Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Crossing Over

Most of the posts on this blog have focused on the use of storytelling as a tool for child education. And that’s appropriate. After all, part of the mission of Storytelling Arts is “to promote and impart the living art of storytelling to develop literacy.” But the mission statement goes on to say, “and nurture the human spirit.” Although I believe in the deep core of my being that developing literacy is one of the best ways to nurture the human spirit, it’s not the only way that stories can nurture us. Stories have the power to touch the spirit in every human being, literate and illiterate, child and adult, by bringing magic into their lives.

In the ancient world, the borders between the dwelling places of human beings and the world of faery were all around. The crossing points were in all places that were neither here nor there: the threshold of a door, the midpoint of the stairs, a stile between two fields. Certain times of the day or the year also opened access to the other world. Traveling gypsies used to halt their caravans and stand still in the minutes surrounding noon (the moment when it’s not longer morning but, by definition, not yet afternoon), lest they accidentally cross into fairyland. The doors to faery also open at midnight, at dawn and dusk; at equinoxes, solstices, and at the midpoints between the seasons: May Eve and Halloween. Back in the day, a careless step in the wrong direction or at the wrong time could promptly land you in the other world.

Over the years, the magical places of the earth have receded farther and farther from our day-to-day lives. Now a days, it’s not easy to wander into them. (You hardly ever hear of anyone doing it anymore!) For the most part, this is a good thing. Tradition teaches us that hobnobbing with the fair folk is, at best, a mixed blessing. They don’t share our sense of propriety or morality; they make no distinction between good and evil; they are completely selfish beings. But, be this as it may, I think our lives lack a kind of mystery that they must have had in the days when the two worlds existed side by side, when a fall of golden leaves might have become a sprinkling of fairy coins, or a chorus of crickets the sound of fairy fiddlers.

Yet, even now, in certain times and places the portals between this world and the other are still accessible. Quiet forests are such places. Halloween is one such time. Even the most unimaginative, work-a-day people are susceptible to enchantment in such times and places. (On Halloween, for example, the beautiful and terrifying Queen of Faery holds court for a surprising medley of ordinary folk.) Under their spell, our priorities fall into balance and our lives are suddenly full of promise.

However, we must leave the forest and go back to home and work, and Halloween comes but once a year. How can we hold onto that thrilling, anything-is-possible feeling we get when we find ourselves brushing against the boundary of faery? The answer to this question is as simple as opening a book.

Find at least an hour in every day to escape the mundane. Swim with selkes and mermaids. Rub Aladdin’s magic ring. Weave a spell with Prospero. Go into battle with King Arthur or Finn Mac Cumhal. Travel to the underworld with Orpheus. Journey to Mordor with Frodo and Sam. Dream with Ebenezer Scrooge. Myths, fairytales, and fantasy novels open magic doors that allow us to dwell amongst the Gentry without a lick of danger to our immortal souls. On the contrary, I believe that these respites from our daily world strengthen the soul, revive the intellect, nurture the spirit.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Notes from the NJEA Convention

The SAI workshops at the NJEA Convention in Atlantic City went very well indeed. I presented a workshop on Storytelling in the ELL (English Language Learners) Classroom. I also participated in fellow Storytelling Arts Storyteller Paula Davidoff’s writing workshop (Learning to Write/Writing to Learn: Strategies for Assessment) and the writing and performance workshop (Building Community through Collaborative Writing and Performance) she presented with Carolyn Hunt.

Here’s an overview of what took place during my three-hour workshop...

Storytelling in the 21st Century

21st Century Skills

The theme of the convention was based on the new standards for learning in the 21st Century. ( ) Our proposals had to show how our work fulfills these standards. What is so interesting is how the skills apply to both student performance and to professional development. The standards expect teachers to become the models for their students’ learning.

learning and innovation skills

21st century skills for learning and innovation are infused throughout the core standards and professional development standards. These learning and innovation skills speak generally to

  • Communication Skills
  • Social/Cross-Cultural Skills
  • Global Awareness Skills

Specifically, the skills focus on:

  • Creativity in thinking and devising collaborative situations
  • Critical thinking
  • Communicating clearly
  • Collaboration
  • Flexibility
  • Adaptability
  • Self-direction (even in collaboration)


If you’ve ever heard a story told you notice at once that the 21st century skills are the foundation of storytelling. Listening to stories is a collaborative act between teller and listener. It is a creative act. When students and teachers learn to tell stories, they are applying and utilizing the 21st Century skills in a real way.


