Thursday, December 10, 2009

How We Tell Stories

I learned about preschoolers’ storytelling from my daughter Josephine’s Latona 3-5’s teacher (and my mentor) Chris David.

As a 3-year-old Josephine told a story with herself cast as the princess-heroine in a tale involving dark forests, bad guys, and the death of the princess. When it was Josephine’s turn to have her story read at circle time, she stood up and appeared quite proud of her role as protagonist. When the story ended, she turned to me with wide eyes, “I died in that story.” She seemed both shocked and impressed. I suppose it’s no wonder that she is now a 13-year-old Shakespearian actress and a veteran of dying tragically on stage.

Yesterday, I posted a collection of the Woodland Park children’s stories. My blogging and preschool teaching colleague Launa Hall in Virginia left a comment with questions about the nuts and bolts of how we do our children’s storytelling and it occurred to me that while I’ve posted lots of the kids stories here, I’ve never really gone into the process.

I learned the basics from Chris, but have adapted it for my own use.

Sometimes I plan in advance to do storytelling, sometimes I just feel moved during class to collect stories, and sometimes the kids hound me to get out the storytelling clipboard. This is an ordinary clipboard with a ream of recycled paper, which I keep ready for any of these eventualities.

I think of this kind of storytelling as verbal easel painting. Some children are going to make one small mark on the paper, then walk away. Others fill the whole page. Some are abstract, while others are clearly flowers, suns, or ponies. And like everything at our preschool, this isn’t a solitary activity, but rather a communal one in which each child has the experience of being the center of attention for his creative efforts, both during its creation and its exhibition.

Our storytelling is very informal, usually undertaken with no fanfare. I set up a station somewhere in the room by sitting on the floor and making a list of the kids who want to tell stories. Usually, I choose a quiet area, but not always. I’ve often set up storytelling in the block area or at the play dough table. I once did it sitting next to the sensory table.

Once I have my initial list of storytellers, which I add to as we go, I tell the kids that they can go play if they want; I’ll let them know when it’s their turn. About half the kids take me up on that. The rest hang out to listen to their friends tell their stories.

I ask, “What’s your story?”

And they tell it.

My goal is a word-for-word transcription of what they say, honoring both their words and the ideas they are trying to convey. I even include asides and other extraneous comments unless the child specifically tells me it’s not part of the story. This is an artistic endeavor and I’m not here to judge style. I do, however, reserve the right to comment on content, especially if that content is violent, mean, or blatantly racist or sexist. It’s not my role to censor or even edit their artistic creations, but I like having the opportunity to comment on the potential real life consequences of certain themes. For instance, when a character has his head cut off, it’s my role to at least point out, “That would kill him.” If a boy is not allowed in a girl’s castle because he is a boy, it’s my role to point out, “That’s not fair.” I suppose you could say that I try to act as their more experienced conscience. Sometimes they change their stories based on my comments, sometimes not.

There are three main “restrictions” on storytelling:

1)    If a child wants to include a preschool classmate in her story by name, she has to ask that person for permission.

2)    At some point we always need to ban the use of undefined nonsense words. Without this restriction we tend to wind up with a stack of stories that are nothing but nonsense words, which get a big laugh when read aloud, which leads to even more “stories” that are nothing but nonsense words (e.g., “Baa baa be bo goo ma boo boo . . .”) This doesn’t prevent kids from making up words, but when they do, I ask, “What does that word mean?” and I include the definition in the story.

3)    Once the potty talk stories start it’s impossible to stop them without a ban. Again, they always get a big laugh, which leads to story after story about poop, pee, toilets, bums and other private parts. The children have already made a rule restricting potty talk to the bathroom, so we just extend this to include our stories. (That said, one determined boy once took us all into the bathroom so we could read his potty talk masterpiece.)

I’ve developed a short hand that allows me to keep up, but even so I’m simply not capable of writing as fast as most of the kids speak. This means finding a collaborative rhythm with each child. As they come to the end of each sentence I begin reading what I'm writing aloud, as I’m writing it. This gives them a clear idea of how far behind I am. Most kids intuitively understand that they need to give me a chance to catch up, but when they don’t take the clue, I tell them they’ll have to slow down if they want me to write all their words. This technique generally leads to a sentence-by-sentence storytelling style, with pauses in between. I can see that it impedes spontaneity, but I hope what we lose there is made up for in terms of thoughtfulness.  If nothing else, they’re learning the concept of the sentence.

