Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What's the best grade to start integrating stories into curriculum?

March 7, 2012

Today I was in an elementary school in Concord, NC.  The media center specialist told me that they never have live performers come in from outside.  Both she and the principal had seen me somewhere in the past, and when they heard I was in the area, decided to have me come and address their kids.  Before I left, she told me that she really wants to work on using storytelling in the classroom.  She asked me what would be the best grade to implement such a thing.

I know I had one of those run over by a train looks on my face.  What’s the best grade?  ALL OF THEM!  That, of course, is not a helpful answer.  In a time when you have to show immediate effectiveness, and prove that something you are doing is yielding fruit immediately, that is the sort of question you are going to get about storytelling.

We have forgotten that educating a student is like using a slow cooker to make stew.  You put the raw ingredients in and turn down the heat, and over the course of many hours the various ingredients in the pot simmer and blend to become a savory stew. 

The best place to begin using storytelling as an integral part of curricular studies is preschool.  The problem with that is there is a good chance you, as a preschool teacher, will not see any of the results of this work.  You are still adding basic ingredients.  Kindergartedn and first grade teachers should also be using storytelling techniques.  You might actually see a little of this with the few kids who are really going to start grasping the concept of writing story based language, but chances are, you’re only going to see hints of what might be.  Third grade is the last grade where people are really ‘learning to read’ as opposed to reading to learn, and this is the first grade where you should see some across the board advantage for those kids who started in preschool.  

Even so, it is not until fourth grade that the true fruit of integrating storytelling into the classroom can truly be harvested.

Teachers know that a curious thing tends to happen to some fourth graders.  Kids who seemed to know how to read start having problems.  Educators discover that these kids can sound out every word and say everything on the page, but they have no idea what they are reading.  This is because they have managed to learn the mechanics of reading, but they have failed to develop the skill of comprehension.

Comprehension is the act of reading words, and relating them back to images that make sense.  Students who cannot visualize language cannot read with comprehension.  In short, if you start working on incorporating storytelling into curriculum when students are in preschool, you are less likely to have issues with their comprehension skills when they get to fourth grade.  All of this is well and good, but it doesn’t address the very serious question I was asked. 

'What is the best grade to start?' is a question that needs a long answer about building skills, but in schools today where some amorphous ‘they’ needs a provable quick answer that can be tested immediately by a rubric, the only answer that makes sense is fourth grade.

In fourth grade, exposing kids to storytelling on a regular basis can help them begin to learn the skills of comprehension they will need to become better readers.  Their brains are wired to begin integrating the concepts of words and images, so it should be possible to see a measurable difference in comprehension scores amongst students who were struggling before doing storytelling work with teachers and how they fare after.

I am brought to mind of that famous Donald Davis story about storytelling and writing.  He was teaching in a school and he had a number of kids who were struggling with writing.  He had the teachers send those kids to him in the library every Friday for a month for stories.  At the end of that time, all of the kids could write stories. 

Before you can write a story, you have to know what is in a story.  Before you can understand what is in a story, you need to realized that stories are built out of word pictures.  Before you can build pictures with words, you have to hang pictures on the words.  Before you can hang pictures on words, you have to associate those words with pictures.  If you can’t associate words and pictures, you can’t read.  You can call out words all day long, but they won’t mean anything.

So, if you need a quick fix, start in fourth grade, but, if you want to change the whole picture and have the leisure to wait, start in preschool.

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