The Tale of the Storytelling Teacher

By Dan Yashinsky – Created for the Urban Voices Storytelling Project, Toronto District School Board Literacy program, 2012

Once upon a time and far into the future there was, is, and could be a tribe of Storytelling Teachers … This is how their story starts.

There was once a teacher who had a student who struggled with the three “R’s,” couldn’t sit still, and seemed sure to come to a bad end, at least academically.   Then one day the teacher remembered a favourite riddle:

The schoolhouse is green / the hallway is white / the classroom is red / and the students are black, brown, and white.  WHAT IS IT?  At first, nobody could guess the answer; then the student-who-was-bad-at-school piped up and said:  I think it’s a watermelon!

The teacher was amazed!  This kid hadn’t been a good reader or writer, but was a fluent and imaginative speaker of the language of Story!  The teacher began to bring riddles, fables, and folktales into class, first reading them aloud, then – gulp! – telling them from memory.   Slowly, week by week, the class became filled with storytelling, story-listening, story-talking, story-sharing, story-playing.  As this went on, even the shyest children had the courage to speak and participate.  And the problem kid became a wonderful student, a class leader, a fine writer, an avid reader … and, best of all, a creative storyteller.

And so the teacher became a Storytelling Teacher.  The curriculum came to life in new ways, books flew off the shelves, and, as students became more expressive storytellers, they gained a new appreciation of their cultures, individual experiences, and ability to use language powerfully and well.

It wasn’t easy.  There were several dragons waiting on the path:  the Curriculum Dragon, the Short Attention Span Dragon, the Grading Dragon.  Plus, the teacher hadn’t been trained to tell stories in Teachers’ College, and wasn’t sure he/she could.  Three talismans helped on the quest:

  • a proverb
  • a Talking Stick
  • a network

The proverb gave courage:  You make the path by walking it.   The Talking Stick, covered with ribbons, beads, and feathers, helped the class learn to tell with confidence and listen with respect.  And the network grew as the Storytelling Teacher discovered that there were others in the tribe, all of them trying to make storytelling an integral part of their classrooms.  As it is said in West Africa:  If you want to walk fast, walk alone; if you want to walk far, walk with friends!  And so the idea spread, just like a good story, and soon each classroom in Toronto had its own Talking Stick, and each student learned how to speak and value the language of Story, and all the Storytelling Teachers working together pioneered a remarkable change in Canadian education.

And to think that it all started with a riddle about a watermelon!

The Storytelling Teacher’s Practical Guide

Here’s a starting list of skills and activities that are part of being Storytelling Teachers.  Please add to it as you find things that work best for you.  Your suggestions and comments will be part of a document/web resource for teachers across TDSB.  Our goal is to make Toronto District School Board a world-renowned centre for the use of storytelling in the classroom!

A Storytelling Teacher …

  • builds a repertoire of folktales that he/she feels comfortable telling orally to their students;
  • uses a variety of activities to develop their storytelling voices and imaginations;
  • becomes familiar with the 398.2 (Folk and Fairytales) shelves of the library;
  • makes storytelling an integral part of the curriculum, not an “add on”;
  • evaluates students’ storytelling without focusing on performance abilities;
  • introduces customs like Talking Stick from storytelling cultures around the world;
  • creates a warm and welcoming space so even shy students participate;
  • immerses students in stories without dissecting them (listening enjoyment is key!);
  • invites professional storytellers and First Nations elders in when possible;
  • mentors, networks with, and supports other Storytelling Teachers;
  • takes time to listen to your students’ stories, including one on one;
  • showcases student storytellers on the announcements, class visits, a parent open house, class festival, etc;
  • gives descriptive feedback orally as part of an on-going process to improve storytelling (use of voice, descriptive language, expression etc);
  • records stories as evidence of progress – the students like to listen to themselves and can usually hear where they may need to focus in on their story;
  • knows curriculum documents related to oral language and storytelling;
  • accesses resources related to storytelling in education;
  • involves students in their personal journey to become storytellers – seek feedback from your students and retell the same story again, taking into account their suggestions.

With thanks to Storytelling Teachers Julie Found, Bob Barton, Hugh Cotton, Michelle Audoin, Jerry Diakiw, David Booth, Cathy Miyata, Kieran Egan, Jo Kuyvenhoven, Meguido Zola, Alix Harte, Story Jam, Brian Day, Julie Glazier, StoryFest, and all of you who are leading the way!

Storytelling Exchange

Calling all Storytelling Teachers!  Here are some ways to exchange stories in your class, school, and community.

Talking Stick – To do a storytelling exchange within your own class, create a welcoming space, a regular time, and a Talking Stick for the students (and teacher) to use during the storytelling. The more you pass the Talking Stick, the better the students become at telling and listening.  They can tell personal, original, family, and traditional stories, as long as they are told by word-of-mouth.

Visiting the Neighbours – Classes in neighbouring schools (or within the same school) come together to exchange the stories they’ve been learning and telling.  Each class can pick five storytellers to perform at the exchange as Story Ambassadors.  Or, when the classes meet, they can go into small groups and swap stories.

Bring A Storyteller To School – Students invite parents, stepparents, grandparents to school to share personal and traditional stories.

Harvest of Folktales – Students interview family members to learn about traditional proverbs, sayings, beliefs, customs, holidays, remedies, crafts, and stories (ghost stories, tales of fools and wise folk, animal stories, fairytales).

Telling Bee – Students collect stories from home, retell them (with permission) in class, write them down, and publish them.  For full guidelines:  http://www.tellery.com.

Liars’ Contest – Students play a game where they tell a story and the class must vote on whether it’s true or false.  Sometimes this is done with a counting rhyme:  As I walked by the apple tree / all the apples fell on me / apple pudding apple pie / have you ever told a lie?

Storytelling ActivitiesStoryboarding a story (excellent as a response to a story the teacher tells); Storydrama based on a book or folktale; Fortunately – Unfortunately (students use this pattern to retell a story); kindergarten students have a chance to tell about small moments from their own lives; create a physical environment which allows for students to practice telling in a range of settings (quiet corners for nervous tellers to meet with a couple of friends, staging area for the more confident teller); Story Bag (objects are drawn from a bag, which the tellers improvise a story around).

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