I remember the first story I told to children. It happened at lunchtime. That’s not surprising as lunchtime is perhaps our most intimate time of the day. It is where teachers and children bond. One day at lunch, we had talked about everything from Bruno the dog dying to debating if girls can marry girls and boys can marry boys. A child asked me to tell a story about when I was a little girl. And I knew the best story to tell. I prefaced it with “It Happened Like This…” Children quickly learned the difference between “It Happened Like This”, a true story, and “Once Upon a Time”, a pretend story. Let me back up, because this is important.
My first Director always made sure teachers sent newsletters to families. And she stressed how important it was to include a paragraph to teach parents something. Anything. She was right. As I wrote my dutiful newsletters, I became far more interested in that parent paragraph. I just knew that there was much more to tell parents, the little things and the moments when learning clicked and children laughed.
And my newsletters told parents about lunchtime, storytelling, our class becoming a family, reading aloud, and chapter reading. The most important stuff. I wrote to parents all the time, and storytelling was often a key to their learning. Here is a newsletter I wrote to families decades ago:
“It Happened Like This”
This is the classic line to begin a great story, and a true story. I say this often in the classroom, as language and stories are strong building blocks. The children are very familiar with this phrase, as I tell stories at lunchtime. Most of my stories are true, things that happened to me as a child and an adult. The first story I ever told to children was about Dr. Tyler, ‘the peanut man’, who grew peanuts and suddenly appeared in my classroom, to the astonishment of everyone, including the teacher. He looked exactly like Santa Claus, and when he barged into the classroom with a big burlap bag of peanuts, he really looked like Santa Claus. Our teacher told us to duck, and he proceeded to pelt the classroom with peanuts. It was scary, exciting, and wonderful. This happened when I was in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade.
When I first told that story to children many years ago, I realized that the power of language and literacy goes far beyond reading a book. The children begged for more stories, and I told stories! From a bat in my bedroom, to a raccoon in my kitchen, every lunchtime is filled with “It happened like this” stories.
Stories are more than language; they are pathways to learning. When a teacher tells a story, especially a true story, children soak it up. They can never get enough and always ask for more. So, how do I address that? My stories become riddled with questions, asked by me. Once a story has become popular, I can stop and ask questions. I do this all the time, and I know it works. I ask, “How do peanuts grow?”, and “How did the bat get into my bedroom?” Those questions promote long conversations and thinking. That’s wonderful!
“It Happened Like This“… It started at 10:00 AM. A child was fascinated with our red and sparkly dress-up shoes, prompting dialogue about “The Wizard of Oz” with classmates and teachers. Clearly, some children wanted to do a play or performance about “The Wizard of Oz”. Since we were close to clean up and lunchtime, we decided to revisit the idea after rest time.
After rest and snack, we talked about what we wanted to do. We chose parts, and gathered costumes from our dress-ups. The children then decided what we should do, and wrote their own play. They performed it for the Big Room children. This is what they wrote:
The Aqua Room Wizard of Oz
“Once upon a time there was a girl named Dorothy and a dog named Toto who lived in a house in Kansas. Two mean witches played together. They had magic wands and turned people into things. There was a good witch, too. She could turn the bad witches into magic. There was a tin man. He had to save Dorothy. He had to get on a horse and get to the house to save her. Dorothy had to get on the back of the horse and giddy-up home. Dorothy married the tin man. She had a baby. They will name the baby when she turns one year old. The tin man said, “Dorothy, stay there. I will take care of the witches.”. And he said to the witches, “Bibbity Bobbity Boo!”
When children have been exposed to stories and storytelling, and have been allowed the opportunity to take an idea and run with it, to express themselves without constraints, and to have the support of a teacher, parent or adult, critical thinking occurs and self esteem develops. Wow!
This is a great example of my philosophy. Our best plans can often be overturned by eager, questioning children. I seize those moments!
Stayed tuned for Part 2 and more Jennie storytelling.