Sharing the Stories of Refugees

By Don Vu

Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have books about refugees because no one ever needed to escape their homeland in search of safety and freedom? Unfortunately, refugees will always exist in a climate of greed and lust for power. And, books can help us share their stories, foster connection and build empathy in this ever-divisive world. 

In 1975, as the American War in Vietnam ended, my family and I narrowly escaped Saigon in search of safety and hope. We were some of the fortunate first 120,000 Vietnamese refugees to have landed in America during that time.

Almost 50 years later, I was with my father when a similar situation unfolded halfway across the world in Afghanistan. I turned to my father as the evening news flashed chaotic scenes of people rushing onto airport tarmacs to escape certain persecution as the country fell into the hands of the Taliban. With misty eyes, he quietly got up and said, “The exact same thing is happening again. We never learn our lessons.” 

It’s been several weeks since the Russian invasion of Ukraine that created over 10 million new refugees in the world. One day, people were living normal lives– shopping for groceries, watching their favorite television shows, taking their children to school, making dinner for their families. The next day, they are waking up in a tent or subway station, wondering what the future will bring. If and when they do come back home, it will never be the same.

Image courtesy of Zac Ong at Unsplash

You don’t have to be a former refugee to have sympathy for the refugees in the world. But you need to know their stories. And this is where books come in. 

Books can be the windows (and for many of our students, mirrors) that allow refugees to share with us their loss, their fears, their hopes and dreams. Books give a voice to those displaced and marginalized. And they allow readers to connect beyond the 30 second soundbites on the nightly news. When we are able to see that their hopes and dreams are not much different from ours, we will realize that there is not much difference between any of us. Refugee status can be applied to anyone– regardless of nationality, skin color, or ethnicity. Here are a few noteworthy children’s books about refugees that can be shared with students:

Wishes by Muon Thi Van. With only 75 words, this picture book is poetic in describing the emotions of leaving a home in search of a new one. Each page offers educators an opportunity to explore the loss, fears, hopes, and dreams of those seeking refuge away from home. Because it does not specify where the setting is, readers can apply the discussion to any refugee scenario. 

Lubna and Pebble by Wendy Meddour and Daniel Egneus. Set in a refugee camp, Lubna creates a new friend from a stone she finds on the beach to help her adjust to her new life. When she meets another child who just arrived to camp, they become friends until it is time for her to move on. This picture book allows us to get a glimpse of life in a refugee camp and how friendships can make all the difference.

Refugee by Alan Gratz. For older kids, this fictional work tells the stories of 3 young people, from different countries and different eras in history, as they face unimaginable danger as refugees. Students will be able to not only find the common threads of humanity across the stories but they will have an opportunity to reflect on how they would feel in similar circumstances. 

These are but a few of the many books that are being published every day that share the stories of refugees. As educators, we have the responsibility to share these stories. We hope that our students will never have to endure the pain of losing their homes (although many are in our schools for that exact reason). However, when students read about the refugee experience, we can help the next generation develop understanding and sympathy in hopes that one day we will all recognize the humanity in one another. 

Don Vu is the author of Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Supporting Our Immigrant and Refugee Children through the Power of Reading. He has worked in schools for 24 years as a teacher and principal. He is looking forward to sharing the stories of immigrants and refugees at the 2023 CCIRA conference in Denver. You can find out more about Don at

Make Grammar Instruction Engaging and Authentic

by Whitney La Rocca

My 5th grader, Emmeree, recently auditioned for a role in Shrek the Musical through our local youth theatre company. She was hoping for one of two roles: Lord Farquaad or Gingy, the Gingerbread Man. “Not the gumdrop buttons!” To prepare, she decided to watch a variety of live recordings of the Broadway musical on YouTube. She studied the actors’ mannerisms, their voices, their craft. She observed, she noticed, and she compared and contrasted versions of these craft moves. Emmeree then tried out the moves on her own, imitating what she observed while also bringing in her own personality and ideas. She continued to practice, trying out the moves, revising them, recording herself and comparing them to her mentors on Broadway. Emmeree landed the role of Gingy, and I can’t wait to see this production live in May!

In her natural world, Emmeree used a simple process to learn how to do something authentically. In her academic world, Emmeree has used the same process to learn how to effectively use grammar and conventions in her writing without worksheets or endless editing/correcting practice. In our Patterns of Power resources (grades PreK-12), Jeff Anderson and I, along with several other coauthors, invite teachers to use this inquiry process to teach writers how they, too, can study the moves authors make and try those same moves out for themselves. 

