Updated: September 2022
The definition of storytelling and how it is being used has changed. This is also true when using storytelling in the classroom.
Humans have such a long history of using storytelling to connect to one another that it seems like an instinctual motivation and desire. “Insofar as we account for our own actions and for the human events that occur around us principally in terms of narrative, story, drama, it is conceivable that our sensitivity to narrative provides the major link between our own sense of self and our sense of others in the social world around us” (Bruner, 1986, p. 69). Storytelling is part and parcel of human socialization—a tool for making us known, both to ourselves and to others. In fact, anything we experience that does not get structured narratively does not get remembered (Kahneman, 2010). Our brains seem wired for narrative, making us naturally receptive to it; we use stories to make sense of the world and to share that understanding with others (Rose, 2011), so telling personal stories becomes a way for us to both define and project ourselves.
Stories don’t just convey information; they “demonstrate relationships between tellers, hearers, characters, and others” (Shuman, 1986, p. 21). The audience members are active witnesses, participating in constructing the narrative and playing in its gaps (Richter, 1996). One perquisite of this gap-playing in listening to an oral story (as opposed to reading a written memoir, for example) is that the interaction takes place live, before the teller’s very eyes. Listening to a story impacts one’s own narrative identity (Holstein & Gubrium, 2000), which is an important reason to give class time to storytelling—its potential power to connect our students to each other and therefore positively affect our classroom relationships. Oral storytelling units bank on many students’ natural desire to share stories from their lives. Johnson & Freedman (2001) believe, as we do, that “all elements that are vital to creating a strong community of learners can be found within the people who share classroom space each day. By sharing stories—and allowing students to share theirs—teachers create a community of learners that might just overcome some of the boundaries that keep people apart or alone in the world of school” (p. 43).
What Is Storytelling?
Story seems simple to define. After all, we all recognize a story when we hear it. Genette (1982) states, “One will define narrative without difficulty as the representation of an event or of a sequence of events” (p. 127). However, a story is more than just a string of events. William Labov (1972) describes narrative as “one method of recapitulating past experience by matching a verbal sequence of clauses to the sequence of events which (it is inferred) actually occurred” (p. 396). This seemingly technical way of understanding narrative or story is useful for understanding how narrative operates. Labov (1972) explains that narratives are not told in the same order as the events that are detailed; instead, narrators or storytellers recapitulate the past and reconfigure the events to imbue significance. As Rosen (1988) observes, narratives are not always a “neat match between experience and a sequence of clauses” (p. 10).
Oral storytelling is different from personal narrative writing such as memoir or autobiography in that it is told in front of a live audience (of one or more), it involves at least some improvisation, and it utilizes the extra dimensions of dialect, vocal shadings, audience response, and accompanying facial and body movements (Simons, 1990). “Telling and listening to a story is not the same thing as reading or writing it. Even if a storyteller uses the same words as are found on paper, the story is transformed when lifted into talk and experienced in each other’s presence” (Kuyvenhoven, 2009, p. 4). Strong storytellers utilize dramatic and comedic timing, their audience’s reactions, and vocal characterization to bolster their performance. The performance aspect of oral storytelling adds an extra layer to the already complex act of narration found in genres more familiar to the classroom, such as memoir. When done well, the craft of oral storytelling actually produces oral literature; good oral stories are verbal art, but deeply entrenched ethnocentric and elitist biases have established an image of them as formless, simple, and plebeian (Bauman, 1986, p. 7). Allowing students to perform stories in their own, personal language can legitimize and honor their individual ways of speaking in a way school spaces usually don’t.
Recent years have seen a shift to narrative studies in education and social science. This research relies less on how a narrative text is formed and more on how narrative texts are used (Cordi, 2019, p. 36). More and more research suggest that we think in narrative. Haven (2014) states, “We are preprogrammed from before birth to seek specific story information when we try to understand and create meaning from the world around us. We think in story form. We make sense in story form. We create meaning in story form. We remember and recall in stories” (p. 31). We need to recognize that when discussing story, it can have many names. When referring to narrative, researchers and educators often use story and narrative to mean the same thing.
