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4 Questions about Stories

4 Questions about Stories

October 20, 2015

Dear WinkWorld Readers,

In what follow, I will focus on 4 questions: What are stories?, What are your favorite stories?, Why do we use stories in class?, and How do we develop storytellers?

If you would like to use these questions for your own purposes, the Four Corners activity works quite well.

See Four Corners Activity right here.

First, What Are Stories?

Stories are narratives, which help us make sense of our world. Compelling stories are the ones we remember, as they entertain, educate, inspire, and stretch us. Stories also glue us together with one group while simultaneously breaking down our pre-conceived barriers with new groups. Stories act like a mirror and reflect our lives, our experiences, and our thinking. They capture our history, and they paint a picture of our future.

Show Me, Don’t Tell Me.

In schools, we often remind ourselves: Don’t tell me, just show me. We, teachers, like to model new learning. Then why in the world did I write a paragraph defining the word, story? Wouldn’t it be better, if I simply told you a story. . . about a story?

Stories help us make connections; they power up our learning, imagination, and literacy. Even our financial literacy, as in the case of 5-year-old Violet. Like her, I often can get lost in facts, but if you can tell me a story about those facts, I will learn it and often remember it.

The Story of Violet

Violet, simply could not understand numbers from 1 to 100 until she connected the numbers with a story.

Violet is in kindergarten and comes from a very enriched family with food, books, laughter, languages, and love. We can safely guess that she will do well in school. All of this was true until she met the number 100 and a bunch of 10s. Violet could not count to 100 by 1’s, nor by 10’s. It was just incomprehensible for her in her own stage of development in spite of base ten blocks, a super teacher, and a very supportive family.

Her mom and dad, Ruthie and Rusty, started to count authentic items in Violet’s life: They collected and counted shells from the beach; they grouped and counted toys at home; they played jump rope and counted; they counted cars when they drove; they picked up stones and counted them. Still, from December until May of kindergarten, those numbers simply made no sense to Violet.

Frustrated, Violet’s mom, went to the school librarian, who gave her

a book “Let’s Count to 100” by Masayuki Sebe.

See the book here.

When the book arrived, Violet and her mom sat down and previewed the pages of the new book.

“Which is your favorite page, Violet?” her mom asked.

“I hate this book and never want to see it again,” Violet responded, as she held back tears.   Wisely, her mom set the book on the coffee table and moved on to other stories, which Violet wanted to hear.

However, Violet’s little sister, Zoe, found the book and started looking at the pictures and telling stories about the animals in the book. After a few days, Violet’s curiosity was peaked, and she started looking at the book, also.

Violet Finds A Compelling Story in the Book about Numbers

Suddenly, Violet found a page with a family of piranha fish, who were busily planning an attack on an elephant’s truck. Violet was compelled to know more about the piranhas and the elephant. The story grabbed Violet’s imagination; it powered-up her learning and her literacy.

“Read to me, Mom, about this elephant with the hurt trunk,” she excitedly told her mom. Violet’s active engagement with the story (and, thus numbers) shot through the roof as she began to talk about the other elephants in the story.   Her mom continued to read and to listen.

“Look at all of the elephants–let’s count them, Mom,” she squealed. “Oh, and look at those piranha, let’s count them, too.” Violet and her mom counted aloud by ones, and then her mom showed Violet how she could count super fast by tens, grouping the piranha into their different families.

“I can do that,” Violet said. And she did. That night, she showed her dad how she could count by ones and by tens.

The story of the piranhas and elephants grabbed her interest, and instead of simply trying to memorize abstract groups of numbers, she was grouping the animals of her story.

Now, Ruthie and Rusty are reading the story about piranhas and elephants over and over again, and Violet is counting to 100 by 1’s and by 10’s. Violet has moved on to other stories about other animals, not just piranhas and elephants.

Violet now understands and can manipulate those numbers because of a story.

“The narrative grabbed her interest; it was a compelling story for her. It boosted her confidence, and it provided a conceptual framework in which she could place the details of the different number families. Instead of trying to memorize the words ten, twenty, thirty, etc., in order, she could think about different fish families and their different functions.  The number words just came naturally because they just fit into the narrative,” Ruthie told me. “She now brings the book to me over and over again. That repetition which is so important for young learners is fueled by her desire and interest.

We went to the library and found another book in the series “100 Hungry Monkeys.” This one has a larger narrative in which each page of 100 builds on the story. Knowing the power of narratives and her increased self-confidence with and interest in counting, I am confident that she’ll do it well.