  • Beautiful and rich language is heard and used
  • Figurative language is heard and used
  • New vocabulary is heard and used in context
  • Questions are heard and formulated
  • Opinions are offered and supported


  • Pacing leads to fluency
  • Pitch leads to understanding
  • Volume leads to clear communication


  • Comprehension comes from gestures
  • Comprehension comes from facial expressions
  • Comprehension comes from body movement


  • Story repertoire is developed
  • Story structure is heard naturally
  • Characters are explored.
  • Dialogue is heard naturally
  • Common conflicts which will be alluded to throughout life are discussed


  • Stories illustrate respect
  • Stories illustrate perseverance
  • Stories illustrate honesty
  • Stories illustrate responsibility
  • Stories illustrate moral courage
  • Stories illustrate compassion

Discussion of the 21st century skills and the oral art of storytelling was the foundation of the workshop. Stories were told and it became very clear how a storytelling experience -- both listening to stories and learning to tell stories -- offers unique support in the ELL classroom. Storytelling helps realize skills needed in the 21st century.

Stories were then told as examples of how teachers can bring storytelling into their classroom. The skills of the 21st century and the skills of storytelling were referenced throughout the workshop.

  • Teachers can learn to tell stories themselves
  • Teachers can work collaboratively with colleagues, students, parents, and members of the community to bring storytelling into their classrooms
  • Teachers can teach students to tell stories
  • Teachers can bring in professional storytellers
  • Teachers can bring stories from all cultures into their classrooms

Stories are a unique tool for teaching global awareness and illustrating how a student fits into the culture of the world community. The oral art of storytelling can create an interdisciplinary and collaborative learning environment in the classroom by relying on the cultural dimensions and life experiences of the wider educational community. Listening to and telling stories force us to think creatively and critically and to be flexible and adaptable in order to communicate clearly with others.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Classroom Talk

I’m Paula Davidoff and I have a school story to tell.

Every Thursday evening, I co-direct a troupe of teenage girls who tell their own stories through writing and performance. The troupe is called Girls Surviving, a named coined by one of our first troupe members as a comment on the one-day-at-a-time nature of a girl’s journey into womanhood. In our weekly workshops, the girls listen to traditional stories, read poems and plays, and talk about their own life experiences as a prerequisite to writing an original, multi-genre performance piece which they present to a community audience.

We always begin each session with a ‘check in’ – a time for each person to catch the rest of the troupe up on what’s happened to her since our last meeting. This week, one of girls, I’ll call her Tanya, told a story about her ongoing persecution by a teacher. Before she could finish, two of the other girls who were in the same class interrupted her.

“You should just keep your mouth shut in that class, girl!” said one.

“I don’t know why you talk to Ms. (teacher) like that,” added the other.

As the girls began to discuss the incident, it seemed clear that Tanya’s perception of what was happening with the teacher was in conflict with the perceptions of her classmates. When we completed the check-in, my co-director, Carolyn Hunt, who is a skilled director of Playback Theater, suggested that the girls act out the scene between Tanya and the teacher. In accordance with Playback protocol, she asked Tanya to select actresses to represent herself, the teacher, and some other students in the class. Then, with Tanya’s help, Carolyn set up the scene and directed the actresses. As the scene played out, it became clear to the adults in the room that the real-life teacher had very little control of the class, that rather than being a model for how she wanted students to act, her behavior was a reaction to the way the students behaved. It seemed equally clear that the girls, those who had actually witnessed the events and those who had not, weren’t aware of this. The idea that an adult, especially one in a position of authority, might feel fragile or uncertain seemed alien to them. Tanya’s defensive and, frankly, obnoxious behavior toward the teacher was based on the assumption that the teacher was scheming to humiliate her when it seemed to us that the teacher was just trying to survive a class of bored and unruly students.

At this point, anyone reading this entry might comment extensively on what’s wrong with this classroom dynamic, including problems with the child’s home, the teacher’s training, and the school administration’s approach to discipline, but that’s not what I want to address. I want to think about communication, specifically communication in the classroom.

