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Oral Storytelling Before Writing

“Let me tell you a story…” are some of the first words that make their way out of my mouth and into the imaginations of students who don’t quite know what to think of me at the start of the year. They come in cautious. In a few days, they will come to school carrying far beyond the simple feeling of cautiousness. They will, many of them, bring with them fear, worry, and anxiety.

We will begin school as numbers in our town continue to rise. We are all numb with disbelief, riddled with too much to describe. And as the world spins outside of our doors, in our classroom… I will begin with telling stories.

I am a storyteller. Most teachers are storytellers. It is what we do to spark life into our teaching. Telling stories has been a significant part of the fabric of my teaching for many years. It is more than a strategy to excite students into narrative, more than a form of communication or building relationships, more than a model for language development for monolingual and multilingual learners―story is what holds us together as human beings when we have little else. Words, when told with authentic expression and feeling, have the power to blind the difficulty out of the act of writing and inspire young authors to run for paper and pencil.

From the story I tell about falling off my bike, “I didn’t want my crush to see me cry…” To the one I tell standing tall and hovering with arms raised for balance, then carefully taking steps forward, as my students watch for what comes next, “I stepped softly with my right foot and nothing happened…” But something was surely about to happen. I was stepping onto a sheet of glass… barefoot. The audience waited in silence for exactly how the story would fall into climax.  

The stories come pouring out of me when I’m huddled in the nook of my classroom meeting area with  my student audience. It is an automatic response mechanism now ingrained into my daily practice, and it is the single most powerful way I have found to build trust and relationships in the classroom. Students have felt my stories because many of them have lived my stories. And when we find common ground, we come to an unspoken understanding. It is the understanding that we are together in these experiences, good or bad. We are not alone.

When we have nothing else, we have story. The problem with using this teacher move is that it must be delivered with authenticity. Storytelling will do little to meet with success without authenticity.

Three important factors for purposeful oral storytelling:

1. The storyteller must be authentic.

2. The storyteller must model vulnerability. Students need to see what is possible to imagine it is possible for them. When you model vulnerability for students, you teach them how to be vulnerable. These are the moments the teacher becomes a living breathing anchor chart.

3. The storyteller must be serious about expectations. As the teacher, I get to model what can happen if a student makes fun of the storyteller. I have been known to respond immediately with, “Do you think I will want to share another story if I know that is how you will respond?” Expectations and lines are quickly drawn with clarity. It is important to be direct and clear.

Writing, for many of our students, is like taking your heart and soul and putting it down on paper. It is important to quickly establish why boundaries are important in a writing community. Students, especially multilingual students, will begin offering their participation when they know the classroom is a place where ideas are challenged, but greatly welcomed and respected.  

Questions to help push student audiences into critical thought before I share a story:

1. What do you think I will feel if you begin to laugh at me while I tell my story?

2. When is it okay to laugh at a story that is being shared?

3. What will I feel if someone were to tell me that my story is bad or boring?

4. How can we offer support without crushing the storyteller?

And with that, we begin rapid human connection, critical thinking skill development, and most importantly, the birth of some powerful student writing partners, well trained in the art of conferring. All important for mastering the art of writing.

My stories come from my childhood, they come from my dreams, but some of the best come from when we are together. When we allow students to see how stories live everywhere around us, they will begin to see the hunt for story isn’t so difficult.

With this coming school year, we must all welcome the art of storytelling into our classrooms. There is an overflow of story in each of us during this time of our lives. We need stories to help us build community, welcome trust, and find hope.

Marina Rodriguez View All

California native. Dual language 4th grade teacher. NWP/HTWP Teacher Consultant. Kidblog Ambassador. Writer.

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