World Storytelling Day

Are you sitting comfortably? Then let us begin! Did you know that World Storytelling Day is on March 20, 2020?  This global celebration of the art of oral storytelling is celebrated every year on the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere, the first day of autumn equinox in the southern.

Storytelling is a powerful tool in the classroom. As a newly qualified teacher in an open plan setting I could hear every word that came out of the mouth of the teacher ‘next door’ to me. Her lessons would often begin with a story, particularly in history and I was so impressed by the way she made topics come to life and had the class hanging on every word that came out of her mouth. 

We all tell stories – it is an innate and important part of everyday life. Think back over the last week and the stories you have told and heard. They may range from the mundane to highly significant but all stories have a place in helping us make sense of the world around us.  

Why is storytelling useful in the classroom? Patrick Ryan  PhD, FEA, Storyteller and Research Fellow, George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling says:

We think in stories. Whenever we encounter new experiences, we use stories we remember, to understand, and to engage in new environments and activities. 

Storytelling in science

We know that stories can engage our emotions and this is a key way of focusing attention. Our brains are trained to privilege information associated with emotional arousal. Great stories inspire curiosity. This curiosity and emotional engagement can be harnessed across the curriculum to support learners to deepen their knowledge in different subjects. So how do we harness the power of storytelling in other subjects? We begin with a high-quality text.  Here’s one instance which illustrates how storytelling can be used to bring a subject to life. Just Imagine’s Take One Book resource aims to introduce a wide range of literature to primary pupils. 

The Pebble in My Pocket is a narrative nonfiction book which follows the journey of a single pebble from its origins 480 million years ago to the present day. It tells the history of the earth from a geological perspective following the processes of rock formation and erosion that creates new pebbles all over the world.

The science curriculum for Year Three includes learning about rocks which can be linked to aspects of physical geography. It is a book which covers difficult concepts using the familiar object of a pebble. Meredith Hooper uses metaphor to make the subject matter accessible while using terminology which will extend the children’s vocabulary. The use of movement verbs to describe all aspects of the journey of the pebble will lead into dance and poetry work. The rich illustrations work well with the text to support the reader. What could be a dry subject is brought to life by turning the pebble into a character. The reader is invited to travel with the pebble and empathise with the events which take place over time. 
The book begins:

The pebble in my pocket is round and smooth and brown. I found it on the ground. Where did you come from, pebble?

To hook the children and support them to identify with the pebble as a character, we use pebbles found in the environment and decorate them adding eyes and a mouth before asking the question:

  • If this pebble could talk, what would it tell you?

Once the children have identified with the pebble as a character, they are introduced to some of the vocabulary that will be encountered in the book as the teacher goes into role as a geologist sharing visual images. Let’s look at how we can take one part of the book and look beyond the facts and bring the concepts to life. Read the following passage take from page 20 of The Pebble in My Pocket:

The wind blows colder and colder. Snow falls. Blizzards blot out the light, The snow packs down, layer on layer. Deep underneath the surface snow, the old snow turns into clear, blue glacier ice.

The glacier starts shifting, moving slowly down hill, grinding forward, a monstrous river of ice scraping across the land, scouring out valleys, sculpting mountains. The glacier picks up and moves everything in its way. It picks up the pebble and freezes it deep in its icy blue depths.

The glacier grinds on for thousands and thousands of years, roaring and groaning as the ice slides and shifts. Its surface is split with shadowy crevasses.

We begin by reading this aloud asking the children to close their eyes and build a picture of the glacier in their minds-eye. To help them imagine it is a living thing we ask:

  • What does it look like? 
  • Is it kind or cruel? 

Pairs then describe the glacier to each other. This can be modelled by the teacher, for example:

I imagine a huge ice monster with powerful arms and legs. It is so strong that it can lift anything up and fling it wherever it likes. 

The focus then turns to highlighting the verbs in the passage which show what the glacier is doing and whether any of the words or phrases used make it seem as if the glacier is a living thing. The technique of personification is introduced which leads to the children sketching their own ice monsters, labelling the, with descriptive words and phrases. A pebble is added to the scene and pairs go into role as the pebble and the glacier and improvise the dialogue that could be taking place. For example,

Glacier: I am the strongest thing here. I will pick up anything that is in my way. 

Pebble: Oh no! I can see the terrible ice monster coming. I must hide.

Glacier: Nothing is safe from me.

There are a wealth of children’s books published which can support this approach to scientific and geographical learning. Nicola Davies is a supreme storyteller and anything written by her offers the same opportunities to engage and inspire young learners. 

Storytelling in Maths

Other subjects can benefit from stories too. Mathematics is a discipline which deals with abstract concepts which can be difficult to grasp so storytelling is an ideal way to bring these to life. Stories can be used to set the scene and contextualise the maths that is to be taught or read at the end to consolidate the learning that has taken place. 

The Education Endowment Foundation’s recent report noted:

Using storybooks to teach mathematics can be particularly effective, through providing an opportunity for mathematical talk and questioning. Much of this evidence comes from studies where practitioners were explicitly supported in promoting mathematical discussion from the story, for example, by being provided with notecards displaying prompting questions and discussion points that they could use. 

There are many great books which can support teaching mathematical concepts. Actual Size by Steve Jenkins is a book where the reader meets animal s of various shapes and sizes all drawn to scale. This makes it ideal to introduce ideas about size relationships and measurement. The wonderful Cockatoos by Quentin Blake tells the story of the eccentric and absent-minded Professor Dupont who owns ten cockatoos. The birds play tricks on the Professor and hide from him. He might not be able to see them but the reader can. As well as being a hugely satisfying story, Cockatoos is a book which can be used to explore addition and subtraction to ten as well as counting. 

MathsThroughStories.org is an international research-based initiative, which sets out to explore various aspects of integrating stories and literacy in mathematics instruction. The initiative is non-profit and is based in the UK. Their mission is:

to make mathematics teaching more accessible and more enjoyable for learners everywhere through the power of storytelling and children’s imagination.

Their website has a wealth of ideas and resources to get you started.