In many, if not most, of the communities in this country, our school populations have become more socially, ethnically, and economically diverse. This diversity is overlaid on the cultural differences we expect to find from one household to another, regardless of socio-economic status or ethnicity. These unique differences in our students, as well as the differences between students and teachers, create obstacles to communication. The obstacles may range from the obvious problems of the student who has the immense task of trying to communicate in a new language, to the hidden problems of the child who is trying to unravel the subtle differences between the expectations of his mother and his teacher. Students and teachers come to the classroom with widely different and disconnected bases of prior knowledge, as well as prejudices, fears, and misconceptions about each other that can make teaching and learning impossible. In order to engage in meaningful educational discourse, we need to find a non-threatening common ground for making the gaps in knowledge transparent, and for acknowledging and discussing fears and misconceptions. Storytelling can create this common ground, this “third space” to accommodate the culture of school and the diverse cultures of our homes and neighborhoods.

Storytelling offers an approach to text that is different from the more conventional classroom reading practices of silent reading, group reading, and teacher read-alouds. Like a read-aloud, storytelling is social, but because the teller is always in eye-contact with the audience, the interaction between the audience and the text is more immediate and intimate. Audience members respond to the teller’s facial expressions and gestures as well as to her words as she embodies characters, represents landscape, indicates the boundaries of the settings, and provides a visual association for the voice of the narrator. The audience reads the teller’s visual presentation as an integral part of the story’s meaning. These non-verbal indicators help to clarify meaning for students who may not know the meaning of a word or understand its connotation. They also add emotional resonance that aids comprehension.

The multi-modal aspect of storytelling bridges gaps in student knowledge as it sets parameters for acceptable verbal and non-verbal communication. The teller’s dynamic interaction with the audience lets her know immediately whether or not students are comprehending the text. When she sees a puzzled look, she can clarify for the listener on the spot, with a movement or reiteration. Because she is watching the students’ faces, she can also assess and monitor student engagement throughout the telling. The teacher-as-storyteller makes herself more accessible to students by stepping out of her teacher persona and embodying other, familiar characters: siblings, fools, and bullies; moms, queens, and witches; dads, kings, and giants. Children recognize the characters and events in stories and connect them to their own life experiences. In this way the stories provide the classroom community with common metaphors for the real conflicts and celebrations children experience, both in and out of school.

Stories lead to the kinds of conversations that engender learning because they give us glimpses into the inner and outer lives of people we, otherwise, see only in the context of the classroom. Stories lead to discussion by posing questions that leave children wondering. They also lead to other stories, the stories of the teacher’s and her students’ experiences. The information and insight we gain from these conversations reveal to us gaps in knowledge, make us aware of fears, and help us understand misconceptions, with respect to ourselves and our students.

It seems naïve to think that Tanya’s teacher could solve her classroom control problems by telling stories. After all, she has curriculum to cover, and she is, in fact, dealing with problems caused by ineffectual parenting, her own poor preparation, and unsupportive administration. However, she is also trying to teach a child whom she hasn’t made an effort to know. Tanya has been a strong, cooperative member of the Girls Surviving troupe for two years. She’s a risk taker, a problem solver, and a good collaborator. I doubt her teacher has ever seen that side of her. She probably has the same kind of misguided opinion about Tanya that Tanya has about her.

I think that sometimes we, as teachers, are so focused on covering curriculum that we spend our time in the classroom talking to students rather than with them. The irony, of course, is that it doesn’t matter how many pages we cover if students aren’t learning, and if students don’t find a reason to become engaged, can’t find some connection to the material or the presenter, they’re not learning. I think that finding time for telling and sharing stories, both personal and traditional, is an investment in student engagement. Stories can humanize the teacher in the eyes of his or her students. And, when we listen to our students’ stories, we began to learn what they know and how they see the world, a element crucial to our ability to teach them.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Teaching Moments

In a folktale, when the son sets off on an adventure, his mother asks him, “Will you take a half loaf with my blessing, or a whole loaf with no blessing?” We, the reader or listener, know the right answer to this question, and if the son asks for the whole loaf, we know it means he has the wrong priorities, that he’s doomed to fail in his quest and, perhaps, come to some dreadful end. However, we may ask (and children often do ask), Why can’t he have both the blessing and the whole loaf? Or, why not simply bless him, hand him the half loaf, and send him on his way? Why does the mother make her son choose?