 The Patterns-of-Power Process is simple and easy to use:

  • Invitation to Notice

Lift a sentence or short excerpt from a published piece of age-appropriate literature that demonstrates the skill you want to teach. If you have emergent writers in your class, use an entire page from a picture book that includes both pictures and words. Read the sentence aloud, and, rather than telling your students what to look for, invite them to share what they notice, allowing your students to take charge of their learning. 

Honor what they notice, no matter what it is. I like to invite them to point it out in the book or on the screen to ensure I’m not making assumptions about their observations. Name what they have noticed, or reinforce the name if they have the name for it. If they notice an apostrophe, for example, and call it a comma floating in the air, honor it by saying something like:

 Oh yes, that is an interesting mark the author has used. It does kind of look like a comma in the air. We call this an apostrophe. Why do you think the author chose to use this? Yes, she could have said cannot, but she chose to use the apostrophe to squish some letters out and make the contraction can’t.

You may also choose to extend on the noticing, giving your writers a little more about the skill:

Some other contractions writers might use are didn’t or won’t. What would these be if the author chose to not use the apostrophe?

The extensions are optional and you will choose which teachable moments you feel are beneficial at the time and which are not. Don’t feel that you need to extend on everything. 

Photo Credit:

Continue to ask What else do you notice? to engage your writers in conversation about the moves the mentor author makes. When the conversation moves in the direction of the skill you have chosen for the lesson, honor, name, and extend on it and introduce the focus phrase: a short learning target statement in the I-voice that is in child-friendly terms. For example, if you have chosen a lesson on nouns and the students notice the people, places, and things in the sentence, discuss the words the author chose to use. Then share the focus phrase–I use nouns to show people, places, and things.–which you have written on a sentence strip. Post this focus phrase in the classroom. You will revisit this focus phrase often throughout the rest of the process. 

Continue this conversation around what students notice for no more than ten minutes. The conversation is key here. It grounds students in choices writers make for meaning and effect rather than about what is right or wrong. We want our young writers to make their choices for their readers, not for us. 

  • Invitation to Compare and Contrast

The next day, revisit the mentor sentence and introduce your students to another sentence that is similar to it. This sentence is often an imitation of the mentor. Invite your students to discuss how the two are alike and different. Continue the conversation by honoring, naming, and extending on what the students observe. When the focus skill, i.e. nouns, is discussed, revisit the focus phrase, repeating it together several times. This part of the process should take no more than ten minutes, giving students enough time to dive deeper into the discovery of the moves writers make–why they choose to make them and how. 

  • Invitation to Imitate

Now that writers have been given time to really study short snippets of writing that illuminate a specific skill, invite them to try it out with you. Show them how to use the scaffold of the mentor sentence to compose a new sentence demonstrating the skill. Together, compose one through shared writing, interactive writing, or even with a partner. I like to use this time to really  model the planning and rehearsing that takes place when we write. 

What should our subject be? What types of nouns should we use: people, places, things? What should our verb be? What other details or moves from the mentor can we use? Let’s say our sentence aloud together. Ok, now let’s write it.

After composing an imitation together, students use their own ideas to imitate on their own. They may write their imitations on sentence strips, sticky notes, blank paper, index cards, or in a digital format. 

You may choose to imitate together one day and invite your students to imitate on their own the next day. This tends to be the class’s favorite part of the process because they have the confidence to make choices and apply what they have learned using their own ideas without a threat of being wrong on a worksheet. 

  • Invitation to Celebrate

We take time to celebrate the students’ imitations with a quick share and display. You may choose to play some music or add some movement to the celebration. Students can share with the entire class or in small groups or partners. I like to play music and give them time to walk around the room, sharing with several classmates. After some time for sharing, display the student writing with the focus phrase: a wall display, a door display, or even a digital display. I often take the imitations and compile them into a class book for the classroom library or on a ring to be hung somewhere accessible in the classroom.

This invitation is not to be skipped. With this celebration, we send the message that the writers CAN effectively use the skill and are ready to continue this work in all writing they do. 

  • Invitation to Apply

Now it’s time for writing in the wild for several days. You’ve used a mentor to get you started, but now you can take your students on other paths with the skill. Invite your students to continue to use the skill when they write in all subject areas. Repeat the focus phrase and refer to it often. You may choose to make an anchor chart or show your writers other ways to use the skill. For example, if you’re using the focus phrase, I use nouns to show people, places, and things., you may choose to create an three-column chart together by collecting nouns used in books the students are reading. Another option is to use a picture to inspire more writing. Label the picture with people, places, and things your students see and use the labels to write sentences or even paragraphs about the picture. Invite students to go back into their drafts in writing workshop to revise or edit with the focus phrase on their mind. The best kind of editing checklist is one that is created with the students, not for the students. Using the focus phrases to create a checklist together has an incredibly high impact on how writers edit their own writing. 

