Storytelling and Beyond

By Katie Keier

Me and Marcelo were walking on the street and a car came. It was Marcelo’s dad and my mom. But just then a rainbow dinosaur came and then a rainbow cheetah! They were fighting and I said, “STOP!” and they stopped fighting. They hugged each other. We all clapped. The end.  -Story told by Angel

Human beings love stories. Especially the ones created by them, capturing what is important to them and what is happening in their lives and the world around them.  Storytelling, story-acting, storymaking and story writing are daily, joyful and playful community experiences in our classroom and on the land we play upon. 

This year, the idea of story has been the foundation in our classroom.  I’ve focused on the magic of story with my kindergarteners building upon storytelling workshops inspired by Vivian Gussin Paley’s work, a Decolonizing Storytelling workshop by Emi Aguilar, the book Story Workshop by Susan Harris MacKay and many hours of conversation and stories with my early childhood educator thought partners – Jodi Simpson (@jodicara9), Nick Radia (@KindyNick), Loralee Druart (@LDruart) and Carrie Marshall (@CarrieMarshall1). As Kate DiCamillo says, “Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark.” I’ve needed more light this year, and stories have been my shining and guiding star for me and for my students. 

In our classroom, we go through our days together with a continual wondering of, “what stories live here?”  Questions such as, “What stories are in your minds and hearts that you want us to know?” “How might you make or tell that story?” “What story do you need for us to know?” and “Who do you want to share that story with and how?”  position students as storytellers with important stories to tell. This language encourages and supports thinking about stories and various modes of expression. Whether we are outside playing in our forest, eating lunch, building with blocks, painting, dancing, playing our drums, making books or simply being together – these questions guide our time together. Children see themselves as story makers and they live into this identity. They have a desire and a need to tell their stories and to listen to each other’s stories. They know they have important stories to tell and they are confident in sharing these stories. Storytelling is a way of being in our classroom community. We are storytellers.

Stories Throughout the Day – From the Land and Beyond

The feather fell from Eagle. It came down over the kids and the trees and landed by Squirrel. “This feather will make a warm bed in my drey!” Squirrel said. But then Rabbit hopped by. “This feather will cover my babies.” Rabbit said. The feather said, “I will help you,  but you have to be friends.” Rabbit and Squirrel made a nest together and the feather kept all the  babies warm. Eagle made more feathers come down to keep all the animals warm because Eagle had a lot. And one feather was on  the  grass to make kids happy to find Eagle’s feather. -Story told by Mariella

In our forest one day, we found a feather. An excited child ran to show me. When we gathered together for our outdoor learning time,  I asked the class,  “What story might that feather tell?” The kids eagerly built story after story about the feather and the stories that might live in that gift from nature. The storytelling continued in the classroom, with children using blocks, stuffed animals and other objects in our classroom to tell and retell the story of the feather. Some children chose to make books to capture their story, some chose to act it out. The story above was told by the Storyteller of the day and acted out by the class. 

Every day we have a Storyteller of the Day and a daily ritual of storytelling and story-acting. The storyteller thinks of a story – it can be a real story that happened to them, or a made up story. There are no rules about what kind of story they tell. The storyteller tells their story to me, as the class listens. I type it as they are talking – projecting it for the class to see the spoken words put into text on the screen. After the story is finished, I read it back to the storyteller slowly, giving them the chance to make any revisions they want. The class listens and has an opportunity to ask questions or give suggestions. I revise the story in the moment, following the storyteller’s lead, always making sure the end story is exactly how the storyteller wants it to be. The story is their words. It ultimately belongs to them.

Next, we talk about who the characters are, and make a list of those. We decide where the setting is and talk about how that might look in our imagination. I encourage the audience to get a picture in their head about where this story is happening and what the characters might look like. The storyteller then chooses actors and actresses for the characters and for other pieces of the story like trees or a car. The storyteller directs the actors and actresses into their places on the rug we call the stage, while the audience gets ready to watch. They take a minute to plan their story as I read it out loud a few more times and then we begin to act out the story. The audience listens as I read the story with great expression and the actors and actresses act out the story. There is clapping at the end and the people acting take a bow. We often have time to act out the story twice, with different kids playing different roles, in our daily 15 minute storytelling and story-acting time.

This is a favorite time of the day, and children often come back to revisit favorite stories and act them out again and again during our Writers’ Playshop and outside during our outdoor play time. We love looking back on the stories that have been told throughout the year and noticing how they have grown and changed  in so many ways. 

Besides joy and laughter with our storytelling – both essential in a classroom – I’ve also seen huge connections with and growth in:

  • Oral language and communication skills
  • Understanding characters and setting in books we read, stories we make and in books kids write
  • Community – listening and feeling comfortable sharing what matters most to us
  • Empathy and compassion
  • Imagination and challenging each other to visualize details 
  • A variety of story elements and structures going beyond school-based, Eurocentric story structure and guidelines
  • Listening and enjoying a performance – seeing themselves as audience members 
  • How to use movement, facial expressions, and  imagination to communicate and idea or feelings and to express a story
  • Imaginative play outside while respecting the land we are on, taking care of the land and thinking deeply about the stories the land might tell us

I’ve challenged myself to look closely at how stories and storytelling look in my classroom this year. After reading a very thought-provoking post on Instagram by @indigenizingartsed on story guidelines and how stories are shaped, and attending her Decolonizing Storytelling workshop, I’ve been looking very critically at how stories are told and noticing when I try to change or force them into a Eurocentric model. Some stories are told with a beginning, middle, end and a main character – but not all stories are told this way. Emi taught me about other story structures and it’s been a powerful way to view stories, to teach and to help children see the many ways their stories can look. I’ve attached her visuals below with her permission. I highly recommend the resources on her Instagram site as well as her Patreon

“Show gratitude by accepting the story as it comes to you, and allow learners to do the same.” 

Emi Aguilar @EagleEmii (Twitter) @indigenizingartsed (Instagram)

Storytelling is a tremendous way to engage in meaningful literacy learning and play in your classroom – no matter the age of your learners. I encourage you to welcome the stories your students bring into the classroom, to encourage the wonderings and noticings of the stories that live in the land we learn and play on, and to make the space for children to explore these stories in multi-modal ways. Children deserve to have stories fill their lives and to have their stories be listened to and celebrated.

Katie Keier has been teaching, learning and playing with children, as a classroom teacher and literacy specialist, in grades K-8, for thirty years. She is currently a kindergarten teacher in an urban, Title I school. She is the co-author of Catching Readers Before They Fall with Pat Johnson, from Stenhouse Publishers. Katie is an adjunct faculty member for American University, a national presenter and conducts staff development workshops and interactive webinars. You can follow her @bluskyz on Instagram and Twitter, and her kindergarten class @KinderUnicorns. Photos courtesy of the author.

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