Before I begin, I feel obligated to warn you that you probably shouldn't read this blog. According to all the recent developments in education, I am about to impart some very bad advice. If you too have been schooled in differentiated instruction, student centered learning, and data driven decisions, then you know that if a teacher is standing in front of the class and the students are not collaborating, manipulating objects or generating data of some kind, that this is very bad practice indeed.
And so by the new metrics of education, storytelling must be very bad pedagogy. It is teacher centered and technology deficient. There are no essays to be written or details to be analyzed. The procedure is for the teacher to stand in front of the room and tell the story. The students, despite the lack of media, accountability or formative assessments, listen. And by listen, I don’t mean do other homework, sleep, write notes or stare into space. They actively listen, eyes open, body forward and pencils down. It’s a rare sight.
Sometimes they even refuse to leave the class. One day, when I timed an episodes of the Trojan War exactly right, I reached the part where Zeus saw young Paris on the slopes of Mt. Ida and declared that he should judge the beauty contest. Before I could tell them about the judgment of Paris, the bell rang. Despite the fact that it the lunch period was next, no one moved. “But what did he do?” they asked.
I replied dramatically, “And then the class went to lunch.” They didn't bite.
“We can stay,” someone said. I looked around and 18 seventh graders stared back at me, still in their seats. “We want to know!” yelled a voice from the back. Although inwardly dazzled, I told them that we would continue next week and so groaning, they shuffled out. This was unprecedented. Were students really volunteering to miss lunch to stay in class?
I came to storytelling by accident. I used to teach mythology the correct way. I gave everyone a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and I devised a series of thoughtful reading questions for students to complete as they read the stories. At the end, everyone wrote a paper in which they analyzed the themes of hubris and heroism in three myths of their choice. They hated it. “This is the dullest book I've ever read!” they said. “These stories make no sense!” Of course there were a few that loved it but the majority despised it. I tried to vary the projects – posters, presentations, and Power Points instead of papers. It didn't matter. The projects got better reviews, but the consensus remained that the book was terrible. Still I soldiered on. Comprehension and analysis were more important than enjoyment of the story, weren't they?
One day, on a Friday when a test was completed earlier than I had anticipated, I was left with fifteen minutes and no plan. Every beginning teacher knows that fifteen unplanned minutes in a classroom is roughly equivalent to quarter of a century in real time. I ran through my options. It didn't seem wise to start a new unit before the weekend and reviewing the old material had been done to death so I told the the story of Perseus and the Medusa instead. They loved it. “Can we do this every Friday?” they asked. I thought, why not? Thus began a Friday tradition. Since I wound up telling the majority of stories contained in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, I stopped teaching it. The books collected dust on the shelves. Sometimes, a student, hungry for more monsters and heroes, would take one home.
The reaction of students to storytelling is different depending on the age. Middle school students simply listen, their boundless energy contained for the moment in their delight of the story. High school students relax and smile. They've heard this before. It was a movie or a cartoon they vaguely remember. They make sarcastic comments about the plot and the hero as I tell it and we laugh together. The youngest students though are confused. Inevitably one of them raises their hand. “Is this true?” They ask.
“No,” I say. “It’s a story.” This answer makes them uncomfortable. If a teacher is standing in front of the room and speaking authoritatively, it is because she is giving a factual lecture which requires a worksheet or a homework assignment. They know that stories are the domain of picture books. They look at me suspiciously. They ask why I am telling a story. I reply, “Because stories are good to know. This puzzles them some more. “Just listen,” I say and they do.
For a while, I felt guilty that I was not holding students accountable for their learning. I didn't scaffold my instruction, nor was I accommodating different learning styles. Twenty years of professional development whispered in my ear that I was kidding myself. Children do not learn by listening passively. There needs to be a project or a paper or at least a review sheet for students to retain knowledge. So one mid-week morning, after a long weekend, I asked my youngest students questions about the 12 gods I had described in stories the previous week. Every student in the class raised their hand, waving it wildly as young students do when they really want to be called on. As I called on them, I heard my words repeated. I saw my gestures recounted and even heard the cadence of my voice captured from a student who had only recently learned to speak English. They remembered literally every word I said. I stopped worrying.
For many years, I wondered why my storytelling had been so successful. Even though I have told these myths many times, I still forget important details and have to back-track in the telling. Names of minor characters constantly escape me and send me running to my notes for a quick check. I am not a professional storyteller. Consequently, I have come to the inevitable conclusion that the sole reason for my success is because my material is so good. Mythology has captured the imagination for 1000 years. The written tales are disjointed, lacking description. Many begin strangely and end badly. But when they are spoken aloud, magic happens. When I discovered this, I felt as if I had dug up some buried bejeweled relic that has been for lost for decades, covered by the dirt of modern pedagogy.
With the advent of the Common Core, this jewel has become an even rarer relic. The new emphasis on “informational texts” in the English curriculum has forced out many long standing units on mythology in middle and elementary school. Five years ago, I began my stories with the understanding that my audience had at least a passing familiarity with the Greek pantheon. Now, more often than not, I am the students’ first introduction to classical mythology. The birth of Athena, the abduction of Persephone always makes my youngest students crow with delight. “How do you know all these stories?” they ask in amazement. I pity the poor ELA teachers who had to give up such gems, but selfishly, their loss has been my gain.
I feel obligated however to add a note of caution to this tale, should storytelling ever make its way back into the mainstream of scholastic pedagogy. When educational theorists discover a good idea, the pattern is, to label it with an acronym, then to over apply it until the technique has lost its usefulness and the very mention of the acronym makes teachers roll their eyes and shudder. ST (or storytelling) works better than anything I’ve tried in 20 years to create interest and enthusiasm in mythology. This technique cannot be applied to teaching Latin grammar. No class has ever volunteered to stay past lunch to listen to me lecture them about the sequence of tenses or construction of ablative absolutes.
Nevertheless, if the older me could go back in time and give the younger struggling Latin teacher some advice about how to connect with her students, how to keep students from wondering if they should have taken a language with less case endings and a more familiar word order, I would say: Magistra, this Friday, put down the text book and leave that cultural video in the cabinet. Turn off all electronic media, look your class in the eye and tell them the story. You won’t be disappointed.
How to Tell a Story: A Short Primer
1) Start with good material. To use a cooking analogy, most of us do much better with quality ingredients. A master chef can make a four star meal out of spam. The rest of us must have the best ingredients in order to create a memorable meal.
2) Classical myths are great material, the filet mignon of stories. Livy’s stories of early Rome are also good material – a juicy hamburger – if perhaps, a little bloody.
3) Keep it short – 10 minutes to start, 20 minutes at the longest.
4) The purpose of an oral story is to learn “WHAT” happened. Written stories answer the “HOW” much better. Lengthy descriptions, repetitive actions and elaborate metaphors enhance a written story but drag down an oral one.
5) Relax – don’t memorize your material. This will make the story stilted.
6) Vary your voice and your rhythm as you speak to build tension, increase interest
7) Add humor or modern comparisons when appropriate. Don’t shy away from metaphors or similes that draw comparisons to modern life. Remember, classical storytellers used them as well. Now they are called “epic similes.” Then, they were simply comparisons the audience could visualize and understand.