On Building Community Through Storytelling

When teachers and students meet each other they bring histories along. Acknowledging those histories – simply showing each other moments of our lives – helps everyone be more his or her true self. Conversely, keeping the secret of who we really are or even waiting, cautiously, to see how much of our true self is safe to expose, takes time and energy away from learning. If children are encouraged to honor who they are uniquely, they are more apt to honor each other. One way to share our uniquenesses while at the same time discovering similarities is STORYTELLING.

Consider the ideas and activities which helped me build a community of learners each year in my classroom for almost twenty years. Remember, you and your community are unique. Trust your instinct.

I didn’t do every activity or even make every assumption listed here every year. Each class’s young people taught me how to teach them. One activity’s success (or flop) determined what came next. I learned not to panic when something flopped. “If at first you don’t succeed?…..” Each group is unique. I’m convinced every group needs to tell its stories, but different groups demand different approaches.

Bottom line: Is what I am/we are doing fostering community?

Below are the activities we did, based on the assumptions I held.

Assumption: The teacher is human – has been afraid, has “flopped”, has had dreams, has been scolded – and yet still honors him/herself. There is value in risk-taking; learning comes from “flopping”.

Activity: Tell a story from your childhood, one in which you took a risk and “flopped” to some degree but also experienced the triumph of having risked and learned.

I tell the story of diving off the high diving board and doing three-quarters of a flip – ouch – but the triumph is I did it, my dad watched me and he applauded my effort. I tell another of trying to be the very quietest student in the kindergarten line because of the doctor’s visit to school. When I spoke, just once, out of necessity, I got in BIG trouble. The triumph was having a long talk with my mother about the way teachers don’t always get the whole story and deciding at age five that I would be a teacher who makes an effort to get the facts.

Assumption: Everyone experiences firsts. Firsts involve uncertainty. They are accompanied by a mixture of fear, excitement, bravado, panic, etc.

Activity: List possible big and small firsts. Tell one to a partner.

I warm students up by asking them to see themselves at various young ages when they experienced many firsts. I let the ideas come from the students’ memories. Some typical firsts: bike ride without training wheels, lost tooth, dentist visit, funeral, sleepover away from home, taste of unusual food, touchdown/homerun/dance recital/school play (any achievement), memorable birthday party, wedding, memory of fireworks, success at tying shoes, running away, getting caught, buying a present. Endless possiblilities. Model the way to bring details of a memory to life by telling your “first”; student stories will be richer in detail.

Note: Stories trigger stories. One student’s story of getting stitches brings out everyone else’s. This isn’t bad but it limits the wonderful variety that can emerge. Spend time with the possiblities and actually address the problem of hearing too many “accident” tales in a row.

Assumption: Regardless of what family or locale we come from, we share certain kinds of stories.

Activity: make a list of topics that many if not all humans have in common: memorable foods (the time Mama hid Grandma’s special cookies and the kids found and raided them); special clothing (buying the dress, hat and first pair of nylons I wore at age 13); hiding places (the time you retreated to the attic niche and the family called the police); money (you learned a lesson about the value of money the time when…); animals (the day the cat fell through a hole in the floorboards, the zoo lion that roared at you); eccentric relatives or neighbors (Mr. Stone’s precious rock garden). Other topics include camp, family gatherings, superstitions, building something, trips, family customs, holiday traditions, haircuts, treasured objects. What common story sources can you find.?

Note: Stories are a wonderful way to poke fun at our humanity. Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad tales are great examples of tales that satirize our idiosyncrasies. A good tale exposes our common frailties from greed to forgetfulness, gluttony to squeamishness. However stories can hurt people if making fun of someone is at the heart of a tale. Caution your community about that difference. Also family stories can reveal painful truths. I never say a story isn’t appropriate. What I say is that people have a right to privacy. We discuss confidentiality (which is not so much keeping a secret as keeping an important promise) and the respect that it is built upon. Some individuals or groups need more help with these concepts than others.

Assumption: The places of our lives contain memories of big and small moments of significance.

