Stories: Not a Project, a Process

By Peckie Peters, Head Teacher

In West room, there were always piggies. Not live animals, like the classroom’s chickens and bunnies, but toy piggies that belonged to children. Ginger brought her stuffed piggy in her backpack on the first day of school when she was only three. “Piggy” was her connection between home and school, and just knowing he was there helped her feel safe at school. So it wasn’t surprising when Ginger at age 4 told a story about pigs. “So there was a little pig and big mommy pig and she had a baby named Ginger and there was two sisters and they were named Jordan and Bridget. And there was a Daddy pig also. And his name was David Thomas Quigley.”

Stories are always a part of a nursery school classroom, but this year West AM teachers decided to begin a stories project—and our first step was to commit to collecting children’s stories in all areas of the curriculum. So when Baxter asked to paint a pinecone he found on the way to school, a teacher asked him if he also had a story to tell about it. He did. “There was a boy named Baxter. He found a pinecone at Bing School front garden.

He wanted to paint it. He painted it purple.” When Belle returned from a trip to New Mexico, we asked if she had a story to tell. She did. “I went to Ten Thousand Waves. I went in this huge bathtub. A round one. There was snow there. It was a bath, not a tub.” Lucas made a structure using Magna-Tiles, clear plastic shapes with magnets inside, which allow children to build a variety of formations. “Tell me about it,” a teacher asked. “It’s a space garage. It carries rockets. ’Cuz inside there are two rockets inside. I’m making a mini-rocket.”

For over a month, teachers collected children’s stories each day and often shared them at story time, which exposed the group to many types of stories. We were excited to see the variety of stories that were being generated—the children were clearly motivated to be storytellers and express what was on their minds.As teachers, our hope was to elicit, document and share those stories to see if we could better understand what this process revealed about our group of children.

Several weeks later, teachers were also anticipating a visit by Vivian Paley [see page 6], an extraordinary teacher and writer who built her curriculum on a foundation of play and storytelling. As we read and discussed several of Paley’s works prior to her visit, we looked deeper into what stories could tell us about children. Was there a way we could better incorporate storytelling into our curriculum? When Paley arrived at Bing, she answered by modeling techniques she had used in her own classroom. She also urged us not to turn stories into performances, which takes them out of the context of play, but rather to view them as an enactment of children’s lives. Armed with a new vision, suggested techniques and a renewed confidence in our own practice, we were excited to greet the children the next day.

Our revised mission was to create a structure in which storytelling and story acting could become an integral part of the classroom. Our hope was that in adding this to our curriculum we could weave together a community of children who developed a deeper understanding of each other and a broader comfort with sharing their own stories with the group. After some experimentation, the teachers became aware that sufficient time and space assist the process of story sharing. We then created a “stage” on the carpet area, a large rectangle delineated by masking tape. The teacher who led story time solicited stories from children throughout the period before snack time and recorded them in a binder. After enough stories had been collected, all members of the class were invited to act them out. This gave the broader group of children an opportunity to be part of the storytelling community and gave the authors a chance to view their stories from the perspective of the community. Teachers chose actors by offering a particular child in the group a particular role. If the child didn’t want it, the teacher would ask the next child until the role was filled. Friendship did not dictate who was given a particular role so children quickly learned everyone has equal value in the world of story plays.

Within this new system, we experienced an increase in children’s eagerness to tell stories. Some stories included cues for actors to follow. Aria: “It’s the story, a boy and a girl. And then they play on the grass and then they came home. And then they had dinner. And then they had milk because they were a little girl. And then they went to sleep. No, first dinner, then they went to sleep.” Others, like the brief one by Katherine, called for children to interpret the meaning a little further: “Tornado.” Children were excited to listen to others tell their stories. Often one child’s plot would feed the next child’s content, like the day when many stories included a hotdog with human characteristics. Sometimes children expressed an interest in duplicating a friend’s story. “I want to tell a story like Grace’s with the kitties.” Other times we’d see a similarity in location (e.g., under the sea), or characters (e.g., princesses, bad guys, Star Wars). The children had ongoing exposure to the storytelling process and a model for how that works. As the teachers acted as scribes and narrators, they helped the children understand the pace and process of how language is spoken, then written, then acted out. Acting out stories gave children a new venue for using their imaginations.

Still, the teachers were not satisfied. We wanted our process to somehow incorporate the entire class. We hoped that storytelling could lead to the strong sense of community that Vivian Paley had experienced with her class of 15 kindergartners for our group of 36 3- and 4-year olds. Making this a whole-group experience proved challenging. Waiting as the teacher went around the big circle asking for volunteers to act out specific parts helped develop patience and turn-taking skills, and gave everyone a chance to experience each other’s ideas, but at times it felt chaotic. Was this how the shared storytelling was supposed to happen?

Our answer came as it often does by careful observation. Stepping back from the project, it became clear that “stories” wasn’t a project at all, but rather a way of being together. Belle and Nathaniel helped to clarify this idea when they were acting as kitties in a play. They smiled and giggled as they carefully played their roles of kitties going to kitty school. It was clear that they had a shared understanding, expressed without words through the process of play, of how kitties were supposed to be. After the play was over the two decided to go outside together. Zachary and Dashiell made a connection through monsters, a theme they shared in their storytelling. Both preferred to be the loud monsters wreaking havoc and both learned to perform their roles without being too loud for the audience. Many long-term social connections, such as these, rose out of the storytelling process, which demonstrated community building.

“Stories” is no longer a project, but a process which has become an integral part of our class. Providing the environment where children can continue to tell their stories has allowed us to understand each member of our community. William F., whose preference was to be a member of the audience expressed his enjoyment of the stories and connection to his peers with his rapt attention and broad smile. Brock, who eagerly assumed most roles but preferred not to move on stage, was another part of that kinship. Andrew, Braden, Jacob and Lucas took turns telling us stories about the Star Wars saga, providing new material for light-saber carrying characters who frequent the patio area. And Ginger provided the stability and the knowledge that some things will always be there.

“It’s about the same old piggy in my stories before, Ginger Lisa Quigley. There’s a daddy piggy named David Thomas Quigley. There was a mama piggy named Jeannie Karen Waltoch. There’s a sister piggy named Jordan Claire Quigley. There’s another sister piggy named Bridget Kendall Quigley. The End.”