primary grades · reflective practice · stories · storytelling · writing workshop


One of the ways Martha Horn suggests launching workshop is to spend a significant amount of time steeping the workshop in storytelling. In fact, she suggests every child tell a story aloud to the entire class. She shares this approach along with Mary Ellen Giacobbe in their book Talking, Drawing, Writing (Stenhouse, 2007). She also discussed it when I spent the day with her at the beginning of the month. In addition she shared a video clip of this approach in the classroom.

I’ve been giving it a good faith effort. Modeling, reading lots of stories, and listening to 5,6, and 7 year old children tell stories in kindergarten and first grade. I’ve been enamored by the process and feel as if lingering in storytelling has been a missing component to many primary workshops I’ve been a part of. The thing is, I’ve been questioning if it is worthwhile to have everyone sit and listen to one person tell a story. Am I being reasonable asking 26 kindergarteners to sit and listen to one tell a story? Then to ask them to do it again and again. By the time I read a story then they listen to three students tell a story we are pushing 45 minutes. Is it right to ask them to sit and listen for this long?

We’ve added movement and talk. I’ve also added in some partner and small group storytelling. They are doing well as listeners and storytellers. Still, I have nagging questions in the back of my mind about whether all of the sit and listen time is the best for young writers. Is this any different than a “sit and get” approach to teaching writing? Sure it’s not the teacher blabbing, but still, they are sitting and listening for most of workshop time.

Still. I wanted to try it just like Martha and Mary Ellen suggest. So often I see teachers pick and choose parts of writing workshop they want to use and in the end the result is a watered-down unrealistic version of “writing.” Since Martha clearly has more experience with young writers than me I decided to trust her and give it a go.

I’ve been in two classes (a kindergarten and a first grade class) and tomorrow the last students in each class will tell a story to the class. I keep saying to the teachers, “Do you think this is okay? Do you think this is a good approach? Do you think they are gaining valuable experiences listening to their classmates tell stories.” Both teachers emphatically support this work. For me though, the jury was still out.

Until today.

Today a student who didn’t speak a single word in kindergarten (no exaggeration), who hasn’t spoken to me, and who has barely spoken in first grade told a story to the entire class. Two other students had already told their stories, so we were telling stories in partnerships. The teachers said to me, “I’m concerned about Beth*. She won’t talk.”

I went over to listen in on Beth’s partnership. Sure enough her partner had finished telling a story and was waiting for Beth. I leaned in, “Do you have a story to tell?”

Beth nodded.

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell our stories. I get nervous when I tell stories outloud.”

I waited. She nodded.

Her partner said, “I want to hear your story.”

“Will you tell us what your story is about?”

Beth shrugged. “Please?” said her partner. (Really this isn’t staged and I didn’t bribe the partner. So often first graders are just so encouraging.)

Beth mumbled something.

The partner said, “Darn! I couldn’t hear you.” (She even snapped her little fingers.)

I said, “Beth, we really want to know what your story is about. Will you tell us again?”

“Horses,” Beth said.

Her partner said, “I love horse stories! I ride a horse at my cousins house. Do you ride horses.”

Beth smiled. Then she said, “My horse is named Strawberry.”

“Cool,” said her partner.

Beth said, “I ride her a lot.”

I smiled. The partner storytelling was beginning to fade away. So I took a deep breath (crossed my fingers) and said, “Beth, do you want to tell your story to the class?”

Beth nodded.

Her partner said, “Great! We’ll love hearing it.”

This story has a happy ending. Beth climbed up into the big storyteller’s chair. She wanted the mic clipped on her shirt. She took a deep breath and started, “I have a story about my horse Strawberry.” Her classmates were glued to her. They smiled and giggled at the right parts. They listened with an intensity that made it obvious Beth’s story mattered. And when she finished, they clapped. I looked at the teacher whose eyes were brimming with tears. Beth’s grin filled her face.

And I had my answer. Whole group storytelling is absolutely a valuable way to spend our writing workshop time. For many many reasons…

  1. Children learn their stories matter.
  2. Children find their voices.
  3. Children think about audience response.
  4. Books are read aloud.
  5. Children remember each other’s stories.
  6. Children recognize a story is focused around one idea.
  7. Children realize there are parts to a story.
  8. A community of writers is established.
This is just a quick little start to a too-short list at the end of a too-long post. I’m glad I trusted Martha and Mary Ellen. I’m glad I stuck with it and gave it a good faith effort. I’m ecstatic at the way students are empowered to use their voices. Mostly, I can’t wait to see the way lingering in storytelling will lift the level of the writing by the end of the year.

Past posts about this work:

Martha Horn


Twitter feed from the day with Martha Horn (Scroll down to find the tweets from October 14.)



10 thoughts on “Storytelling

  1. I loved this post. I heading up a literary magazine at my son’s elementary school. As a writer, it is so rewarding to see the kids discover the thrill of storytelling. – both individually and in a group setting. Thanks for doing what you do.


  2. Storytelling is such an effective way to build a community of writers – it opens the path to peer editing and all the other sharing that is so important to workshop. This is how we spend the first two weeks of school, time well spent. I love the way you (and Beth’s partner) encouraged her every step of the way.


  3. Finding your voice, what an important lesson at every grade level. I am often still nervous about sharing my own stories. To have students start this practice early makes so much sense and honestly, not something I have thought about. Thanks for sharing!


  4. Thank you for confirming something I’ve been telling teachers, you have to tell your story before you can make that leap to writing your story. I will continue to push storytelling.


  5. Hummm…this has me thinking. I too am worried about the time element. My students (5th graders) beg me to read to them every day – often far beyond the time I allot. I’m wondering if they would have the same response and if it would be beneficial to us as a community of writers…still thinking…


  6. I too had tears in my eyes! I know a Beth. And I teach 8th graders. I took a storytelling class in college. It was a challenging, out-of-my-comfort-zone experience. And I loved it! It never occurred to me to bring that experience to my classroom. My students share writing and we do some spoken word kinds of things, but plain old storytelling is a lost art. I am sold. I know you only suggested this as a primary grade thing, but with some thought I am sure this can become a meaningful experience for my students. Perhaps we can even become storytellers to our elementary school friends.


  7. Oh, no doubt, the stories that will flow! Congratulations on your success in the classroom and having felt what teachers strive for–making a difference in a child’s life!


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