  • Invitation to Edit

To culminate the lesson, revisit the mentor sentence and invite students to share what they have learned from the author, including the focus phrase. Then, take the sentence and change something in it. This change could make the sentence incorrect, but it doesn’t have to. You  may choose to change the verb tense or maybe change some lowercase letters to capital letters. Invite your students to discuss what has changed and what is the effect of the change. This conversation continues to reinforce the idea that writers make choices for their readers. And every choice has an effect on the meaning of the sentence or on how the reader reads it aloud.  This conversation is about meaning and effect instead of right and wrong. Continue by sharing the mentor again with a different change made and then again. By the end of this invitation, your students have engaged in conversation about meaning and effect with three different options in addition to the original mentor. Students are more likely to edit their own writing with intent when they consider the meaning and effect they are creating for their readers.

This Patterns-of-Power Process is most effective when we give our students time to engage in it. We recommend ten minutes a day across two weeks for one lesson. Each invitation takes about ten minutes. By giving yourself two weeks, you are giving yourself and your students time to really gain an understanding of the skill and some flexibility in your schedule for interruptions. Because there are essentially seven steps across ten days, you may choose to spend several days on the Invitation to Apply, or you may choose to use one of the extra days to catch up on something else. Aren’t we always behind on something? Time in our day is always the biggest puzzle to solve. Because this process brings together reading and writing in conversation about author’s purpose and craft, you will find the time you spend in it productive and meaningful. The work your students do here will filter back into the work they do in both of your reading and writing blocks of time. It’s worth it. 

Our students, like my daughter, Emmeree, are constantly learning how to do things outside of school by watching others. This is how they learn. This is how they grow. This is what makes them confident in what they do. Let’s bring this same style of learning into the classroom. Ditch the worksheets and the constant editing practice. Use this process instead. Introduce them to mentor authors. Celebrate what your writers try out. Watch them grow and feel confident in the choices they make for their readers. 

To learn more about the Patterns of Power family of resources (PreK-12) with ready–to-use lessons that can be immediately implemented, check out this link.

Whitney La Rocca, with more than 20 years in education, has been a teacher, a literacy coach, and a consultant, working with children and teachers across grade levels, schools, and districts. With a deep knowledge of content, standards, and best practices, Whitney enjoys delivering professional development and coaching teachers to support children as they develop their identities in the world of literacy. She continues to learn from children each day.

It’s Time to Think About Summer Reading

By Lynne R. Dorfman 

Every parent understands that reading is a critical skill for their children. Once they have the skill, they need to practice and learn to enjoy reading. There are many ways children can practice reading, including reading aloud, reading at bedtime, and partner reading with a sibling or friend. To continue to improve our fluency and comprehension and grow our vocabulary, we need to read year-round!  Summer is just around the corner and it’s important to start to think about how we can keep our kids reading over those summer months. Summer reading is for everyone!  It is essential if our students are going to retain knowledge and skills learned in this school year. Students who don’t read are at a real risk of falling behind their classmates. Teachers, along with parents and other family members, can avoid this by making sure kids set aside some time to read every day.

Courtesy of Unsplash: Levi Perchick

How to Prepare for Summer Reading

As we examine the research about readers, one thing we find that if we want our readers to go home and read over the summer, we should give our students periods of time when they can read daily while they are in school. While young people may not get better at reading just by reading alone, they certainly improve when we add the sustained silent reading time to our reading program in addition to all the other good things we are doing. In fact, children who participate in sustained independent reading programs in school show clear increases in the amount of free reading they do outside of school (Pilgreen & Krashen, 1993), and those effects seem to last years after the program ends (Greaney & Clarke, 1975).

 Free choice is a factor in reading motivation (Guthrie & Davis, 2003). If we want our students to read over the summer months, then we have to be more flexible in the choices we provide our students. Do we want everyone to be a reader or are we more concerned that they read what we tell them to read?  Studies of summer reading in Massachusetts (Gordon & Lu, 2008) show that low-achieving students don’t think they have free choice, while high-achieving students think that they do.  Perhaps this is true because low-achieving readers typically do not do much reading outside of school – in the summer or any other time – so most of their reading is mandated by the curriculum.  In order to make sure students have free choice, we have to provide alternatives to novels and the classics such as magazines, graphic novels, newspapers, and even websites (Gordon & Lu, 2008).  Most summer reading programs present graded lists that narrow the choice to recommended books.  If schools encourage students to read what they actually enjoy reading, they will motivate them to read more. 

