On this crisp autumnal Sunday morning, I am at the National Storytelling Festival in the mountains of Tennessee. I will bring back new stories to spark the imagination of my own young tellers.
In a bag of teaching tricks, there is nothing more powerful than the ability to tell a story. “Once upon a time” stirs metaphor, word, and image into meaning. Most importantly, when I tell a story, I am teaching children about reading and writing in their native language.
Have you ever listened closely to children tell stories? They often begin with a question–or words and commands that end with a question mark. I think eight year olds invented up-speak. “Know what?” they will ask. Or “Guess what?” More often than not, they simply begin with, “Once?” They are joining the oldest storytelling tradition in the world: Call and Response. What they are really asking is, “Are you listening?” And we, fixing our eyes on the teller, lean forward, “We are listening.” This week I will be working with young writers on seeing story in the “small moment.” This is challenging work, but it is very rewarding. As we talk it through, I will hear it over and over: “Once?”
I am listening.
I build in questions whenever I talk — much to the annoyance of my husband (“I’m listening!”). Now I can tell him that it’s just part of my storytelling tradition. 🙂
Once, when I was learning to be a teacher I had this mentor who asked me to learn a story to tell to the class I was working with. The story was called the Storytelling Stone, but I have since read it in similar versions with different names such as Grandfather Rock. Many different cultures have such a story. It is the story of the importance of storytelling and oral history to civilization.
I read and re-read the story, telling it aloud to my family for practice. When the time came to tell it to the class I was still nervous. It was one of the first times I can remember having the complete attention of every student in the room. There is such power in a story, told in simple yet elaborate conversational prose. It was a turning point for me in my teaching. I realized then that my teaching needed to be an ongoing story developed with my class. They need to feel included, and yet be anxious to hear how it develops.
I still tell that story to my classes when we study Native Americans. I still get their undivided attention every time.
(Yes, that mentor was, and still is, Mrs. Campbell)
That’s a gorgeous photograph!