As Leslie Silko wrote, “stories cannot be separated from the actual physical places” in which they are told (1981, p. 69). As Kuyvenhoven (2009) states that “place” is a classroom—“a powerful influential ‘participant’ that directs the tellers and listeners in their choices and their conduct. It shapes the language, meanings, and applications of the story” (p. 31). Storytelling can transform the classroom to be something new. Although the students recognize that the story is in the classroom, they can also travel in the “world of story” as a told story is being shared. When an educator tells about “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the classroom can disappear for the tellers and they not only see Red or Arthur’s woods, but they experience it. The storyteller creates the landscape upon which the listener experiences the tales.
Storytelling Is Different From Story Reading
Storytelling is relating a tale to one or more listeners through voice and gesture. It is not the same as reading a story aloud or reciting a piece from memory or acting out a drama—though it shares common characteristics with these arts. The storyteller looks into the eyes of the audience and together they co-create the experience of the tale. The storyteller begins to see and recreate, through voice and gesture, a series of mental images; the audience, from the first moment of listening, squints, stares, smiles, leans forward, or falls asleep, letting the teller know whether to slow down, speed up, elaborate, or just finish. Each listener, as well as each teller, actually composes a unique set of story images derived from meanings associated with words, gestures, and sounds. The experience can be profound, exercising the thinking and touching the emotions of both teller and listener.
Storytelling involves appealing to the listening audience. “Entertainment is a requirement for successful storytelling. No story works without it; otherwise it becomes a lecture” (Spaulding, 2011, p. 4). In a very real way, the act of telling is a performative act. What is meant here is that the act of telling is different than giving a speech or lecture because the performative event (Bauman, 1975) is a unique experience. It is a practice that depends on direct connection between the teller and the listener. The direction of the story can change from the way the listener reacts or the teller shares the story.
Baker and Greene (1977) describe storytelling not as a memorized performance but instead an interaction that exists between the teller and the listeners. They claim that storytelling at its best is a mutual creation. As Haven (2014), Collins (2005), and Edmiston (2014) state, storytelling is co-creative art. The act of traditional or organized storytelling cannot happen without an audience connection. The reaction of the audience can change the way the story is delivered. In this sense, the teller and the listeners are working on the story together.
Kuyvenhoven (2009) believes storytelling is about relationships. “Storytelling involves a particular language and set of relationships; it is a body of knowledge and abilities that are activities only within its happening” (p. 4). These skills can transform the classroom, and they are perfect for the school environment.
Why Include Storytelling in School?
Nearly everyone can tell stories. We tell them informally as we relate the mishaps and wonders of our day-to-day lives. We gesture, exaggerate our voices, pause for effect. Listeners lean in and compose the scene of our tale in their minds. Often they are likely to be reminded of a similar tale from their own lives. These naturally learned oral skills can be used and built on in our classrooms in many ways. Gordon Wells (1986), professor of education at the University of California at Santa Cruz, concludes that “there has probably never been a human society in which people did not tell stories” (p. 194). Students have stories as part of their meaning-making systems. Students who search their memories for details about an event as they are telling it orally will later find those details easier to capture in writing. Writing theorists value the rehearsal, or prewriting, stage of composing. Sitting in a circle and swapping personal or fictional tales is one of the best ways to help writers rehearse.
Listeners encounter both familiar and new language patterns through story. They learn new words or new contexts for already familiar words. Those who regularly hear stories subconsciously acquire familiarity with narrative patterns and begin to predict upcoming events. Both beginning and experienced readers call on their understanding of patterns as they tackle unfamiliar texts. Then they recreate those patterns in both oral and written compositions.
Learners who regularly tell stories become aware of how an audience affects a telling, and they carry that awareness into their writing. Stories and the talk that surrounds them are both important to understanding youth. Anne Dyson (1987) found in her studies of young children’s collaborative story writing, “the most elaborate verbal stories and the most flexible manipulation of narrative time and space occurred, not in the texts themselves, but in the children’s talk” (p. 415). How a child or teen uses narrative can often inform the educator on next steps that are needed to help understand and create instruction for the child or teen.
Both tellers and listeners find a reflection of themselves in stories. Through the language of symbols, children and adults can use story-based play to share the fears and understandings not so easily expressed in everyday talk. Story characters represent the best and worst in humans. By exploring story territory orally, we explore ourselves—whether it be through ancient myths and folktales, literary short stories, modern picture books, or poems. Teachers who value a personal understanding of their students can learn much by noting what story a child chooses to tell and how that story is uniquely composed in the telling. Through this same process, teachers can learn a great deal about themselves.