Understanding the children is also sometimes a challenge. Many of them are still working on articulating certain sounds and the difficulty is compounded by the fact that they’re often attempting to use words or ideas with which they’re not entirely familiar. A technique I learned from parent educator Dawn Carlson is to not guess at the words, but instead repeat aloud exactly what I think I hear. It’s amazing how often that works to help me understand what the child is saying.  Sometimes, however, they’re incorporating characters from TV shows or books at home, so it’s a proper noun I have no hope of guessing. I just have to do my best and hope it satisfies.

By this point in the school year, the children all know that their story’s destiny is to be read aloud at circle time. This definitely effects how the children tell their stories, some more than others. Most are looking for an emotional response from their audience, typically laughter, which is why we get so many “silly” stories, but others are interested in provoking wonder, fear, suspense, anger or sadness. Three-year-old Lachlan always begins his stories by telling me what emotion he’s hoping to evoke. He’ll say, “This is a sad story,” or “It’s a angry story,” by way of preface. Others want to share their excitement about a book, movie or TV program. And there are always a few non-fiction storytellers, who seek to pass on information or share something that happened in their real lives.

Typically, I’ll collect a dozen or more stories. These will provide the backbone of our circle time, but I’ve found it’s best to first wind the children up and let them run down a bit before expecting them to sit and listen. This is a technique I learned as a teenager coaching children’s baseball teams, when I discovered that things went much better if I started practice by having the kids run the bases until everyone was breathing hard. The younger the team, the more laps we needed to run. In preschool this usually translates into several full body, jump-up-and-down type songs. But truthfully, the kids like hearing one another’s stories so it really isn’t difficult for most of them to sit still.

I call the storytellers to the front of the room one-by-one. They stand beside me as I read. Occasionally, a child will “correct” his story or add something to it. I used to then just throw the stories away at the end of the year like I would old easel paintings, but now I post them on the blog, links to which you’ll find below.

“The end. By Teacher Tom.”


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Michelle said...

I smiled, I giggled and I laughed!! Applause to you Teacher Tom!! Not only for the run down of how to go about pulling off this feat of story-telling, but for the humor you posess. Thanks!!

Monkey's Mama said...

I enjoy reading all the stories - and my son LOVES hearing them. We made the "potty talk in the bathroom" rule at home and it was very hard not to laugh when Logan would run in there to yell pee, poop, etc. It was about 2 weeks and he lost interest. I wish I'd gotten it on video.

Deborah Stewart said...

I love the potty talk rule too. What a terrific approach to soliciting a child's imagination and putting it in print - as a parent, I would want to save it forever. Have you ever tried tape recording their stories? I have done this in the past and now they can be put in digital form on the computer. I would love to hear you conversing with them as they go through their story telling process.

Launa Hall said...

Can you hear the applause from VA? I'm clapping! Wow, what a wonderful post. Thank you so much. You are so generous to walk us through your process. I can't wait to try this. SO glad I've come across your blog.

Laura Caldwell (Annie Banannie) said...

I followed a link to your article about the Occupy movement being close to a preschool posted by @craftyb. I love your blog and am subscribing today!

I make up stories with preschoolers all the time and thanks so much for sharing your methods with us. I'm constantly telling people that preschoolers aren't too young to write stories, and I'm happy to have a teacher's blog to point to when I want to show examples.

Thanks for taking the time to share with us!!

Judi Pack said...

Are you familiar with Vivian Paley's Storytelling/Story Acting? As Vivian says (paraphrasing), it is not until the children see their stories acted out in front of them, that they truly understand their ideas. Once you start ST/SA in a classroom, the children won't let a day go by without doing it.

rachel McClary said...

The Vivian Paley idea came to my mind when I read this post too.
My 3 year old is full of stories we haven't written any down yet but this has inspired me to start.
Thanks for a fab post.