Writing teachers know the importance of supporting students in developing their identities so that they begin to see themselves as authors, discover the purpose writing has in their lives, and feel proud and brave to bring who they are to the writing page. When I notice a child holding a pen, staring at the paper, saying they don’t know what to write about, I take a step back and ask myself:
- Does this child see themselves as a member of the classroom community who has something important and special to share?
- How does this child view themself as a creator of texts outside of pen and paper writing?
- Do they tell stories on the playground?
- Do they tell stories from or about their family?
- Do they create their own songs or rhymes?
- Do they invent imaginative tales, paint, or build structures during playtime?
If the concept of text is broadened to include oral stories, songs, paintings, block structures, and dramatic play, then authorship becomes larger than the act of writing words. It starts with children knowing who they are, what matters to them, and what they might want to share with people in the world. For a number of years, I’ve been working with teachers and children to explore ways to foster a sense of authorship and agency across the school day that will transfer to the writing work they will, at some point, do with pen and paper. This has included creating time for storytelling and identity exploration, seeing and supporting literacy work in play, and making intentional choices about reads alouds and authors being centered in the classroom. For this post, I dig into storytelling and identity work.
Starting with Who We Are: Identity Boxes and Books
In thinking about writers in the world and what compels them to write, what makes them sit in front of a blank page and begin to put words down, the writer’s identity is extremely important. Writers have a desire to create from who they are and their lived experiences. In order to motivate children to bring themselves to the page, to write from their hearts about things that matter to them, they need to have the deepest sense they can, at that point in their life, of who they are and how special they are. I think about Sara Ahmed’s work around identity described in her book Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension, in which she names the importance of making sure young people feel visible, reminding us that when we give “students the floor to say who they are and what that means to them, they are far less likely to allow someone to do it for them.” Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, in her book, Cultivating Genuis: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy, reminds us that when it comes to identity, children need to also be thinking about “who [they] desire to be.”
Reading books that are identity affirming and, in particular, center the lives and experiences of people who identify as Black, Indegenous, People of Color, Asian-American or Pacific Islander is especially important. When children who belong to racial or cultural groups that have been silenced and which are represented in children’s literacy in very small numbers, there are often few opportunities for them to see their personal and social identities celebrated and for white children to see windows into the beauty, strength, and joy of races and cultures different from their own. Below are a few of my favorite texts that can inspire and support children and families in exploring and sharing the complexities and nuances of their identities, particularly their racial and cultural identities. These books have been chosen because they have been written from the creators’ lived experiences and because they celebrate the uniqueness and excellence of cultures, families, and individuals.
Filling the Classroom with Stories
Once at school, the identity boxes often become a source of excitement and joy as children are eager to share their objects with each other. Thus, stories begin to fill the room. Storytelling is a powerful way for even young children to discover and share parts of themselves. For BIPOC students, storytelling was a way their ancestors survived and kept culture and stories alive. As Black scholar and author, Jason Reynolds, says, “The more stories that we have about us, the more we share them with ourselves and with the world at large.” By making storytelling part of the classroom, oral literacy traditions are centered and, therefore, children from races and cultures whose ways of communicating have often been left out of curriculum will see their experiences valued and voices championed.
I usually included a five to seven-minute storytelling time in my classroom three to five times a week. In early elementary classrooms this might come immediately before writing workshop or in preschool classrooms as part of a morning or afternoon circle time. The Me Boxes were part of the official storytelling time and also available to students during other times of the day such as when they were writing or playing. At first, the storytelling time is very short. Sometimes children have an object or story they don’t feel like sharing, and it is important to honor this choice. When they do want to share something there is often a great deal of naming and describing of objects happening as children proudly show off their artifacts and introduce their classmates to their family members through photographs. For some children, the oral sharing begins with a description or listing of details connected to the particular object. For other children, this talk transitions quickly into the telling of a story. In either case, children are bringing parts of themselves into the classroom community and it is important the listeners learn to listen and show appreciation to the storyteller. Often, a simple, “Thank you for sharing your story,” allows a person to feel heard and affirmed. Educator and scholar, Carla Shalaby, reminds us that we have an important role as teachers to help children see the preciousness of their own lives and also the preciousness of the lives of others. Inviting children to tell their stories in the classroom is a powerful way for them to explore their own identities while also learning to listen, be curious about, and see the beauty in the identities of their peers. It shifts the concept of difference from one that often is seen as negative, feels uncomfortable, and leads to the development of bias even in young children, to something that is interesting, positive, and beautiful.