Folktales are full of such moments, those incidents that can stop our suspension of disbelief and make us wonder, why? or how? We accept without question the existence of magic rings and glass mountains, but our imaginations bulk at matter-of-fact questions like, Why can’t Snow White just take the dwarves’ advice? or, Why does Ashenputtel’s father allow his new wife to treat her so badly? I think that these moments in a story, the incidents we stop to question, are the story’s way of saying, There is something important here. When the story ends, come back and examine this place. You’ll learn something true here, something about yourself.

In recent days, we have been exposed to one of real life’s unfathomable moments, the suicide of a bright and talented young man; a death ostensibly caused by the sort of mean act we expect from the older brothers and evil stepsisters of fairytales, but that we find inexplicable when it is perpetrated by real life brothers and sisters. In the days following Tyler Clementi’s tragic death, I have heard people speculate on the social phenomena that may have encouraged the actions of his tormentors: social networking and the ease with which modern technology allows the spread of images and information; the religious and cultural roots of homophobia; the aura of unreality that Reality T.V. has lent to life’s most serious and intimate interactions. Some or all of these things, no doubt, were instrumental in forming the thought processes that resulted in the heinous acts of the two seemingly unexceptional teenagers who set off the string of events that ended in Tyler’s suicide, but they don’t really explain how these two children came to hurt a third child so deeply. The explanations also do not give us a hint about how we can protect our children from being the instigators or becoming the victims of thoughtless brutality.

Among all the speculation about blame, the question I do not hear being asked is, how can we protect our children from the evils they are bound to meet as life leads them further and further from our side? Is there any way we can prepare them to resist the temptations presented by their social environment, or help them develop the inner strength to fight despair when they’re hurt by the actions of others? How do we help our children develop the moral compass they will need to navigate life?

As a mother and a teacher, these are questions I have been thinking about for over thirty years. They are not the kinds of questions that have simple answers. We can’t protect our children from the vicissitudes of life. We can only try to prepare them to expect that life will not be easy and that it will demand sacrifices. I believe that stories, especially folktales and myths, are one tool we can use to arm our children against the difficulties they will face in their lives. These ancient stories teach by telling about life in all its patterns and possibilities. They teach that heroes don’t succeed at every task, that sometimes they make the same mistake over and over again, that they are humiliated by their rivals, and passed over when they are most deserving. The stories also teach that, whatever the consequences, if a man wishes to be happy, he must stand by what he knows is right. Like the son in the folktale, a hero will always be asked to make a choice, and the choice will usually involve some sort of sacrifice: the whole loaf or the half.

We know that the magic in stories is not real, but sometimes we forget that it is often true. The truth in folk and fairy tales transcends the facts of life. In the real world, we can’t fly by lacing on magic sandals, escape danger with the help of a magic cloak, or travel to the underworld to bring back a lost love. These are the actions of our dreams, of the intensely private world of our unconscious, the place where we store our magical gear, our wishing rings and cloaks of invisibility, and where we keep our own personal witches, faeries, and demons. It’s the realm that may hold the secrets to our happiness and stability, if we could only decipher the things that happen there. Folktales and myths give us access to the world of the unconscious in a more orderly and systematic way than do our dreams. Our examination of the puzzling moments in story can help us learn to protect ourselves and teach us to fight the forces of evil that would overcome our psyches.

When children hear the old stories, they instinctively know that the hero is a stand-in for themselves, and I believe that when they hear something in the story that speaks directly to them, it stops them long enough to make them wonder, Why? This is the teaching moment, the place in the story that will fortify the soul if the questioner stops to examine it. Sometimes the answers are hard, but if we take the time to help our children look for them, we help them build the moral foundation that will support them as they grow, help them make good decisions, and help fortify them against despair.