Activity: Draw a place you’ve spent lots of time and associate with memories.

Not a work of art – just a “sketch to remember”. Look into the room or landscape for bits of memory. The point is to recall happenings, not just draw scenes and objects. Look in basements or attics;. look at trees or objects in your yard or garage; recall a friend’s or relative’s house; draw the layout of a lake or pool where you swam or a playground you recall. When the teacher does a quick sketch of her own, she can gently discourage the art anxiety some children feel. Likewise, painstaking artful drawing slows down the memory retrieval. Use photos or treasured objects to inspire memory as well.

. Note: Be aware that telling personal stories (or any powerful tales) can bring up unresolved emotional hurts – for both adults and children. Grant sanctuary to all tears. That is, acknowledge that sharing history often means sharing pain. It’s okay. It’s healthy. It frees up your mind to be more imaginative. The community needs to be a safe haven for someone who exposes an old or new wound. When I work with unfamiliar students I lean toward tales of “triumph” vs. trauma. In your community, experiment with how to approach emotional issues.

Assumption: Within folktales, myths, literary stories, poetry, essays and songs (some of which have already been planted in us by grandparents, librarians and teachers) we find our histories literally and metaphorically.

Activity: Brainstorm the stories planted within. Talk stories, rhymes and songs to see how many you can remember even parts of. The more you talk, the more you’ll remember. Then explore the growing body of folktales, myths, children’s stories, songs and poetry available in books and on audio tapes.

Find plots and characters that speak to you.When you step into a story and make it your own you try on hidden aspects of yourself through its characters and events. Try telling stories in groups or pairs. (We performed five versions of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and saw five interpretations of the tale. Groups can choral-tell a poem to see how interpretations differ too.)

Assumption: Folktales and myths of many cultures help us to see ways of looking at life and naming things different from our own. Folk literature, including myths and legends, is a wonderful resource for building community.

Activity: Explore one motif such as the youngest sister (brother), the magic pot, the character who says, “Let me in!”


Listed below you will find more of my writings and my favorite sources for help with storytelling. Have fun! “Finding Myself in My Stories” Language Arts, November, 1985.

  • “Connecting To Language Through Story” Language Arts, October, 1987.
  • “Storytelling – A Way to Look Deeper” English Journal, January, 1989.
  • “Storytelling-In High School? Honestly.” by Marni Schwartz in Vital Signs a collection of teacher articles ed. by Jim Collins (Boyton/Cook Heinemann)
  • “The Silences Between the Leaves” an article on poem-telling, in Workshop III ed. Nancie Atwell, Heinemann, 1990.
  • “Building A Classroom Community Through Storytelling” by Marni Schwartz, Storytelling Magazine, the Journal of The National Storytelling Association, Jonesborough, TN 37659, July 94.
  • “Drawing Out Teens’ Personal Tales” by Marni Gillard in HEARSAY: The Connecticut Storytelling Center Newsletter, June 1997 (CSC at Connecticut College, New London).
  • Children Tell Stories by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss (Great how-to book.) Richard Owen, Katonah, NY 1990.
  • Children as Storytellers, Kerry Mallan (Australian teller helps students.) Heinemann 1992.
  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter, Vivian Gussin Paley (A kindergarten teacher uses children’s fantasy play for telling and writing. MARVELOUS!) Harvard Univ. Press 1990.
  • And None of It was Nonsense by Betty Rosen (An innercity high school teacher storytells with teens.) Heinemann, 1989.
  • When You’ve Made it Your Own… by Gregory A. Denman (A storyteller shares his love of poetry) Heinemann, 1988.
  • Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (Wonderful essays on the use of folk literature in the language arts.) Putnam, 1981.
  • Yellow Moon Press, Oryx Press, August House, Libraries Unlimited – publishers of great tapes and books about storytelling.

Marni Gillard, storyteller
833 Parkside Ave.,
Schenectady , NY 12309
(518) 381-9474
You can email Marni at marnigil@aol.com

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