Story is the best vehicle for passing on factual information. Historical figures and events linger in children’s minds when communicated by way of a narrative. The ways of other cultures, both ancient and living, acquire honor in story. The facts about how plants and animals develop, how numbers work, or how government policy influences history—any topic, for that matter—can be incorporated into story form and made more memorable if the listener takes the story to heart. Children at any level of schooling who do not feel as competent as their peers in reading or writing are often masterful at storytelling. The comfort zone of the oral tale can be the path by which they reach the written one. Tellers who become very familiar with even one tale by retelling it several times learn that literature carries new meaning with each new encounter. Students working in pairs or in small storytelling groups learn to negotiate the meaning of a tale.
Storymaking in the Schools.
When storytelling is incorporated in educational contexts, one must not forget the storymaking that is involved in creating the story. As much as the teller, listener, and the tale are connected, so is the storymaking and storytelling process. King (1995) offers that when students are engaged in creating the stories, possibilities are open. “The process of storymaking leads us along our inner path, to find the places where stories live. There are many ways to begin and no one way works for everyone every time. What is always required is acceptance—of ourselves and our stories” (p. 16). Educators can learn as much from the making process as from the telling process. The end result of a storytelling work does not have to be a told performance with an audience. Storytelling can be used to share narratives that bring the class closer to understanding an argument. Students and teachers can use story to enter a fictional world using process drama (Heathcote, 1984). Story can be used to share a point or illustrate an idea, and what is shared doesn’t have to be used as a performance. The storytelling can be used in a classroom demonstration or a class discussion. Consequently, storymaking is integral to storytelling. One can discover narratives within the storymaking that serve to meet the objectives of a classroom experience. Retelling stories about the Titanic can lead stories to explore how the great ship was made. No public performance of these stories is required for learning. The inquiry and the narratives that are discovered can serve as the frame of the lessons learned.
The Practice of Telling Stories
Teachers who tell personal stories about their past or present lives model for students the way to recall sensory detail. Listeners can relate the most vivid images from the stories they have heard or tell back a memory the story evokes in them. They can be instructed to observe the natural storytelling taking place around them each day, noting how people use gesture and facial expression, body language, and variety in tone of voice to get the story across. Stories can also be rehearsed. Again, the teacher’s modeling of a prepared telling can introduce students to the techniques of eye contact, dramatic placement of a character within a scene, use of character voices, and more. If students spend time rehearsing a story, they become comfortable using a variety of techniques. However, it is important to remember that storytelling is communication, from the teller to the audience, not just acting or performing.
Storytellers can draft a story the same way writers draft. Recordings can offer the storyteller a chance to be reflective about the process of telling. There are many available on the internet. Listeners can provide feedback about where the telling engaged them most. Learning logs kept throughout a storytelling unit allow both teacher and students to write about the thinking that goes into choosing a story, mapping its scenes, coming to know its characters, deciding on detail to include or exclude.
Like writers, student storytellers learn from models. Teachers who tell personal stories or go through the process of learning to tell folk or literary tales make the most credible models. Visiting storytellers or professional tellers on recordings or videos from the web offer students a variety of styles. Often a community historian or folklorist has a repertoire of local tales. Older students both learn and teach when they take their tales to younger audiences or community agencies.
With the rise of story slams and storytelling events, most notably The Moth in New York City, personal storytelling is seeing a resurgence. More and more Moth-like and completely new oral storytelling programs are springing up around the country and the world. There is also a growing amount of personal storytelling podcasting occurring. Social media platforms are anchor places for personal stories. Why not bring more told personal stories to the classroom? Hearing personal stories in the classroom can also help invite equity. As Linda Christensen (2000) says in Reading, Writing, and Rising Up, “When they hear personal stories, classmates become real instead of cardboard stereotypes: rich white girl, basketball-addicted Black boy, brainy Asian. . . . When students’ lives are taken off the margins and placed in the curriculum, they don’t feel the same need to put down someone else” (p. 7). Students need to feel that their voices matter, that they have a story to contribute or share and that their stories are a rich part of the curriculum.
