By Rebecca Honig, director of content & curriculum
“Once upon a time…”
I still get goose bumps when I hear that phrase. It means something magical is about to happen. It means I’m about to get transported to a far-off place or a time long ago. It means a story is beginning.
As a child, storytelling was my window into the world of words. I didn’t learn to read or write until 4th grade and it wasn’t until middle school that my pen could keep up with my head. I remember laboring for hours to get a few sentences on the page, the story slowly slipping away from me as I looked up spellings in the dictionary and tried to remember which way the letter “b” should face.
What I could do with ease was tell stories out loud to my mom. She’d sit at the ready, pen and paper in hand, and I’d launch into wild adventures and fantasies. I had a cast of recurring characters who’d get into all sorts of mishaps. There was Jennifer the Rockstar who could not sing and Obert the guinea pig who lived in her pocket (and was an AMAZING singer). There was Sunny Malita, who was stuck on a rock in the ocean. There was Squirrel Boy and his sidekick Pal who were in charge of an abandoned playground.
Seeing my mom write down my words gave them weight. When she’d hand each story back to me, carefully transcribed on a piece of lined paper, it felt like a treasure. It was an artifact that proved I had ideas, I had things to say. When my words were written down it meant other people could be a part of the secret world in my head.
Power of Storytelling
Storytelling has long been a powerful medium, not just for communication and creativity, but also literacy. It improves language skills, teaches story structure, builds reading comprehension and writing skills. And, storytelling holds great benefits for the listener as well. Research has shown that listening to oral stories can actually lead to greater recall and comprehension.
As a mother of three, nothing brings me more joy than listening to my children tell stories. Like my mother, I collect them. I carefully transcribe my children’s words, or record them on my phone, so I can hold onto them. I read them again and again, remembering the different ages and stages that my kids passed through and the characters. And the adventures associated with each new phase.
Like the phase when my then-4-year-old ended every story with the characters eating broccoli cheese soup (a meal he loved and then hated). Here’s one from that era:
The Dinosaur’s Fight
By Miles Briggs, Illustrated by Theo Adler-Westervelt
Once upon a time, there was a dinosaur. His name was Bob, I mean Tob. He wasn’t bald. He was a boy. He had some hair. But he wasn’t that fat. He was a grownup. So, he walked along. And he saw some people having a bullfight. He signed up and he did the bullfight. The bullfight was very, very, good. And he won the bullfight. The crowd was going wild! And then they gave him a medal. Then they had some dinner. It was chicken soup. I mean…it was broccoli soup. So… he ate it all up. The end. And then he goed to sleep. The other end.
The Story Kitchen
Oral story telling has, throughout time, in every corner of the globe, been a critical vehicle for bridging connections, for communicating big ideas, for passing on traditions, beliefs, languages, histories.
As an educator, I started a program called The Story Kitchen. I’d travel around to different classrooms and model oral storytelling. Then I’d take kids, one-by-one, out into the “story kitchen” (really just a nook in the hallway) so they could tell their stories to me. I’d record their tales and deliver them back, so students could see their words in writing, illustrate them and turn them into books.
Teachers reported that this experience was causing great gains in children’s confidence as burgeoning writers. Really, I think I’m the one who experienced the greatest gains, because listening to children’s stories all day was probably the most fun I’ve had EVER.
It’s just… magic.
Story Starters for Your Families
And so, I propose we all spend a little time this winter telling stories. We’ve provided a few story starters for you to share with the families you serve (or with your own family).
They offer images and questions to spark storytellers of all ages. There’s one for each day of the traditional winter school break (plus a few extra for good measure).
Story starters can also be a great way to connect after a long day at work. Even a few minutes of storytelling can offer a powerful connection for families and a whole lot of joy for both the storyteller and the listener.
You might even encourage families to write down the stories their children tell and share them with you. Stories make a wonderful window into the lives of the children and families we serve.