Storytelling in the Classroom or How Teachers Can Live Happily Ever After
by Naomi Baltuck, © 1987

Lewis Carroll once called stories “love gifts.” Children understand this when we push back the desks for storytime; they listen with shining eyes and open hearts. As storytellers, we bring joy and wonder. We draw people closer together. We give them a safe place to experience sadness and fear. We introduce them to new and exciting people and places, and stretch their minds and their imaginations.

Many doors are opened when a child lets a story come in. Storyteller Ruth Sawyer said, “We touch the heart, that the head may understand.” Storytelling is a key that opens the doors to many disciplines. It can be used to teach creative writing, movement and dance, history, social studies, science and geography. We can use storytelling to develop listening skills, problem-solving and vocabulary.

But teachers should not need an excuse to tell a story. The most important benefits of storytelling in the classroom are not as easily measured as a grade point average, but are at least as valuable, and will probably have a more lasting effect. I was fortunate enough to have “discovered” storytelling eight years ago, while I was still teaching in a classroom. I introduced many children to storytelling for the first time, and was then able to see “the before and after pictures” of what storytelling can do.

I wished that every morning I could have had each child climb up into my lap for just five minutes of my undivided attention. Yet with so many children and all the demands and constraints of maintaining a classroom, and following a required curriculum, it is impossible for a teacher to spend as much time with each child as she needs to.

But storytelling helps build bridges and fill in the gaps. I realized that when I was sharing a story with my class, each child felt that I was bestowing that “love gift” upon her alone. A fertile atmosphere was created in which trust and affection were nurtured in both the storyteller and her listeners.

Although I was new to storytelling, my stories were received in the spirit in which they were given. I took more risks, experimenting with stories and telling styles. Instead of working fast and furiously to perfect a story for its debut, I began to “polish up” stories by telling them “rough,” and then asking the children for suggestions. As the school year progressed, so did we all. My skills and repertoire grew, as did their listening skills. My kindergartners would hear a thirty-minute story, then ask for another. They began to write and tell their own stories.

Together, my students and I broadened our concept of what constitutes a story. I learned that all stories do not have to be carefully researched and memorized. We learned that we all have stories on the tip of our tongues, and a wealth of personal experience to draw upon. I discovered this after I had been sharing traditional folk and fairy tales on a regular basis. One day, during our kindergarten “choice time,” when we split up into smaller activity groups, I was reminded of a funny incident that occurred in my childhood. To my small group, I began, “When I was a kid…” I became suddenly aware that the entire room had grown quiet, as children in the other groups were bending an ear to hear my “story.”

That helped me realize that stories are everywhere, and any time can be storytime. The little memories that “bob up” in the course of our daily activities could be shaped into personal stories, and shared. Those personal stories were the ones that helped me understand how important a teacher actually is in the lives of her students. Those were the stories they took home to share with their parents. Sometimes a parent would chuckle and tell me, “Last night I heard about the worst trouble you ever got into.” What we say or do, what we are willing to share with our students can have a profound impact on their lives. By sharing stories of our own hopes, dreams, fears, we can help children understand that we are all only human.

Stories of my childhood were asked for repeatedly. Once, just off the top of my head, I told my pupils about the time I was locked out of the house and accidentally left behind, while my parents and siblings drove off to a party without me. I described the sadness and loneliness, and then the joy I felt to see my mother, looking sufficiently repentant, rushing up the driveway to scoop me up into her outstretched arms. All was forgiven, once I realized that my mother really did love me after all!

After school one day, there was a knocking on my classroom door. It was a former pupil who had transferred to another school more than two years before. I remembered him as an angry child, who had never gotten over the feeling of being displaced by a younger brother. He greeted me by saying, “Will you tell me that story about the time you got left behind?”

Whether you begin your stories with “Once upon a time…” or “When I was a kid…” these stories are truly given and accepted as gifts of love. I cannot promise that, with the telling of a story, your classroom will live happily ever after. But it will never be the same.