Student stories are potentially rich natural resources running through the veins of our schools, but this resource sometimes goes untapped. Though personal narrative writing is becoming more common in classrooms, some present-day students are rarely if ever given the chance to craft stories in their own lives. This is unfortunate, as adolescents are capable of such growth in self and social awareness. As Kelly Gallagher (2019) states in Liz Prather’s text Story Matters, “This shortchanging of the story has deep and lasting consequences. It deprives our students of developing critical key writing skills, it weakens their agency, and it silences their voices” (p. xii). However, educators often don’t realize this is occurring and is a reminder on why we should continue to emphasize the use of story in the classroom.
Telling and inviting personal stories is a rich way to build a classroom community. Adults are not the only ones that should tell or listen to stories. Students need to tell their stories. As Cunningham (2015) states, “There has never been a more important time for children to become storytellers, and there have never been so many ways for them to share their stories” (p. 3). Our students and their stories should be an essential part of our teaching. As educators, we need to encourage students to tell their stories and help build community. Each shared story has the potential of teaching us.
Storytelling to Promote and Explore Inquiry
Storytelling can also serve as a powerful conduit through which to explore and address issues beyond the classroom. Narrative offers opportunities for students to engage with important issues that affect their everyday experiences by taking risks, designing creative solutions, and envisioning their future selves (Dubeck, Moshier, & Boss, 2006; Ritchie, Tomas, & Tones, 2011). For example, research shows how students can engage in a variety of socioscientific issues (e.g., climate change) that affect their local community through storytelling (Beach & Smith, 2020; Smith et al., 2019). Through these stories, audiences are able to gain an immersive and affective experience, as well as see how characters and communities cope with different issues. Stories offer students creative freedom to design solutions for societal challenges and to envision a better future. Ultimately, students can gain a sense of agency in working to persuade others to take action through their powerful storytelling.
Storytelling to Address Issues of Social Justice
We live in a multicultural and multilingual country, rich in the stories that reflect the lived experiences of a diverse group of people. Because we live in a racialized society, we know that not all stories are equally acknowledged or affirmed. Individual, cultural, and institutional racism can be unpacked through story. Story can serve as a catalyst for remembering, resistance, and healing. Stories offer opportunities for the collective to reimagine a world in which truths are spoken and justice is enacted. Award-winning author and journalist Andrea Collier (2019) wrote, “No matter who you are or where you come from, the human spirit wants—no, needs—to be validated. While story means so much in every culture and ethnicity, I know that Black folk, no matter how they got here, are planted in story and shared lived experience. It’s the way we witness.” For BIPOC communities, stories have been the tool, weapon, and salve for resistance and healing.
When we incorporate storytelling for social justice into our curriculum, we are carving out spaces for students to have meaningful dialogues about systemic and structural racism. We acknowledge that stories by diverse groups have been concealed, lost, or retold through the lens of the dominant culture and that counter-storytelling works to magnify the stories, experiences, narratives, and truths of subjugated peoples.
According to NoiseProject.org, Critical Race Theory views counter-storytelling as a way to provide power to the voices of individuals and communities. Counter-storytelling challenges the dominant culture narratives that lack the knowledge and wisdom that minority individuals hold about themselves and their cultures, communities, homes, struggles, and needs (Castelli, 2022).
Bell (2020) writes that in a deeply racialized society marred with structural racism, not all stories of diverse groups of people are equally acknowledged, valued, or affirmed. Stories as analytic tools: “Storytelling and oral tradition are democratic, freely available to all, requiring neither wealth and status nor formal education. Indeed, stories have historically provided ways for people with few material resources to maintain their values and sense of community in the face of forces that would disparage and attempt to destroy them” (Bell 2020, p. 13).
When telling stories, there are questions to consider. As educators, it is important to ask our students about how a story operates. In Storytelling for Social Justice: Connecting Narrative and the Arts in Antiracist Teaching, Bell (2010) suggests we ask listeners of the stories:
- What stories are erased, trivialized, or concealed by the dominant story? How does this happen?
- What kinds of stories can support our ability to speak out and act where instances of racism occur?
