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Telling Our Own Tales

Pam Allyn and Ernest Morrell suggest ten ways to help every student harness the power of story

“When we use story to help students tell their own narratives, literacy roadblocks and anxieties dissolve for even the most hesitant of learners and teachers are able to cultivate world-changing writers.”

“Even the most proficient writers can’t use their skills if they don’t feel empowered by stories themselves…”

In over 20 years of work with schools, students, and teachers, we have advocated for the power of story to leverage a mindset for learning and to serve as the greatest underrated tool for literacy development there is. In school, we often unconsciously begin reiterating the difficulty of storytelling at a very early age, sending the message to our youngest students that there are landmines everywhere we look: from the ways we spell words to intricate and ever-changing grammar rules to a daunting blank page or screen waiting to be filled.

The flood of rules and norms, constraints, and stumbling blocks in the teaching of writing can be overwhelming to our students, who arrive in our classrooms with varied ways of thinking and speaking, with diverse perspectives, languages, and needs that a story-rich understanding of the teaching of writing could embrace. Teachers, too, can feel ineffective with this method, finding it hard to make room for all voices in the classroom, encourage creative play with words, and support students struggling with writing all at the same time. Even the most enthusiastic educators can find it hard to teach the diverse students they want to thrive when the power of story is knocked to the side.

Remember: writing is powerful when it’s done well. The grammar rules, punctuation norms, and sentence structures are all tools in the toolbox of a writer, and a good writer knows how to use them and celebrates their uses. But even the most proficient writers can’t use their skills if they don’t feel empowered by stories themselves, whether fictional or nonfictional, whether about science or sports or personal memory or history. If there’s no story there, then the techniques do not matter and will not compel an audience of one or an audience of many. Unlocking the stories our students want to share, that belong to them, that come from their diverse lives and experiences, makes the techniques come to life.

The story wants to live. Together we can flip the notion of story back to our students and allow their own voices to empower them as writers. In the classroom, we can reset and realign our priorities to our larger mission of why we write.

We can ask our students about their stories to communicate to them that their stories matter to us, to this community of learners—that this is a community of belonging for the power of stories. We can use prompts to say “I know that you have a life that is worthy of story and that you have the eloquence, knowledge, and skills to tell it best/better than anyone.” There are ten principles upon which we can build our communities of belonging to develop, teach, and nurture great storytellers who become great writers. Here we outline these strategies and give you prompts that will harness the power of story for every student in a diverse classroom of learners.

Center joy.

Joy is an instrumental part of making our classrooms feel like safe and jovial homes for all. With joy comes bonding, vulnerability, and communities of belonging. There are tangible ways to spark this.

Create time and space for storytelling circles where students can share and receive stories.

Give easy access to abundant resources for storytelling: technology and tablets, yes, but also notebooks with personalized pages such as photos of friends and family, hopes and dreams, favorite hobbies, favorite books, pets, memories, funny images/memes, sports, art, collages, journeys, special moments, quotes, and favorite authors, illustrators, or musicians.

Play fun, community-building games that get students thinking creatively and using their imaginations, like “Yes, and”: Plan an imaginary party. Pick a person you all know, or a celebrity, and talk together about what the party would be like. Go around the group and have everyone share a detail about this party. Start each sentence with “yes, and.” For example, “At Oprah’s birthday party we will have balloons.” “Yes, and we will have cupcakes.” “Yes, and there will be a petting zoo.” Keep playing until you have planned an entire party. Talk together about the party. How did it feel to build something imaginary together? What did saying “yes, and” do to your party?

Be a deep listener.

Deep listening sets the tone of the storytelling environment with open and curious communication. As listeners lean in and ask questions, they can spark creative courage in the storyteller, who is then motivated and inspired by the invested receivers of their story. Listen deeply to what your students say and enjoy within the classroom as well as outside it. Some of the ways we can do deep listening include the following:

Take notes when your students are storytelling. Carry a notebook, tablet, or phone with you to every writing conference with your students.
Create a “listening corner” in your classroom, with recording tools such as notebooks with pens and tablets, so that students can record one another, interview each other, and generally practice active listening.

Post on walls and in online documents different ways for you and your students to practice deep listening: “What are you dreaming about?” or “Tell me a story about your childhood.”

Value wonder.

We are writing, talking, and imagining our way through our deepest questions every day we are alive. In every genre, be it nonfiction, poetry, a science lab report, or a historical analysis, the writer becomes a storyteller, envisioning a question as they write and exploring an idea. Make time for asking questions about student and author writing.

Keep a class wondering journal. This can be online or offline. Each week, assign students a day to create a wondering prompt for their classmates.

Establish wondering partners. Each week, assign students to work in wondering partnerships and to react to each other’s ideas with a wondering stance:

  • “I’m wondering what made you write this.”
  • “I’m wondering where this idea came from.”
  • “I’m wondering what you could do to expand on that idea.”
  • Use open-ended questions or wondering-centered questions when conferring with students:
  • “What are you thinking about right now?”
  • “What are you wondering about?”
  • “What do you wonder about this story/author/writing choice?”

Prioritize creativity and value student innovation.

Creativity and innovation happen in every step of the writing process. If a plot is why things happen or why events happen in the way that they do, then discovering that reason is a creative, innovative project. The details need to be chosen, and a new world needs to be created. Innovation and creativity are intrinsic to that process.

Perhaps a student wants to make a song inspired by a story or to paint a canvas. Let students create in the modality they feel comfortable in, and then ask them to write with their creations as their muses.

