Listening to Children's Stories
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“We owe it to each other to tell stories.”
In The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter: The Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (1990), author and teacher Vivian Paley describes how each child in her class could tell and act out his or her story every day. I read and reread the description of her storytelling process. I connected with Paley’s depth of self-reflection and her descriptions of truly listening to the children. Her ideas simmered in my mind for many years until I attended a conference and saw Paley share the stage with teachers who had adapted her process and led storytelling in their classrooms. Hearing about the teachers’ experiences inspired me to try this with the children I teach.
The preschoolers I taught knew the richness of stories because I embedded children’s literature in every project and investigation. Comparing and contrasting many versions of a story helped the children be connoisseurs of good stories. Often we explored folktales because they have withstood the test of time and contain all the elements of a good story: character development, rich vocabulary, a problem, and a solution.
By using prompts like the following, I engaged the children in discussing the stories.
- Who are the main characters?
- Where does the story take place?
- How does the story begin?
- What is the problem in the story? How is it solved?
In small groups the children acted out many folktales while exploring pantomime. As the facilitator I helped children notice their classmates’ facial expressions and body language.
- How can just your face show others that you are happy, sad, surprised, angry, or wondering?
- How do you move your body to show running, walking when you are happy, walking when you are sad, or brushing your teeth?
- Imagine you are an animal. How can you be a bear, dog, or cat without making any sound?
- How do you know your friend is surprised (scared, happy, excited)? What did you notice about his eyes or her mouth?
I rolled out storytelling to children and families during the winter months and used the monthly classroom newsletter to introduce the idea (see the “Dear families” letter). Then the class began having daily storytelling time.
This is the process I followed to engage the children.
- Clip one piece of paper to a clipboard. Find a pen or pencil.
- Label two plastic bags: Waiting to Act and Have Acted.
- Have children write their names on cards and place the cards in the bag labeled Waiting to Act.
- Explain to the children the process for the daily storytelling activity.
Write the story (about 15 minutes during choice time)
- Approach the leader of the day with clipboard in hand.
- Ask, “Where would you like to tell your story?” The child chooses a location and often expectant children surround the teller waiting for the story to start.
- Ask, “Does your story have a title?” Say, “Today is” and write while saying aloud “Monday, January 20, Eilir’s story.”
- Write children’s exact words. When appropriate, ask questions to extend or clarify a child’s thinking. Do not edit for violence, language, or grammar because it is the child’s story. The child’s words express ideas and perceptions. Changing language may inhibit the child from continuing the story.
- Limit the story to one page. While taking dictation, tell the child, “We are coming to the bottom of the page. How will your story end?”
- Read and reread the story. Underline the characters.
- Ask the storyteller to help count the characters. In the upper right corner record a number indicating how many actors you will need to dramatize the story.
Act out the story (during circle time)
- Invite children to gather and listen to the story of the day.
- Review expectations for audience behavior and being a respectful listener.
- Remind the children in the audience that there are no pictures to go with the story, only those in their imaginations.
- Read the story, with the storyteller seated beside you.
- Ask the audience how many characters they think are in the story. Children can count on their fingers.
- Ask the storyteller to claim a character if he or she wants to act in the story.
- Help the storyteller figure out how many name cards to draw from the Waiting to Act bag and assign roles.
- Place the actors’ name cards in the Have Acted bag.
- Watch and listen to the children acting out the story.
- Repeat with new actors. Once all children have had a chance to act, return all the name cards to the Waiting to Act bag.
After the performance
- Encourage children to take bows for their acting.
- Ask the storyteller to choose two classmates to say something specific that they liked about the story and the acting. For example, “I liked how she was the cat and made herself small and pretended to clean her paws.”
Surprises and lessons learned
When we first started the daily storytelling activity, children spent much time discussing gender-specific roles, as well as expressing feelings such as “I don’t want to be _________.” When a child decides not to assume a role, the name card goes in the Have Acted bag. This confirms that the child was invited to act and chose not to. Children quickly learned it could be a long wait until their next opportunity and most played their assigned roles.
Children’s stories reflected the richness of story language. This was, in part, because stories were already part of the classroom culture.
Children’s stories were a terrific source of curriculum and problem solving. A story might lead to additional discussion on concepts from the child’s story and possibly connect to a current project or lead to new project work. Morgan’s story led to a discussion on likenesses and differences about what children look like and enjoy doing and knowing others as friends. Artie, who has autism, spoke little and had few interactions with classmates but was able to create a story. Luke’s story presented a problem-solving opportunity. When acting out Luke’s story about hunting a buck, the child playing the buck got a deer-in-the-headlights look, so I stopped the action. We needed to address how to make everyone feel safe in the classroom, so I gave the problem to the group. Without missing a beat, Luke said that from now on, “Killing parts will be pretended; nobody is that part.”
Families found the storytelling activity enchanting. Some families read their children’s stories at pickup time; others read them at the dinner table so the whole family could listen. One family, whose child was experiencing speech challenges, was especially thrilled and grateful for their child’s story.
The one-on-one story dictation time gave me an opportunity to intentionally engage in powerful listening and to focus on and be present for the child.
Leanne Grace passed away in June 2014. Her experience as a preschool teacher, director, and storyteller made her an incredible early childhood advocate for families, children, and other professionals. She devoted her career to increasing quality in the field and inspiring others to provide excellence and excitement in early development and learning for children. Leanne looked for innovative ways to improve and inspire by incorporating disciplines like Brazleton Touchpoints and the Reggio Emilia experience with a goal to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.