Storytelling for social justice means raising critical consciousness about social and racial injustices. Stories are how we make sense of the world and counterstories open up space for subjugated peoples to shed light on power and privilege entangled in structural racism.
Storytelling and the Importance of Passing on Tradition
In every culture, telling stories is making meaning to explain events. King (2003) credits Okri, a Nigerian storyteller, with having said: “In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted—knowingly or unknowingly—in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives” (p. 153).
It is important to remember that in many cultures around the world, stories are sacred. When using them in schools, one must secure permission to tell them. In researching stories of other cultures, educators need to remember cultures upon which they are based. It is always useful to teach the stories in context of the culture. In some cases, the culture depicts the times of the stories. For example, in many native peoples stories, the trickster Coyote tales can only be told during certain times of the year. Each folktale has the folk behind the tale. One can teach respect for the culture by sharing the traditions that build the tales.
Importance of Counter Narrative
Telling one’s truth, or testimonio, is a literary genre with a long history in indigenous and Latinx communities (González, Plata, García, Torres, & Urrieta, 2003; Pérez Huber, 2009). Testimoniando is a practice of counterstorying (Handsfield & Valente, 2016; El Ashmawi, Sanchez, & Carmona, 2018). It derives from a legacy of reflexive narratives of liberation used by people throughout the world (Reyes & Rodríguez, 2012). This type of storytelling entails a first-person account, draws on experiential knowledge, and articulates an urgent voicing of something to which one bears witness. Testimonios have the unique characteristic of being a political and conscienticized reflection that is typically spoken. The goal of a testimonio is collective. The narrator, or testimonialista, names oppression to appeal for actions against injustices such as genocide, racism, classism, linguicism, sexism, or any other type of structural marginalization. “The aim is to speak for justice against all crimes against humanity” (Reyes & Rodríguez, 2012, p. 527) and functions as resistance to state violence and oppression (González, et al., 2003). For example, studies in teacher education show that the consequences of marginalization and deficit perspectives about Latinx communities and immigrants become apparent to Latinx preservice teachers (Fránquiz, Salazar, & DeNicolo, 2011) who recount during professional development activities their too often negative literacy experiences in childhood. These future teachers agree that the practice of testimoniando, or counterstorying, provides affordances for Latinx and other students to bring their personal, familial, linguistic, and community knowledges to their stories and their learning (DeNicolo & González, 2015; Saavedra, 2011). These affordances matter. The stories enrich the self (testimonialista), raise consciousness of a social concern, and create a space for collective solutions.
As was stated, storytelling is changing. This includes the way it is shaped. More and more educators, in addition to telling stories in the classroom or having students share stories in the classroom, are employing digital storytelling in the classroom. Although there are many digital applications being used in the classroom, in order to be considered storytelling, story must be first, as Jason Ohler, author of Digital Storytelling in the Classroom (2006), states: “The problem for many students is their focus on the power of technology rather than the power of stories. Some students are engaging the medium at the expense of the message, producing a technical event rather than a story” (p. 46). Digital uses of narrative are becoming more accessible and expanding as we continue to employ digital learning in our classrooms. We advocate that with every new turn, story stays at the center of the change.
Storytelling: Looking to the Future
The way we use stories and how we use them in the classroom will continue to change, but what should remain central is how narrative is used in the classroom. We advocate that storytelling and the use of story needs to be a key meaning-making tool in our schools. Research suggests that when students are engaged in a language-filled environment, when their intellectual curiosity is piqued through the evaluation and analysis of example stories, and when they get a chance to craft and perform stories of their own, they work hard and have fun doing it. These students produced sophisticated ideas and gave meaningful commentary to their classmates during prolonged, rich interactions with each other. We believe this is one of the more worthwhile objectives a teacher can possibly have for their classroom.
“The heart of the matter, what the learner learns, whatever the teacher teaches, is that human beings make sense of the world by telling stories about it—by using the narrative mode for constructing reality” (Geertz, 2000, p. 104). The Committee on Storytelling invites you to (re)discover the riches of storytelling.
This position statement may be printed, copied, and disseminated without permission from NCTE.
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Kevin Cordi (Chair) Ohio University Lancaster
Christine Gentry, New York University
Blaine E. Smith, Vanderbilt University
Nancy Valdez-Gainer, Texas State University