“Once there was a little girl…” Much has been written about how the human mind is primed for stories (Newkirk, 2014; Perry, 2012). Our brains perk up when we detect a story in the making – reading “once there was” above probably cued that response in your own mind. Scientists suspect this innate response is due to the eons we’ve spent in huts and caves passing knowledge along to others through the stories we tell. Narratives are how we learn what works and what not to do – which animals were dangerous, how to escape scary situations, and how to respond in social settings. Nowadays, we don’t encounter as many physically dangerous situations as humans did in the past, but stories still matter immensely for how they help us process learning. The most engaging informational books have micro-stories sprinkled throughout to illustrate the most important points. Writers know the brain responds best to stories.
In their book, “A Mindset for Learning”, authors Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz describe how storytelling can be a powerful method for sharing the habits of mind that encourage a growth mindset. True to form, they sprinkle stories from classrooms throughout their book that perfectly illustrate the habits in action through whole-class conversations and teacher-student conferences.
Kristi and Christine’s key points for teaching storytelling are deceptively simple. They are worth thinking about when we teachers tell our own stories and when we teach our students to storytell:
1. Set the scene (the who and the where)
2. Name the challenge or problem
3. Raise the tension through multiple attempts or worsening events
4. Reach a resolution (Mraz & Hertz, 2015, p. 91)
I know my own downfall is rushing step 3, the tension and events that make up the bulk of the story. When I tell jokes or repeat a story, I tend to rush headlong towards the punchline or resolution, without spending enough time marinating in the problem for the listener. Not surprisingly, this is also the problem most students have when writing their stories – summarizing major events in the rush to be “done” instead of elaborating on the tension of the major events.
The solution? Simple – add dialogue and dramatization to the story. Don’t just summarize, but act out parts, and include the dialogue or internal thinking of the characters. Practicing this in oral storytelling will likely impact students’ written stories in positive ways as well.
Building on Kristi and Christine’s suggestion to tell stories about growth mindset learning, if I were to tell a story of one student’s growth to a class, it might sound like this:
It’s the end of reading workshop in second grade and students are spread around the room in clumps or singles, their books spread around them, quietly murmuring. I stand from my conference with Khloe and call out, “Class, clean up your book baskets and join me on the rug – I have a wonderful story to tell you about one of your friends!” After the group is gathered in a circle on the rug, I lower my voice to a whisper: “Everyone has been working so hard on tackling their trouble words in books, just like we’ve been practicing. Today, I want to tell you a story about one of your friends who’s done just that. Once upon a time, there was a determined little girl named Khloe…” I glance over at Khloe beside me, who ducks her head and grins. The other students’ ears perk up at the familiar beginning of a tale.
“Khloe had been reading and reading and reading the books in her book basket, all except for one book. She had tried to read it once before, and it was just too hard. Just reading the first page was frustrating because there were too many tricky words. So what did she do?” I looked around the circle and shrugged. “Did she give up?”
“No!” the other children called out, smiling. I grinned back. “Of course not! She could have given up, but she decided to be persistent and so she showed the book to her reading partner. ‘I’ve got a tricky book!’ she told her partner. ‘Can you help me figure out these words?’ Her reading partner, being the understanding and helpful partner that she is, agreed to help. They decided to read the book at the same time – chorally reading. When they got to a tricky word, they used their superpowers together: they looked at the picture, they made sure they had the right beginning sounds, and they backed up and read from the beginning of the sentence.” I touch my fingers and exaggeratedly glance at our anchor chart of decoding strategies as I describe the steps the readers took. “And guess what?!”
“They read the book!” yelled the students, some up on their knees, others clapping their hands.
“You’re exactly right! Did they get all the words exactly right? No, but that’s ok. They knew that they had worked together to solve many of the tricky words, and most important of all, the story was making sense. Together, they decided to keep working on the book the next day and the day after that, so they could get better and better at tackling the trouble words.” I lean in and whisper to the students as I wind up my tale. “They persevered, which means they kept on trying, even when it was tough. I bet there are other readers just like that in our classroom.”
Storytelling brings issues to life. It can make an abstract concept real and relevant to students. Try incorporating storytelling into the daily fabric of your classroom. And once you do, tell the story of how it went in the comments below. We all love a great story!