Access to Books

It is true that people read when they have access to reading materials and that those students who have more access to books read more (Krashen, 2004).  The Columbian government dramatically increased access to reading materials. Fundalectura, a government agency, promoted a program called I Libri al Viento (Books to the Wind) and flooded the country with inexpensive reprints of out-of-copyright novels, short stories, and poetry.  Books were placed at bus stops, train stations, and markets, and as a result, more people read and the literacy rates improved. 

 An informal student survey can help teachers know what books are in the home and what are the family members’ reading habits.  Information about access to books in the home can be gathered during parent-teacher conferences. Easy access to books is important to summer reading. One way to promote summer reading is to spend some time collecting books at garage and yard sales and saving them for students to choose several books or more as an end-of-the-school-year gift. Schools or grade levels can hold book swaps during the summer months either in the school library, gym, or cafeteria if this exchange is established with principal/district approval and a committee of teachers and parents become the volunteers to run the book swap. Flyers can be sent home and posted in local markets, or on the school’s website or Facebook page. 

Make it possible for the local librarian to visit your school for an assembly program – either in person or virtually. Local libraries often host summer programs that kids can join for free. Librarians can highlight new books at every level and help students make good choices.  

Local reading chapters can get involved, too. If it’s possible, ask the local librarian to co-host  a “Night at the Library” with you during an evening in spring for your children and their parents. You might be surprised to learn that not everyone has a library card. That night would be a good time for families to acquire one! 

My chapter of Keystone State Literacy Association has hosted a book fair with a local B & N in Wyomissing. We were able to get local authors to come to read to the children and sign their books. It was so successful that we are hosting two more book fairs including one at a new location in the 2022 – 2023 school year.  A Book fair in late spring with one or several children’s authors and members of the local reading council book talking the books on their award lists could stir a lot of interest. We even had a visit with a therapy dog that goes into schools to “read” with kids. One of our guest authors, Lisa Papp, read from her book Madeline and the Therapy Dog.  Parents and their children were delighted!

Educational Opportunities are Not Equal 

The summer effect on student achievement is well researched. It is important for school districts to design inclusive summer reading programs for all students (Gordon & Lu, 2008).  Research findings have consistently reported that student learning declines or remains the same during summer months and the magnitude of the difference is based on socioeconomic status (Malach & Rutter, 2003). Disadvantaged children showed the greatest losses, with a loss of three months of grade-level equivalency during the summer months each year, compared with an average of one month loss by middle-income children when reading and math performances are combined (Alexander & Entwisle, 1996).  When school is not in session during the summer, there are inequalities in educational opportunities.  While summer reading is a good idea, it often violates research-based beliefs about free choice, the importance of access, and the social aspects of reading.  Despite what research says, summer reading lists often insist that reading be curricular and consist of “good” books.  There is no attention paid to reading across nonprint media formats. Research shows that stimulating tasks increase situational interest and can increase reading motivation and comprehension (Guthrie, et al, 2006), but summer reading tasks are often limited to a book report. For most reluctant and struggling readers, writing a report about what they have read is punitive, not rewarding.

How Can We Motivate Today’s Students to Continue to Read?

Finally, summer reading and other reading motivation initiatives often have problems when they offer extrinsic rewards for reading.  These rewards, combined with competition, suggest that students are resistant to reading. If we broaden our view of what students can read, that is largely untrue.  Our students are reading. They are reading text messages, e-mails, and blogs. They are on twitter and Facebook. They thrive on social interaction.  We need to meet our readers where they are, opening the door to reading for our tweeners and teeners by giving them choice, and access to books and computers.  We should provide social interaction through reading clubs, literature circles, blogs, podcasts, and radio shows. Some social aspects of reading could be continued through summer months.  Students can review books and report them in podcasts and Voice Thread.  Examining current reading practices and research-based beliefs that may or may not guide our current practices can help us improve future practices. Let’s help our students be successful readers of new forms of literacy and create reading communities that translates reading into a social activity in an interactive digital environment. Let’s meet our students where they are!  Summer is coming. What will you do to help your students continue to read over the summer months?

