Thursday, October 1, 2015

Storytelling: an On-Ramp to Learning by Sherry Norfolk

Sherry Norfolk

Stories are not one way we make sense of the world—they are the only way we make sense of it.1

Have you ever heard of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)? It’s “a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.”2 In other words (and this excellent metaphor is theirs, not mine), UDL provides an on-ramp for learning. They offer this example: if you build stairs, some people can use them; if you build a ramp, everyone can use it. Awesome!

Being a Storytelling Teaching Artist who works in inclusive and self-contained classrooms, I began to ask myself some questions:

Does storytelling create an on-ramp to learning?
 Is it accessible to everyone?
Does it provide learning experiences that allow every child – regardless of cognitive, language, learning, emotional, physical or behavioral disability – to succeed?   

In order to build that on-ramp, UDL principles encourage us to offer multiple opportunities for Engagement (motivation), Representation (content), and Expression (demonstrating understanding).  

Platypus Puppet
Of course, storytellers have a huge advantage in the Engagement department -- we can address all learning styles (visual, kinesthetic, auditory) at the same time! But is that enough? Usually – but not for every student. For instance, if you’re telling a story about a platypus to a child who is blind, providing a picture of a platypus won’t help him, but a 3-dimensional model such as a stuffed animal or puppet will. When you think about the needs of your audience and adjust accordingly, storytelling provides multiple opportunities for Engagement!

What about Representation? Well, thanks, to Kieran Egan and a lot of neurological research, we know that “stories are not one way we make sense of the world—they are the only way we make sense of it.” 

By presenting content through story, we help students make sense of, process, store and retrieve the information more readily. We can offer students an on-ramp to learning, but we may need to adjust our lesson plan. If our process requires students to do research or write (challenging for students with learning disabilities) or to work in small groups (difficult for children on the autism spectrum), we will need to provide flexible alternatives.  With some forethought, storytelling provides multiple opportunities for Representation!

Providing multiple opportunities for Expression – for demonstrating understanding – is easy when you are working with story! Just think of the many ways that storytelling is defined in our culture: oral telling, print, film, illustration, digital, etc.  Be ready with suggestions – perhaps a student can cartoon his story rather than writing or telling it, or can act it out with a partner, or tell it with props…or Express himself in a dozen different ways!

Link to the article about storytelling and science where I found this cool graphic.

Story is the ONLY way we make sense of the world. Think about how you can use storytelling as an on-ramp for learning for the kids in your world!

1.     Kieran Egan (2004). “The cognitive tools of children’s imagination.Early Childhood Education, 36 (1), 4-10.
2.     National Center on Universal Design for Learning (

BIO: Sherry Norfolk is an award-winning, internationally-acclaimed storyteller, teaching artist, and author, performing and leading residencies and professional development workshops across the United States and SE Asia. She was a presenter at the 2014 Kennedy Center-VSA Intersections Conference, “Leveling the Playing Field: Storytelling in the Special Needs Classroom,” and for the 2015 Kennedy Center-VSA webinar, “Teach Them to Fly: How Storytelling Gives Primary-age Children with Special Needs Their Wings.”

1 comment:

  1. So glad for this teacher artist!!!!! Sherri, I love seeing you quote Kieran Egan, a long time advocate! This piece truly raised my spirit. Artist residencies have nearly disappeared around me, but this fall I got one for 8 days and they just called and asked for a separate "performance" day as intro. Things are looking good and your words make my soul sing.