helps students improve their library skills. Learning to turn stories they research into “tell-able’’ tales gives students valuable public speaking experience.

But the benefits of the activities don’t stop here. As students learn to tell myths and legends, they explore foreign cultures from the inside out. “When kids have the chance to learn the tales, take them to heart, it gives them a better understanding of the wisdom of people who are entirely different,’' Griffin says. “Hopefully, when kids learn that every culture has a different way of explaining things-- for instance, that the Indian talks about how Raven brought light to the world--they’ll understand that cultural differences are O.K. The more kids understand cultural mores, the better off we’ll be in the future.’'

Approaching the study of mythology, folklore, and literature from a storyteller’s point of view is also a way for teachers to engage children with reading and learning problems. Mary Carter Smith, a Baltimore teacher turned professional storyteller, for example, uses her craft to interest inner-city youths in the classics. By performing gripping versions of stories like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,’' students discover that “there are classics within their reach,’' she says.

Stories can also stimulate learning in other subject areas, storyteller Sheila Dailey says. In her seminars on the use of storytelling in the curriculum, sponsored by Central Michigan University, Dailey inspires teachers to tell folktales in all classes. “Hearing stories excites the imagination,’' she says. “And the stimulation of imagination is the beginning of all creativity, whether in math, science, or literature.’'

She recounts an abridged version of a folktale that gets kids thinking about exponential growth: “There was a king and a dragon in the land. And the king offered to give his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who could slay the dragon. A young peasant did the deed and came to collect his reward. Seeing that he was a peasant, the king reneged. ‘Ask of me anything but this,’ said the king. So the peasant said, ‘Let me have one grain of rice today and double it every day for the next 64 days.’ Well, the king thought he was a fool and agreed to the bargain. On the first day the king gave the peasant 1 grain, on the second, 2, then 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, and 256....’'

By this time, Dailey says, students are caught up in the story. So she gives each of them a 64-square grid and a couple of pounds of rice and lets them try to figure it out. “The kids love it,’' she says. “By the time you hit the 64th day, the number is colossal! Of course the king didn’t even make it that far. On the 40th day, the palace was overflowing with rice, and in desperation, the king says, ‘Enough, enough. Take my daughter’s hand in marriage. Just don’t ask for any more rice!’''

The “real kicker,’' Dailey says, is that teachers can use the concrete understanding about exponential growth that the students have learned from the story to talk about problems like overpopulation and AIDS.

Many storytelling activities focus on personal stories rather than historical tales and myths. A program developed by Brookline teacher Barbara Lipke, for example, encourages students to collect family stories.

“During my unit on immigration, I send kids home to interview their families,’' explains Lipke, who was asked by her district to teach her storytelling techniques to students and teachers in eight schools. The students then must shape family recollections into stories they can perform. The experience makes history come alive and often brings families closer together, she says.

One child came back to Lipke’s class with the story of her father’s escape during the Holocaust. “Until his daughter had interviewed him, he had never told the story to anyone,’' Lipke says. “His wife thanked me because the assignment provided the opportunity for him to talk about it.’'

The idea of collecting stories based on family or community history has captured the imagination of the folks at IBM. They have decided to sponsor a project called “Tell Me a Story,’' which they hope will get children all over the country involved.

Last fall, they mailed every elementary school in the country a curriculum guide that explains how to teach kids to develop their own folktales. The project will culminate in March with the announcement of the winners of a national storytelling contest, co-sponsored by Good Housekeeping magazine.

Developed by Gloria Houston, an education professor at the University of South Florida, the IBM curriculum guide outlines methods for teaching children how to interview family or community members, take notes, and turn the notes into a “tell-able’’ tale. Unlike many programs involving storytelling, Houston encourages teachers to use the oral material to stimulate writing activities. She advocates a “process writing’’ approach, in which students work with partners as they edit and revise their work. The emphasis is on the writing rather than on the finished project.

“Years ago, we expected perfect prose to flow from the pen,’' she says. “Now we realize that children should be expected to write the way we all write, which is by writing a draft, sharing it with a peer, and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting.’'

Children are motivated to work hard because their stories have personal meaning, Houston says.

“Students have an immediate emotional and intellectual investment in family stories because the language is familiar and the story comes from someone they love,’' she explains.

There is no doubt in Houston’s mind that the project makes better writers out of children, but she believes an even more important benefit is enhanced self-esteem. Spending class time on family stories says to the child, “I’m from good people,’' she explains. “That is especially good for ‘languagedifferent’ children whose home language isn’t standard English.’'

Having grown up in the mountains of North Carolina, Houston was a “language-different’’ child. She remembers feeling like a “second-class citizen’’ because she spoke in an Appalachian dialect and used country idioms in her writing and speech.

As a writer and lover of language, Houston does not want the vernacular to be “educated out’’ of students. Teaching them to use local speech in the narrative descriptions and dialogue of stories will keep alive the unique dialects and idioms that give this country so many different flavors, she says.

Most storytellers and their fans agree that the craft and teaching go hand-in-hand. Many school administrators, such as Richard Haugh, coordinator of Jackson County’s storytelling program, have come to realize this and are using it like mortar to fill in the cracks.

“It improves language skills, speaking skills, organizing skills,’' Haugh says. “But it also brings out those things that aren’t normally covered in the curriculum. It awakens an awareness of a tradition that has been sleeping in the corner for a long time.’'

--Mary Koepke

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Telling Tales In School