Storytelling in East PM

By Matt Linden, Head Teacher

The East PM teaching team was truly inspired by Vivian Paley’s visit to Bing in February. The early childhood education community has been profoundly influenced by her work with children, in particular children’s play, and we were excited to participate in her workshop [see page 6 for more information].

The day after Paley’s visit, we put in place a plan to apply her storytelling structure in our classroom, gauge the children’s interest and be open to the impact it had on the classroom community. Within this storytelling structure, children dictated stories while teachers wrote them down. The children then acted their stories out.

The East PM children already loved acting in story plays based on children’s books, so we were optimistic about our storytelling project. However, we wanted the children to get the message that these would be different: The East PM children’s personal stories and ideas would be the focus, and we were not performing the plays at story time, in front of visitors—these plays were for the children.

The classroom became our theater, the children the actors and the audience and teachers the stage managers. We chose to implement the following “stage rules” suggested by Paley:

• One page limit for each story (unless it’s the child’s birthday)

• The children don’t choose roles, they are assigned. Equal access to the stories is what creates friendship.

• No clapping because this isn’t a performance. (As Paley asked, “When you pass a group of children playing, do you clap?”)

To bring attention to our new project, we removed the language tables from the classroom, and in their place, we marked off a large rectangle on the floor with masking tape. We set up chairs around the perimeter. This was our stage. In the middle of the stage, we placed a small placard that said, simply, “Storytelling.”

We got the “wow effect” we were hoping for as soon as the children entered the classroom. “Why are the tables gone? Why is there a rectangle on the floor? What are we doing today?” We informed the children that we were telling stories and acting them out, and invited them to sit with us and dictate a story. We decided that, instead of writing the story and then immediately acting it out, we’d collect a number of stories and then act them out. Children sat patiently in the chairs, waiting for their turn to tell a story, listening to the stories being told. When it was time to act them out, we went on a classroom-wide search for all the authors and returned to our stage to perform.

After casting the plays, we would begin reading, pausing at appropriate times to allow the characters to act. Often they would know what to do. “Once upon a time there was a little caterpillar….” Evan, the author and caterpillar, began the play by dropping to his hands and knees. This brought laughter to the stage and provided cues for the rest of the actors (the caterpillar’s family and some flowers) on how to act.

Sometimes the play came to a halt when a child didn’t know how to act out a certain part. One of Jordan’s plays had the line: “There was a man who could drive his car and his bicycle at the same time.” Jordan was the man, but did not know how to act driving a car and a bicycle simultaneously. “I know!” Dante interjected, “I’ll be the car and Tommy can be the bicycle!” “Yeah!” Tommy replied. Jordan agreed and the three children acted out the scene in a humorous fashion.

Eventually, children started inventing stories about each other. Jordan wrote, “There once was a girl named Hana, and she ate a cookie. And then, a big monster came and he was really, really angry. And then he just said, ‘Lucas, please will you carry me?’” Tommy wrote, “There was a fish. And a shark. The shark ate the fish up. There was a Quinn. It was a little Quinn. It grew to be big. And there wasa boy. And the boy ate the shark up.”

At the end of winter quarter, the team reflected on the storytelling project. We found that it had encouraged the children’s interactions, in effect creating a new classroom social dynamic. This came about when children engaged in active listening and brainstorming together, problem-solved and drew on creativity to enhance and deepen each other’s stories. As teacher Colin Johnson stated, “Atstorytelling, every child gets noticed by other children.”

Our stories brought us together. We created a community full of bats, lions, dinosaurs, monsters, foxes, dolphins, sharks, cats, dogs, the letter W, the letter Z, princesses, Peter Pan, trees, flowers, rocket ships, Annakin Skywalker and even Hans MacGregor—a character invented by Daniel’s father for bedtime stories. The greatest imprint storytelling left on East PM is echoed in Dante’s words, “Jordan, I want to play with you. What are you doing?” It can be seen when Quinn and Rex leave a storytelling session together, a newly formed friendship in full bloom. They jump with delight at the prospect of painting together, then run outside to play some more.