Give your students a list of simple descriptions and have them make the descriptions as dramatic as possible. For example, “The grass is green and soft” could become “The grass was a bright green, and it felt soft like a bed” or even “The blades of grass were glowing and green under the sun. Touching the grass felt like touching the softest silk.”

Give your students creative prompts and allow them to respond in any way they care to:

  • “Envision a world of peace. What would it look like or feel like?”
  • “What would school be like if you could tell a new story about it?”
  • “Imagine you go on a trip with magical powers to help you get there faster or to fly there, and write or tell us about it.”
  • “Imagine a beautiful country where the laws were made by children or teens.”

Become problem solvers.

Writing and storytelling skills include problem solving—both as we read and as we write. Get students interested in narrative structures, characterization, and other toolkit techniques to create their own stories, and spark curiosity by asking them to problem solve within their own lives.

Ask students to problem solve specific moments in the texts with questions about how characters were feeling or why a character made a certain decision.

Make problem solving a norm by establishing time for writing as time for problem solving. Ask students to list three challenges they are trying to solve in an everyday way. Then, have them write a story for ten minutes to see if by the end of it they would have solved those problems.

Make empathy a core value.

Give students access to books that offer a glimpse into someone else’s reality and life experience so they are able to practice perspective taking and empathy, and then help them extend this empathy to themselves with books that represent and honor who they are.

This empathy building will make them stronger writers and stronger people.

Give students access to books that represent them to help them practice self-love.

Ask your students to select a character from a book they’ve read or that you’ve read aloud to them and to write about their experience from a first-person perspective.

Share a variety of genre options with your students (including op-eds, poems, social media) and invite them to write what they would do to help a fellow student.

What would they say if they could reach out and really affect the life of another person?

Create story and writing routines.

In order to thrive, our students need encouragement, affirmation, their voices centered, and the necessary resources to make writing and story a regular routine. We cannot expect our students to thrive with occasional writing opportunities or when writing appears only as an evaluation tool. The room must be alive with routines for writing.

Build a daily calendar that calls out writing as sacred time, at every grade level, and not just as a thing we tack on or take for granted. But let us also make sure writing becomes ordinary and common as our daily bread. Writing has to be valued yet also so ordinary that our students come to see it as a practice that is as essential as breath.

Share with students abundant materials and resources for storytelling and writing in every subject area, not just technology (although yes to that). Remember that writing comes in different forms and different practices: notebooks, sticky notes, varieties of pens and pencils, and opportunities to sketch and draw.

Help students thrive independently.

While collaborative storytelling can yield incredible work and community, give students moments to work on these skills independently.
Create time at least three times a week for structured independent writing (SIW). We can do this during an ELA block or in any subject area, even if we give it just ten to 15 minutes three times a week. You can even plan with your colleagues to share the responsibility: on Mondays and Wednesdays SIW happens in ELA, and on Thursdays it can happen in a subject-area class such as science or social studies.

Let students know this is the time for them to explore story in writing and oral storytelling too.

Interrupt negative thinking and turn to the positive.

Writing can be the greatest tool for finding comfort, peace, and equilibrium even when times are tough. Internal negative thinking around writing is profoundly disengaging and troubling for students as learners. What does it mean to create safe spaces for our students? What does it mean to encircle them with the kind of care that’s going to enable them to be at their best and empower them to accelerate their achievement?

Remind learners when reading mentor texts that wherever they are in their storytelling skills journey is okay, and remember to praise their work often for its strengths.

Set up rituals for storytelling and writing that involve sound, such as background music, and get input from your students about what forms of music will feel the most soothing and encouraging as they write (or allow them to use headphones to make their own musical choices if this is possible).

Self-kindness and self-empathy are a huge part of storytelling practice and writing routines. Talk honestly with your students about this and invite them to notice and be aware of when they are being critical of themselves and to turn that narrative around toward self-care and empathy for themselves. Talk about this when you come back together at the end of a writing period.

Celebrate every day.

We often talk about the “serious joy” that is sometimes forgotten in our anxiety about meeting standards, fulfilling a checklist, or addressing skills. But we learn to do well what we love to do. And the spirit of who taught us flows through us. This all adds up to serious joy. It’s not lighthearted, but it’s full of heart. It’s the strongest pulse we need to do things well.

Celebrate the work students do as a result of author and text studies by having a celebratory share-out class, or offer prizes or stickers to students for their incredible work.

Invite an author of children’s or young adult books to join a video call and talk about their own storytelling journey.

Offer affirmation coupons to all students regularly, and congratulate them on their progress throughout the year.

To build a community of lifelong writers in our classrooms, we must show students what it looks like to belong. Foster a community of belonging that overcomes anything or anyone in our students’ lives that makes them feel small, excluded, or undeserving. As our students begin to love themselves and see their potential, they start to feel energized and interested in their writing and begin to share their stories with the world.

Pam Allyn, creator of LitCamp, LitLeague, and World Read Aloud Day, and Dr. Ernest Morrell, associate professor of humanities and dean of equity at Notre Dame University, began their work together with the creation of LitWorld, a global nonprofit organization to ensure that young people have inclusive spaces to share stories that reflect their worlds. They continue this work with the creation of Dewey, which helps families learn and grow with the power of stories. Their most recent book is Tell Your Story: Teaching Students to Become World-Changing Thinkers and Writers (ASCD, 2022).

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