This post is written by member Kevin D. Cordi.
The school day ends. Essays on The Canterbury Tales are finished. A makeshift campfire is created in the middle of the room. Students enter. One lone teen stands and speaks. He quickly transforms from student to raconteur, ballad bringer, and wordsmith. He is a storyteller.
He regales us with tales of the trickster, Anansi. He brings the first Spider-man from Africa to life with the power of his voice. Another teen, who usually seems distracted, tells of his grandfather’s exploits during the war. A shy student breathes in as he shares his new assignment as his ailing grandfather’s sole caretaker. Still another storyteller shares her real hardships, in “Little Red Riding in the Hood.” Her words confirm the strength of story more than any Canterbury essay.
Storytelling is power.
Extend story beyond the classroom. Why not offer a storytelling club at your school? Create spaces where stories can live out loud. As a storytelling teacher for over 14 years in three different schools, I have dedicated time and space for a storytelling club to celebrate students’ voices. Our club transformed into an award-winning, student-centered traveling storytelling troupe called Voices of Illusion.
With no set agenda, students told stories not for grades or points, but to share their words aloud in community. Students shared their work out loud without notes in an after school setting.“In school, adults don’t listen to our voices, but we have one here,” says Lacy. Students crave story spaces where they can be heard.
Soon, we expanded beyond the classroom and became an ensemble. Community member requests began to fill our schedules. We traveled together across primarily California and other parts of the US sharing original stories written by the students and retold folktales with a creative twist.
We know how to tell.
Telling is a human art. It is second nature. We do it every day. As poets Kwame Alexander and Chris Colderly (2015) share in an article for Scholastic, “Speaking and listening is as natural as breathing. It’s as ancient as the flow of blood in human veins.” These skills elevate student learning from and with each other. Students need support to flourish. Open your classroom to student-centered stories and spaces.
Building a Storytelling Club—Rationale and Tips to Guide You
- Telling stories connects to reading. Students respond to story. My club and troupe students voraciously searched for folktales and legends. They frequently visited the library asking for book references to expand their learning and satisfy their curiosity.
- Story conversations are as important as the tales. Students appreciate story. They discussed process and shared many story suggestions with their peers. This cultivated meaningful conversations about the uses of story and why story matters. Students also answered in story. They found themselves in the tales they told and the ones they heard. I shared a story of a dancing polar bear who a boy could see but not his father. In a private conversation, a young rebellious teen explains to me that his father is the same way. He told the story, better than me. He said he could not tell his father, but he could say what he had to say by telling this story.
- No auditions, everyone can tell. If students are simply gathering to listen to each other, everyone has a voice. Plus, in environments of support, telling skills emerge. My students told regardless of age or ability. We provided spaces for everyone. We had tellers who were talented in their work from the beginning, but still others, who with support from the club and the troupe, soared to new heights.
- An hour a week changes students. Students’ abilities grow as we share time with them. Imagine a curriculum where students tell what is on their minds, what they are working with at the time, or simply escape in worlds where dragons live and princesses don’t have to wear dresses but can be the heroes. New awareness builds through each student’s story.
As teachers, we ask students to write stories, but why not tell them? Story building leads to live telling. Share out loud. Don’t sit quietly; create spaces out loud for students and their peers.
Do you have an hour to help students appreciate their voices? It makes a difference. Read a response below from student Kelly, now 32.
“In high school, storytelling was a wonderful connection not just to my peers but also a greater community in which I was welcomed. So much culture was shared in our small high school auditorium from seasoned storytellers, coming simply to invite us in to their world. I credit storytelling and drama in high school to a nearly unstoppable confidence, a willingness to embrace the silence and step forward when I’m not sure what the next step might be. To put myself out there, to be brave, storytelling gave me that. A deep appreciation for listening was also born out of storytelling. Quieting myself and deeply valuing the words of others has been invaluable in my adult life. As a Marriage and Family Therapist, it is literally my job to listen. To give the speaker space and for them to know I’m right there with them. To truly HEAR what the person across from me is saying and sit there with the words and feelings has been an incredible gift.
I work mainly with children and now, as a stay at home parent, my involvement in storytelling has been a huge asset… My children know the world to be a place of wonder, because of the sense of wonder that was gifted to me when I was only 15.” (Engaging Teens to Tell, 2017).
I learned so much as an educator and coach. I witnessed my students’ stories and only offered suggestions. They were the architects of their narratives, building landscapes in language and literacy. Stories empower students to be instruments of change, power, and identity.
As a teacher, I could not ask for a better gift.
Invest in story. Let me know if I can help.
Kevin D. Cordi is the chair for the Storytelling SIG for NCTE and is according to the National Storytelling Network, “the first full time high school storytelling teacher in the country.” He is the author of Playing with Stories: Story Crafting for Writers, Teachers, and Other Imaginative Thinkers and the coauthor with Judy Sima of Raising Voices: Creating Youth Storytelling Groups and Troupes. He is an assistant professor of narrative and literacy for the Education Department at Ohio Northern University. You can find out more at www.kevincordi.com.
Note: See the NCTE Guideline on Teaching Storytelling.