It’s not easy for parents to teach these hard lessons to our children, but I think it’s essential to their well being. The nymph, Thetis, tried to give her son, Achilles, both her blessing and the whole loaf. Knowing he was fated to die young, she tried to divert his fate with charms and tricks. In his infancy, she dipped him in the River Styx, making every part of his body except the eponymous tendon by which she held his tiny leg impenetrable by weapons. As he approached manhood, she tried to make him invisible to the kings who would take him to Troy by disguising him as a girl and placing him in the women’s quarters of King Lycomedes’s palace. Finally, realizing that she could no longer keep him from his final battle, she procured for him a wondrous shield made by the armorer of the gods, Hephaestus. An Immortal, herself, Thetis didn’t understand that the mortality from which she was trying to protect her son held the key to any possibility he had of happiness or peace of mind. She couldn’t protect him from death, but perhaps she could have taught him to value life. Perhaps she could have focused less on the vulnerability of his body and thought more about how to help him develop his qualities of soul. And when we read the story of her son’s last days in Homer’s Iliad, we realize how much he could have used that help.

I think there is little we can do to prevent our children's suffering. However, I think we can try to prepare them to expect that life will sometimes be sad and frightening, and to give them strategies for surviving those times. One of the ways to accomplish this is by telling and reading them stories in which heroes make choices, suffer the consequences, and learn to overcome. This is what the folktale mother knows. This is the story teaching us.

posted by Paula Davidoff

Paula Davidoff is a writer and storyteller who has been a teaching artist since 1994. In addition to her work with Storytelling Arts, she is the director of a storytelling-based literacy program in the Morristown, NJ and co-director, with playwright Carolyn Hunt, of Girls Surviving, a troupe of teen girls who tell their own stories through writing and performance.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Report from the 18th Annual NJ Storytelling Festival

Yet another rainy festival. We should probably call it ‘festival weather’ at this point. Nonetheless, people showed up, tellers and listeners and all had a good, cozy time. As Carol Titus, current coordinator of the festival said, “We have no trouble in the rain, we’ve got it down pat at this point.” The rain held off enough for short walks around the beautiful Grounds For Sculpture.

The day started with a workshop for storytellers and teachers. Judy Freeman had us clapping, snapping singing and chanting. Perfect for a rainy Sunday morning. Judy Freeman is best known in New Jersey for her annual Winner’s Conferences she holds throughout NJ. At these well-attended conferences she calls out the top hundred children’s books published in that year. She gives quick book talks and demonstrates activities and suggests thematic ideas for the books.

The two-hour Storytelling Festival workshop had more of an emphasis on storytelling. Judy’s forte is the quick, snappy story that is perfect to use as fillers. These are stories in their own right. Peter and Iona Opie say that the nursery rhyme is the child’s first story. And just think of the journeys taken by Jack and Jill, and the mouse up the clock, and our own selves as we go to market to buy a fat pig.

Judy Freeman helped us all recall the old camp songs and risqué children’s’ chants we all told to each other, though never to our parents; songs and chants that are based on these older rhymes.

Then she ran through drawing stories, paper folding stories, finger plays and stories with puppets.

I am amazed at Judy Freeman’s generosity. She gave totally of herself darning the workshop. And we all went away with a handout of all of the stories she used. The pages of storytelling tips we received can also be found in her book, Once Upon a Time: Using Storytelling, Creative Drama, and Reader’s Theatre With Children in Grades Pre-K-6. It is a book worth looking into, full of tips and techniques for learning how to tell stories.

Her handout also included a list of Internet storytelling links that she developed with Carol Titus.

The rest of the day was filled with stories and song. We have such wonderful storytellers here in New Jersey. Many of you reading this blog will be familiar with what a festival atmosphere is like. We have four stages set up with four performances taking place at once. The audience is encouraged to dip into as many sessions as they wish. It is at a festival like this that we realize how many stories there are in the works, and how many different styles of storytelling there are as well.

But, the Festival is also a gathering where we as storytellers are able to meet together, hear each other’s new work and catch up on personal stories. It is in this way that we support each other refresh our commitment to the community of storytellers around the state and are nourished by wonderful stories.

My favorite spot is always the spot where the Storytelling Groups perform. For those of you reading who may not know, New Jersey has at least six storytelling groups representing all corners of the state. When the groups perform their ‘set’ at the Festival, three or more members take turns telling a story or two. We learn a bit about their group, what their meetings are like, what they do in their meetings, how often they meet, where else they may tell as a group, and who their members are. Usually the members telling are not professional free-lance tellers, but tell to their families, library classes, classrooms, church groups, and any other such gatherings. It is delightful to discover new storytellers and new approaches to storytelling. I think this year we were all impressed with the upcoming young teller Shifra Willick.

