As a teacher I used storytelling as part of my curriculum. Part of the storytelling experience was telling stories to the students on a regular basis. The other part of the curriculum was getting the students to tell stories. I had two different areas in my curriculum where I used student storytelling.
One was in Language arts. I designed a unit called, “The Elements of Story”. For more information about that check out my Blog entry Elements of Story for January 17, 2007. Students in this activity got to be creative in both writing and telling. They also got a chance to work on telling a story in tandem.
The other unit was done in social studies when I was a 4th grade teacher. My class was studying Native Americans. I chose a number of Native American myths and folk tales and distributed them to the students of my class. They, in turn, had to learn them and prepare to share them with the class as a performance. One criteria was that they couldn’t read the stories. They could use no scripts. Most of the students chose storytelling as their venue. Some chose to involve other students and made bigger productions, such as plays and videos.
As they were learning their stories I went through a lot of storytelling activities that helped them find voice. I also offered to videotape a practice session with them so they could view themselves with me and go through a revision process. When they did their final performance in front of the class I videotaped it.
I did everything that I could to make this performance a fun, non-threatening, enriching performance.
Of all the years that I did this activity, one particular year and student stands out. Tracy went through all of the motions of learning her story, practicing it and preparing for her performance. Underneath she was scared stiff. She had major anxiety over how she could do this in front of her class. As the days grew closer to her performance I could see that this was going to be a problem. She welled up with tears every time she thought about her performance. To give her more time, I scheduled her performance much later in the week than others in the hopes that seeing other performances might give her more confidence. I was willing to let her get away with not doing her performance, but wanted to try everything that I could before it got that far.
It came to a head when I received a phone call from her mother. Her mother was quite upset. It seems that her mother had anxiety issues doing public presentations when she went to school and couldn’t understand how I was asking a 9-year old girl to stand up in front of people and speak. When her mother was asked to do a similar performance for the first time in high school, she couldn’t do it; and here I was asking a child to do the same thing at a much younger age. I comforted the mother by explaining the process that I was going through, that other students were doing it and that I had done with even younger grades. I offered to her that Tracy did not have to be taped and that she could chose to perform in front of a select group of students (just her friends) and at recess time, when no one else was around. Though the mother thought that it was still unfair and inappropriate, she allowed me to discuss the options with Tracy and let her decide.
The end result was that Tracy did her performance at recess on the day before a long recess. I did get to tape it. It was one of the most incredible performances of that class. I told her how unbelievable it was. I called her mom and let her know how proud I was of her daughter and what a great job she did. I sent the videotape home for her mom to see.
I felt good that Tracy overcame her fear for that one moment and performed so well. The rest of the year went smoothly. She was never put in that position again and no more was mentioned of her fear.
The amazing thing happened the following year in 5th grade. At the conclusion of 5th grade, before moving on to the Middle School, the elementary school held a Moving Up day assembly. This was like a graduation where all the parents of the students (close to 125 students) came into the gym and watched as their children all walked on stage to get certificates of completion of their elementary lives. At this ceremony, select students were chosen to make speeches about different areas of going through school. I was astounded when I received the program for that event. Only about 10 students in the whole grade were selected. One of the students selected to speak in front of over 200 people at Moving up day was Tracy. She had volunteered and was picked.
I can’t attribute this change to storytelling and my classroom, but I can assure you it had some impact on the confidence and esteem that Tracy had leaving our school. As I continued to teach, I never gave up on using storytelling with kids. It should be part of every curriculum.