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Storytelling: just as important as read aloud.

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

Tell, not read. When I read Mindset for Learning a few years ago for the first time (it's one you'll revisit over and over again), the one technique in the book I glossed over was the storytelling. As a coach, with no class of my own, I didn't know how to make it work. Not knowing how to utilize it, I ignored it, but it always lingered in the back of my mind... Now, with a class of my own (I've stepped in and am teaching 1st grade for a teacher on leave for the rest of the year), I've utilized storytelling in my classroom and have to say, it is beyond powerful. The power of a good story has never been lost on me. I've always known how a great book can quiet a group and bring them to other worlds, but what I've never really tried with students is simply telling a story, just me, them and the words... no book required.

There are two ways I've used this powerful tool. The first is by inserting students as the characters into my story. It might sound something like this:

I want to tell you a story about empathy. One day Sarah and Mary were playing together outside. They were doing cartwheels and tumbling and having a blast, but there was another little girl, Amy who wanted to play and didn't know how to ask. Amy was standing close, but not sure if Sarah and Mary would include her. Amy just stood back and wished she could tumble and play with Sarah and Mary. Well, Sarah and Mary saw Amy and decided it must be sad to not be included and they didn't want Amy to be sad so Sarah and Amy asked her to come play. Sarah and Mary showed empathy - they knew how Amy was feeling and that led them to go over and say, "Hey, why don't you come play with us? Can you do a cartwheel? We can show you how!" And Sarah, Mary, and Amy all ended up having so much fun together!

I purposefully try to eliminate pronouns and use the students' names as much as possible. The kids love it and ask to be characters in stories all the time now.

The other way I tell a story is by inserting myself as a character, always when I was in first grade, or kindergarten, or whatever grade you are teaching. This was a story I told my students after the P.E. teacher had a chat with them about starting swimming lessons soon and there was some anxiety about it.

When I was in first grade I went to spend the summer with my grandparents. Can you imagine me in first grade? I was really little, probably the smallest boy in my class. Well, my grandparents lived in a tall apartment building and on the ground floor, there was a pool! My grandma wanted to teach me how to swim, but I was really scared. Not just a little scared, I mean really, really scared of thewater. I didn't want to go near it, not even put my toes in! Well, my grandma said, "Matthew (that's what she called me, not Mr. Halpern) - Matthew, I know you're scared, but I also know you can do it. I will help you and keep you safe." And you know what, she held me tight and slowly, week after week, I got a little better and by the end of the summer I was swimming! I had to be optimistic and persistent. I told myself, "I can do this, but it's going to take time and effort."

When I told that story, my class, sitting in a circle around me, leaning forward, were more riveted than I'd ever seen them. I told them I had a picture of me in the pool in my grandma's arms and the next day I showed it to them and they were giddy over it. Hearing about me, their teacher, this man who seemed scared of nothing, being a little first grader scared was transformative. If I could do it, they could too.

If you're not storytelling with your kids, try it. It takes a leap of faith. There's no book, no script. It might help to write down a few key points you want to hit, but it's certainly not necessary. We're born storytellers and our students love to hear stories about them, it shows we're really watching, noticing, listening, caring. Stories about us not only remind us to empathize what it's like to be little, but it helps our students know we've been there too.

Have you tried storytelling? I'd love to hear your stories!

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