I would also like to say ‘hats off’ to Carol Titus for pulling the whole thing together this year. She had many to help and SAI was well represented on that front. It was great seeing you all there and hearing many of you tell. But, one idea I think Carol carried out on her own was the announcements to be made before each session. She covered every aspect of storytelling in New Jersey… the groups, events, the Internet and the Telebrations to be held around the state. It was such an easy, unobtrusive way to cover so much information. Go to to see what she has developed.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Moral Play

Hello, I am Julie Della Torre, Master Storyteller with Storytelling Arts, Inc. I have been working as a Professional Storyteller since 1985 and have 9 years of elementary school teaching experience along with the study of child development and curriculum. More information about our work in storytelling and education can be found on the Storytelling Arts website

The best book about storytelling and playing with ideas that I’ve read this year is Big Ideas For Little Kids by Thomas Wartenberg. The subtitle is Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature, and he runs a wonderful website I’m rereading the book right now in preparation for the upcoming school year.

I read about the book in the NY Times and received it as a gift for Mother’s Day. I devoured it that very day and put it into practice the very next day. The book is all about holding deep discussion with children after sharing picture books with them. Storytelling offers an even more immediate and intense philosophical experience. The old folktales and fairy tales and myths are full of inherent moral and ethical problems. The reason for their existence is to help us figure out life and to teach us ways of being in the world.

I was ready for this book. I have read widely and deeply on this issue of holding deep conversations with children. Vivian Paley is an inspiration. She truly listens to children and tries to figure out what they are really saying. As I reported last week, her many books have been invaluable. Robert Coles and his The Spiritual Life of Children and his The Moral Intelligence of Children helped me realize that very young children are dealing with very big issues. Children are trying to make sense of the world.

Back to Wartenberg. The first discussion Wartenberg reports is on wondering about bravery after reading a Frog and Toad story. (‘Dragons and Giants’ by Arnold Lobel) The day after I read this chapter I went into a third grade class to tell stories. I told the same stories I had planned to tell, but used the concept of bravery in the follow-up discussion. I told the story of Baba Yaga’s Black Geese (many versions exist), in the story a little girl is left in charge of her baby brother. Inadvertently she leaves the boy alone and Baba Yaga’s geese kidnap him. The little girl has to go and save the baby boy. She does so with the help of three animals.

Before the story I asked the students what they thought about bravery, how they might define it, what they thought it meant to be brave, and had they ever been brave. In the free wheeling discussion many points were made.

  • Being brave is when you’re never afraid.
  • No, being brave is when you are afraid but you do it anyway.
  • Being brave is when you don’t even think about it. You do something scary without even thinking about it. Like when a fireman saves someone. You just do it.
  • You have to do something for someone else.
  • Being brave is when everyone else can do something and you’re scared, but you do it anyway. A girl was uncomfortable with this and came back with the thought that maybe if the ‘others’ were doing something bad, then maybe it would be more brave NOT to do what everyone else was doing.

After I told the story we talked about bravery again. All the third graders thought the Little Girl was brave according to our definitions. It was very scary to go to Baba Yaga’s hut to save her brother, but she did it. However, new issues surrounding bravery came up because of the story.

  • During the discussion before the story, the students didn’t think you could be brave if someone helped you. After the story many changed their minds. But, there was a condition. “You have to listen to the help and follow what they say.” Well now, that’s interesting.
  • One girl said, “The girl was lucky that Baba Yaga was asleep.” This led to a discussion of whether luck has anything to do with being brave.
  • And then there is the whole problem of the little girl. She left her brother alone. That wasn’t very responsible. It was her fault the boy was taken. In part, she was trying to save her own skin. Is that considered being brave?

The ideas in this book resonate now with stories I learn. I just learned a delightful story of the Hodja and the Moon in the Well. I did not learn this story as an example of bravery, but now I see two more questions of bravery arise

  • Can you be brave if you do something you think is brave, but no one else thinks is brave?
  • Can you be brave if no one is there to witness it?

