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Kickstarting Live Storytelling Events in Schools

by Rainesford Stauffer, on Jun 29, 2016 5:00:00 AM


Everyone has been impacted by the power of a great story: Be it reading a favorite book or catching an inspiring story on the news, storytelling is central to our humanity, dating back 200,000 years. This renders it an ancient art and something we all participate in, whether we realize it or not. Given the history and benefits (increase in writing, improved memory, sharpened language skills, and heightened creativity among them) of storytelling, it makes sense that storytelling finds a home in our classrooms, too.

Unquestionably, stories are the most human way to communicate—so what does live storytelling in schools do to increase student voice and improve learning of all kinds? As storytelling reclaims its rightful place in conversations about learning, connection, and literacy, the question remains: How do we successfully implement live storytelling in schools, and make the most of how stories relate to education?

Storytelling events are exploding across the country, and with good reason. According to the Youth, Educators and Storytellers Alliance of the National Storytelling Network, storytelling is an “art, a tool, and a device,” about which the Harvard Business Review says “cognitive psychologists describe how the human mind, in its attempt to understand and remember, assembles the bits and pieces of experience into a story.” In Jonesborough, Tennessee—the storytelling capital of the world!—International Storytelling Center has featured fifteen seasons of the teller-in-residence series, which attracts sold-out audiences of a variety of ages. Meanwhile, events such as Storyslam Oakland encourage interactive storytelling, with an icebreaker game that inspires audiences to tell true stories about themselves, and Massmouth connects stories to improv, with arts venues, universities, and various community organizations coming together.

These events rely on voices of the individual—an idea necessary to successfully implementing live storytelling in schools. When emphasis is put on student voice, it gives students the opportunity to develop confidence, analysis, and introspection, not to mention honing soft skills in public speaking, decision-making, and order through the use of thinking skills. Amy Monticello, assistant professor of English at Suffolk University and organizer of a “story slam” with Suffolk University as part of Boston Literacy Cultural District’s Construction of Self series, says that “there’s an urgency and vulnerability to love storytelling” that encourages a deeper connection to the audience, meaning that live storytelling could help establish student-to-student relationships within the classroom. These events contribute to student voice by offering students a sense of agency: When participating in live storytelling, students engage with their own voice (literally, with changing tone, pitch, and diction depending on the story, and figuratively, through telling stories via their own words and ideas).

What the success of storytelling events around the nation tells us is that stories are:

  • an innate part of being human, and
  • an experience that is equal parts cathartic and academic.

In addition, storytelling promotes brain activity that common classroom methods, like Powerpoint, simply don’t: The language processing parts of our brains are, of course, activated, but so are other areas of the brain that would be in use when experiencing the actual events unfolding in the story, too. Uri Hasson of Princeton found that there is synchronization between the storyteller and listener, meaning that, for example, when a storyteller had activity in her insula—the emotional region of the brain—listeners did as well. Live storytelling helps students build relationships, develop perspective on social awareness (through knowing their audience), and utilize self-awareness in terms of content and delivery, all of which are invaluable skills in the classroom or beyond. Given that personal stories make up about 65% of our conversations, it is one of the most multi-faceted educational opportunities we have.

Live storytelling stimulates both social emotional learning and the cornerstones of academia, which is a significant reason schools are taking back the narrative and hosting storytelling events of their own.

Back in March 2016, The Moth (which hosts live storytelling events in cities throughout the world) participated in a workshop event for twenty-five high school students, in which students were led through brainstorming exercises where they had to complete the sentence: “I’m the kind of person who…” This approach helps students establish their own unique narrative, with Catherine McCarthy, Manager of The Moth’s education program, noting that the formative school years are “a pivotal time developmentally to start developing the capacity to really reflect on your life.” Meanwhile, in the UK, there are entire schools devoted to storytelling, based on the idea that children who grow up learning via storytelling “create an inner store of language, ideas, and imagination” that they can draw upon throughout life and work.

Armed with the knowledge that a good story can change everything from our lives to our brain chemistry, here are a few tips to keep in mind for teachers, schools, or mentors looking to incorporate live storytelling into learning:

Help students set the foundation with prompts

While creative thinking is a huge part of storytelling, some students may need help getting started: A prompt, such as having the student answer a question like “When was the last time I was scared?” or a more plot-driven prompt, such as the student imagining themselves in a certain scenario, help stimulate the imagination and offer a sense of structure.

Use props, and make it a full-body experience

Encourage students to experiment with different tones of voice and pacing—such as when to pause—when telling their story, but don’t stop there! Props can help build the plot, in addition to giving students something tangible to use during their narrative. Even better: What kind of props does the student think they need to share their story? Can they create them? Adding in props and movement renders storytelling a verbal, visual, and physical experience.

Begin with the end in mind

To paraphrase The Moth, the student is the driver of the story—but that requires knowing the destination! Have students think of their last line first. It can help them develop a narrative arc and story structure, and give them a sense of direction when speaking.

Let it be fun

Maybe your students are sharing their stories in the moment, just talking, or perhaps they’ve been crafting them on paper prior to speaking aloud. While practice allows students to become more comfortable with the medium, one of the best parts of storytelling is that it is fun: Allow students to experiment, and adjust as they become more comfortable. Everyone is a storyteller. We just have to arm them with the freedom, opportunities and tools to tell it.

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