See 100 Hungry Monkeys here.

And, that is what a story is.

Second, What Are Your Favorite Stories?

My favorite stories capture the memories of my family. They capture a moment in time, which elicits laughter or tears. Emotions have primacy in my favorite stories. The language used in the story is like code-speak in our family, as the stories have been re-told so many times, yet each time we hear it or tell it again, we love it just as much. Our family stories are like the glue, which hold us together. Our stories capture a mutual and treasured experience.

Show Me, Don’t Tell Me

For example, just say “Jack and The Beanstalk” to Dawn and Bo, our two adult children, and they are immediately taken back to their childhood, when they, and half dozen other family/friends’ kids were cleaned up, in their jammies, lined up on the couch, and breathlessly awaiting the family/friend storyteller, Frank, who could do more with Jack and a beanstalk than anyone I know. Each child was suddenly a protagonist in the story; each child was a hero in some part of the story; each child could barely contain the joy of listening and loving. Jack and that bean linked those kids together for life.

It seems we never tire of our favorite stories. You put us with specific groups of people, and we immediately begin to tell stories. The other day, during an unsuccessful hunting experience, I heard my husband say to my now adult son, Bo, “At least you’ve got a good story.”

Third, Why Do We Use Stories in Class?

Stories are yet another tool which we can use to engage learners and enrich their learning, language, and literacy. However, as good as that is, stories do more: they link us through love. I am reminded of another story–actually, two different stories about the same student, José.

Show Me, Don’t Tell Me.

I met José when he was a 7th grader in my class. He was a balanced bilingual, equally at home in both English and Spanish. However, he was not achieving…yet. I encouraged him to read. Read anything he wanted.

“Anything?” he queried.

“Yes, anything, as long as it did not demean or belittle any group…including women,” I responded. He understood. He grabbed the huge Tucson phone book and started to read, as a challenge.

“Read, read, read,” I told him when I saw him with that boring tome.  Soon he, too, became bored with the phone book (and the challenge to me) and moved on to reading about the world. Now, as an adult, he has since visited many of those countries.

Later, when José was a senior, and in another class I was teaching, the students had been studying various languages and countries. They wanted to know how to say “I love you” in different languages. In those days, we didn’t have multiple devices, so off we went to the library to research how to say “I love you” in various languages.   During their spring comprehensive test, on a whim, I inserted the following into the cognitively demanding test.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

The task for the students was to translate this into 10 different languages. I could tell when each senior came to that question; a smile crept across their faces as they remembered our time together.

When I received the test from José, he had written in Spanish:

Yo sé.

Yo sé.

Yo sé.

Yo sé.

Yo sé.

Yo sé.

Yo sé.

Yo sé.

Yo sé.

Yo sé.

In Spanish, Yo sé means: I know. And, now you know, too.  One of my happy memories is the day José graduated from high school with a gold and a white honor cord hanging down the front of his gown: one from the National Honor Society and the other from the Spanish National Honor Society.  The huge Tucson phone book and the two honor societies are forever wedded in my mind.

“Education is radically about love.”

~Paulo Freire

Fourth, How Do We Develop Storytellers in Class?

Time and choice. That is the secret. Teachers/librarians need to value storytelling enough to create time for it to happen and to assure that students have choice. In this age of top-down, mandated curriculum, and non-ending punitive testing,  I am only too aware that I am asking a lot of you, but we never told you that teaching would be easy.

Roadblocks? Go around them.

Don’t make me send you my t-shirts, which say in bold letters: We Can Do This.

 Show Me, Don’t Tell Me.

Recently, a teacher attended a professional development day, which focused on how to administer the state and nationally mandated test. As I have heard from several, it was grueling, but at one point, the teacher-of-teachers stopped long enough to deviate from the mandated script to share one story.

A grade-school child in the district began to feel pain in his arms. As it turned out, he had a rare condition in which the bones were dying. He had to take a medicine with the hope that it would promote re-growth and healing of the bones. During this time, the child could not attend school, because if he were to be bumped or jostled slightly in the hallway, it could damage the healing. However, in spite of this, the student was still required to come and take the test. In addition, he was not even allowed a scribe to write his answers. He had to type in his answers, without assistance, for the test.

How do we develop storytellers? Time and choice.

Stories are inherently a part of being human. When teachers/librarians allow time and choice, the stories will flow. You cannot stop them.

*the quote by Paulo Freire:

As cited on p. 2 of this book (2011).

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