Over time, and with some support, stories will become even more developed. The chart below shows a progression of development that is often seen when children use their objects to storytell.
While children are doing the initial identity exploration and sharing, it’s a great time for mentor storytellers to join the classroom as a way to share some of who they are with the class and also to model the way stories can look and sound as they are being told. You might begin by telling your own stories which is a great way for you to share your personal life with your students in addition to modeling story language and structure. Meanwhile, you might begin sending out an invitation to family members and school community members to be guest storytellers. Family members might come into the classroom, physically or virtually. Sending along a video works best for some families. Invite them to tell the story in any language and in any form they’d like. This will encourage multilingual learners to storytell in the language of their choice. Some guest storytellers might be telling a family story passed down for generations, possibly a true story or maybe a folktale. For some this might be a more recent story, and you might suggest they tell it as a family!
You’ll want to think about including, and inviting guest storytellers to include any objects, other visuals, movements, sound effects, or music that will help them tell their stories. This will support children in beginning to visualize as they listen, work that they will eventually be doing in their own reading and writing. Through listening to stories, they’ll be learning, not only about that person and their experiences, they’ll also be learning ways they can make their own stories come to life for listeners. You might record your own story to introduce yourself to family members and as a way to inspire them to share their own. Depending on students’ ages, it can be helpful to give a suggested amount of time for the story.
Telling class stories is important as well, inviting children to act out, include sounds, tell who was there, where they were, and eventually think about exact words people said and feelings people had. Telling the same story multiple days in a row can not only be fun but also be great for including additional details. You might also invite children to tell the story in their own way to a partner, so they see that there are different perspectives even when a group of people experience the same event. For example, the stories of the sudden rainstorm beginning while on the playground or when most of the water spilled out of the water table during choice time are likely to have been experienced in different ways. Therefore, while it can be told as a class, it is also important that children know when they storytell on their own, they should tell it from their experience. What happened? How did I feel? What did I think or say?
While, all narrative read alouds can inspire storytelling, a few books that you might consider reading with children include:
As you tell these stories, and your own stories, consider attaching gestures or signs to the kinds of details you are including. For example, using the sign language signs for sound, talking, and feeling can remind children to add those details into their stories. I often invite children to use these signs when thinking about telling their own story (or writing a story!) or if they invite a listener to ask questions, the listener could use the signs as prompts for the storyteller.
As the storytelling culture is developed in the classroom, children are likely to begin to see themselves as authors and to use their voices in braver ways to share their ideas and who they are with their peers. You’ll hear them storytelling with their partners, see group stories being told and acted out during play, and have storytellers ask to share with the entire class; You might have so many children wanting to tell their stories that you offer iPads for recording – ready to be listened to again and again and maybe even turned into pen and paper stories. The more listening a teacher does in order to see children authoring in these ways, the deeper they come to know students and the better they can support them in growing as storytellers, as authors, as learners, and as people in a classroom community.
Ahmed, Sara, Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension, 2018
Muhammad, Gholdy, Cultivating Genuis: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy, 2021
Reynolds, Jason – https://www.cbsnews.com/news/black-history-storytelling-legacy/
Shalaby, Carla, Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School, 2017
Rachel Rothman-Perkins Rachel’s passion for teaching and school leadership began when she was a classroom teacher at Glider Elementary School in San Jose, CA and in her studies in San Jose State University’s MA program in literacy curriculum and instruction with an emphasis on equity in education. She is currently a Senior Staff Developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, working alongside teachers and school leaders in multiple elementary schools in New York City and New Jersey. She leads workshops and institutes on a variety of literacy-related topics for educators from across the nation and world and has co-authored two books in the TCRWP Units of Study series. Rachel has a special interest in emergent literacy, especially in the intersection of play, literacy and social skills development in the early years.