The New Jersey Storytelling Festival is being held this Sunday, September 12th at The Grounds For Sculpture. (Find information at New Jersey Storytelling Network . Or go directly to the Grounds For Sculpture website at I will be telling a whole program of stories about being brave. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Importance of Play in Education

Hello, I am Julie Della Torre, Master Storyteller with Storytelling Arts, Inc. I have been working as a Professional Storyteller since 1985 and have 9 years of elementary school teaching experience along with the study of child development and curriculum. More information about our work in storytelling and education can be found on the Storytelling Arts website

It's September and schools are starting up. What are we thinking about? A friend sent me this article about the importance of play in education.

The article deals with play in the early years, but I would like to broaden the discussion and think about the importance of play in the older grades, and in truth, even in ourselves. When our minds are at play is when the real learning takes place. Einstein played with numbers and thought pictures. It is said that Jacques Cousteau came up with the idea for the aqualung while playing.

You may be asking, “What does storytelling have to do with play?” I contend that stories are the foundation of play and that language is the vehicle of play. I believe this to be true when play takes place in the doll corner, or in a literature discussion group, or in a play writing or poetry writing session. Some of my colleagues can certainly add their own stories to that!

Research shows that children who engage in complex forms of socio-dramatic play have greater language skills than nonplayers, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean. They are less aggressive and show more self-control and higher levels of thinking (see article above)

I have also been reading Vivian Paley’s book, A Child’s Work: the Importance of Fantasy Play.

…fantasy play is the glue that binds together all other pursuits, including the early teaching of reading and writing skills…. It is in the development of their themes and characters and plots that children explain their thinking and enable us to wonder who we might become as their teachers. If fantasy play provides the nourishing habitat for the growth of cognitive, narrative, and social connectivity in young children, then it is surely the staging area for our common enterprise: an early school experience that best represents the natural development of young children. (p.8)

Storytellers bring folk tales and fairy tales into the classroom in a unique way; different from books. Tellers and listeners alike engage differently with the oral story as opposed to the read story. The old folk literature deals with real developmental issues children are working through. And when children are given time to play, they are given time to play out their own interpretations. And as the children are reinterpreting the stories they are doing so in language.

Other studies have shown that by the age of three, many children of poverty are already behind in readiness for school, one big concern being little exposure to language.

They (the children) need a solid introduction to books, which most middle-class children have from infancy onwards, and they need to hear language used in conversation, storytelling, song, and verse. Equally important, they need to use language. Play is the foremost way that children use the language they are hearing. (Crisis in the Kindergarten, above)

Through this language play children are using rhymes, rhythm, metaphors, spells, new vocabulary and fresh concepts. They are learning to form and speak questions and opinions, and learning how to hold conversations. They are practicing oral language.

Think of the kindergarten child using ‘meadow’ in his play after hearing The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Or the fifth grader who ponders whether the idea of a magic potion gave a character ‘hope’ in The Tiger’s Whisker. When do we use such beautiful language in today’s world?

I have notebooks full of examples.

  • The girl who writes the following poem after hearing The Gunniwolf:

Brendan, Brendan,

Why for you move

  • The whole second grade class dancing in a Congo line to gym class chanting The Name of the Tree is Ungali!

Listening to a story together builds community. There is a shared story we can all reference in play. A friend, a Kindergarten teacher, tells a story.(I had told Tom Tit Tot in her classroom.) She reports, “I feel so badly. I always mix up Frankie’s name. I had his older brother and I keep mixing them up. I hate not remembering his name. But today, I just laughed with him when I made the mistake and said, “nimmy, nimmy, not your name is Frankie!” A shared story playfully eases the situation.

However, we as professional storytellers are not in the classrooms during creative play, whether discussion, poetry play, or block play. The professional teacher is the one who will take the shared oral texts and create an environment where creative language is allowed to flourish. This collaboration between two professionals bringing rich stories and language to students, laying the foundation for creative play, can’t be beat.

Next week I will be thinking about how storytelling encourages children to deal with deep, profound developmental issues.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Welcome to the Storytelling Arts Blog!

Welcome to the Storytelling Arts Blog. This space will be used to share news of our programs, information for teachers and other educational professionals, and discussions with our affiliated artists.

Senior research scientist turned award-winning author and storyteller Kendall Haven calls storytelling "an information delivery system powerhouse evolutionarily hardwired into human brains." Haven says: "Storytelling Arts programs have consistently had significant, positive impacts at all grade levels."

We hope you'll find this blog useful as a forum to discuss storytelling and its use as an educational tool.