Lynne Dorfman is an adjunct professor at Arcadia University.  She enjoys her work as a co-editor of PA Reads: Journal of Keystone State Literacy Association and past co-president of KSLA Brandywine/Valley Forge, She is also a past president of Eta, a chapter of Alpha Delta Kappa.  Dr. Dorfman is a co-author of many books including Grammar Matters: Lessons, Tips, and Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6 and A Closer Look: Learning More About Our Students with Formative Assessment, K-6. Her newest book, Welcome to Writing Workshop, is with Stacey Shubitz.

Now is the Time to Read, Write, and Talk about Books; Not Ban Them

By Brian Kissel

This week, I have been invited to speak to Colorado teachers at CCIRA about the comprehension connections that occur when students read texts, write responses to them, and engage in rich discussions about their meanings.  Reading, writing, and talking about texts in our classrooms comes at a precarious time in our country.  More and more states, including my home state of Tennessee, are in the process of passing “prohibited concepts” laws which forbid the teaching of accurate, authentic history that is not whitewashed or sanitized. According to EdWeek, as of January 2021, 36 states have introduced bills to restrict “critical race theory” or limit how teachers discuss racism and sexism in their classrooms.  Increasingly, legislators, school boards, and activist parent groups are dictating what books are appropriate and inappropriate.  And, too often, the books most often banned are those focused on identity, race, and historical accounts of racism in our country.  

Here in Tennessee, examples of book banning abound.  Recently, in McMinn County, about 180 miles east from my house, the school board voted 10-0 to ban the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman from the 8th grade curriculum.  The book, an autobiographical retelling of the Holocaust told from the perspective of Spiegelman’s father, depicts the horrors of the Holocaust using different animal species as representations for various groups. Their objection to the book: the occasional inclusion of the word “god damn” and “naked pictures” which are illustrations of various Holocaust victims (represented as mice) stripped of their clothes as they experience the inhumanity of the concentration camps.

Before voting to ban the book, School Board member Troy Allman justified his vote through the following declaration (school board minutes): “I am not denying it was horrible, brutal, and cruel. It’s like when you’re watching TV and a cuss word or nude scene comes on it would be the same movie without it. Well, this would be the same book without it. I may be wrong, but this guy that created the artwork used to do the graphics for Playboy. You can look at his history, and we’re letting him do graphics in books for students in elementary school. If I had a child in the eighth grade, this ain’t happening. If I had to move him out and homeschool him or put him somewhere else, this is not happening.”

I wonder: How are adolescents supposed to understand the “horrible, brutal, and cruel” experiences of the Jews during the Holocaust if they are denied access to reading and discussing books that authentically describe such inhumanity?   

Meanwhile, in Williamson County, Tennessee, the county where I currently live and where my children attend school, a local chapter of Moms for Liberty has advocated against Wit and Wisdom, a literacy curriculum recently adopted by the county in consultation with teachers and community members who voted on its inclusion into county schools.  They objected to several books contained within the curriculum—specifically, books that focus on Black historical icons and racial events from history.

One book that faced such objections was Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story.  In this autobiographical account, Bridges talks about her historical integration into New Orleans Public Schools and includes photographs of the events that unfolded during that time period from her life.  Parents within the Moms for Liberty group objected to the book for the following reasons:


Those objecting to the book claim that it, “causes shame for young impressionable white children”.  It makes one wonder: If a six-year-old is old enough to experience racism, aren’t second graders old enough to read, write, and talk about racism in their classrooms? 

In her foundational essay, Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors, the brilliant Rudine Sims Bishop (1990), implored teachers to populate their classroom libraries with books that reflect the students learning within the classroom (mirrors) alongside books that describe the lived experiences of others (windows). We hear quite a bit about her mirrors and windows symbolism, but not enough about her third symbol: the sliding glass door.  For me, the sliding glass door represents what we, as teachers, should be doing with books to instructionally navigate children through the meanings contained within the pages and their implications for what’s happening in their lives outside those pages.  In essence, it’s not enough to bring books into the classroom; we must engage with these texts so children are provided an accurate account of the country from which they live.  How can we expect them to help guide our future if they are denied the truth of our past?

Reading, writing, and talking about books is the work we must do despite legislators attempting to scare us into silence.  I’m not saying this work will be easy.  Teachers feel more surveilled and face more scrutiny than any time before.  But if we are to ever eradicate the scourge of racism within our country, it won’t be through silence.  And it certainly won’t happen by banning books from our classrooms. 

Brian Kissel has been an educator for 20+ years as a literacy professor, former elementary school teacher, and former elementary and early literacy coach.  He graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia where he focused early childhood development—particularly in the area of young children’s writing development. Currently he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in literacy and serve the Department of Teaching and Learning as the Director of Elementary Education and ECE Programs at Vanderbilt University.

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.