“I’m shocked by how much J____ remembers and how much he had to say,” Ms. D____ quietly tells me as I put the cloth carrot and two small stones back into my storytelling sack, then turn to give her first graders a cheery good-bye.
They have been sitting crisscross applesauce style in the carpeted corner of the classroom for an hour, not counting the stretch and breathe break we took halfway through. I can simply see how their capacity for listening and reflecting is growing.
This is day three of a seven-day storytelling residency at the Florence L. Walther School in Lumberton, NJ, where I have been working with eight groups of first graders and their topnotch teachers. Designed to support the language arts curriculum and to further the goals of community building, this brief residency brought me to each class for three hour-long sessions, one in the fall, one this past week, with another scheduled for April. A two-hour teacher workshop in December focused on engaging students in responding to and extending the stories they hear and read through movement, conversation, and retelling.
This is year two for the residency. Last year I also worked with the first grade staff and students, presenting an October teacher workshop on learning to tell stories. That year, each teacher added at least one story to her teller repertoire and told it before my winter visit. With great delight, the students told me about the stories their own teachers had told. And they remembered them, replete with details. The value of the Walther residency has been due, to a great extent, to the way in which Principal Janet Horan and her entire staff have embraced the process and integrated story into their work.
The immediacy and intimacy of eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart communication of storytelling provides a subtle, yet powerful, contrast to reading silently or even aloud. Caught up in the rhythms and music of the language, and physical presence of the teller’s gesture, posture, and facial expression, the listener takes the story directly into his or her mind. Each student in the classroom creates the story along with the teller, feeling its structure, getting to know the characters and imagining the scenes. Story recall, as in the case of young J. is heightened.
I believe, however, that there are even greater advantages to this ancient and always fresh art. When stories are told, a profound gift exchange is taking place. The teller offers, not only the story itself, but perhaps more important, her whole attention to those who receive the story. Without altering the essential lineaments of the tale, she improvises, responding to raised hands or quizzical looks, incorporating suggestions or gestures and dialogue suggested by the listeners. The story becomes a living thing, nurtured by both teller and listener. No wonder a six- year old or 16-year old or sixty-year old recalls with delight the trick fox played or the way a silly boy found his courage when he had to deal with the ugly troll hag on his own.
This is the kind of gift that allows a boy like J, whose expressive language has been so limited that he is being referred for testing, to find his voice. It is a gift that teachers, as well as professional storytellers can amply offer to their students and to each other.