“The queen died and the king died” is a fact.
“The queen died and the king died of a broken heart” is a story.
This quote from A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink speaks to the power of story. It is an essential element of the human experience that gives meaning to the events of our lives. For those who work with young children, the stories they tell are a window into their dreams, fears, imaginations, and understandings. For children, the invitation to tell a story says that their voices matter and that they can be authors of both their lived experiences and their imaginary narratives .
When children tell a story and watch their spoken words being translated into written ones, and then hear them spoken again when the story is read aloud by a parent, a teacher, or other important adult in their life, they experience the power and the purpose of symbolic language – to be able to communicate with others beyond the limitations of time and place.
What and how…
For Vivian Paley - a MacArthur “genius grant” award winner, teacher, and author - storytelling and story acting became the foundation of her kindergarten curriculum at the University of Chicago Lab School.
Her process – inviting children to tell a story, writing their dictated words, and dramatizing their stories together at group time – has been an integral part of my work with young children for decades; so my question was how, not if, it would be part of our remote classes.
I introduced the concept of storytelling at Morning Meeting by sharing stories written by other children, and inviting the children to tell a story (either real or pretend) during our individual meetings.
“Once upon a time there were four princesses living in a castle. And one day there was a dragon.
The princesses ran and ran. They got caught by the dragon. But he was a nice dragon and they played together.”
“Rocket ships go in space a lot. I learned that fire comes out of rocket ships, but it is really hot so water comes out too. Maybe someday I will build a rocket ship with the blocks.”
The storytelling process was the same as it would have been in-person, except that both the adult at home and I wrote the children’s dictated words.
It was important for the children to watch an adult translate their spoken words into written ones without being separated by a screen, to be able to literally “hold their story in their hands”, and to know that adults at home could record their story ideas in written form.
The children signed their names at the end of their stories, and some chose to create an illustration. I put the transcribed stories and illustrations on PowerPoint slides, and read them to the group at Story Time.
Although the children did not experience the benefits of dramatizing their stories together –creating a shared classroom story culture, translating words into expressive movement, and developing a kinesthetic understanding of character and plot – their smiles as I read their stories told me that this was still a meaningful experience
Throughout our time together, the children told fictional stories about unicorns, dragons, penguins, and superheroes, and real stories about rollerblading, Halloween, and pre-pandemic trips to the zoo.
Daniel Pinkwater’s book, The Big Orange Splot, inspired the children to write a story about the house of their dreams.
These story excerpts highlight young children’s creativity and imagination that are just waiting for an invitation to be expressed through story:
“My house would be a white heart shape, with a heart door and heart windows. It would have an ice cream cone on top. When it’s hot, a dog would climb up to the cone and bring back ice cream to keep us cool. When it’s cold, there is a tree that warms the house.”
“My house would like a big car with wheels on the bottom. The sides would be made of Legos and the roof would be made of flowers. It would have doors and lots of windows.”
“My house would be a square shape with a triangle on top for the roof. The outside would be rainbow colors – orange, red, pink, blue, purple and green. The walls on the inside would be made of flowers. Outside, there would be pink grass and lollipop trees that are rainbow colors.”
One child, who particularly enjoyed both writing and illustrating stories, was intrigued by my idea of creating multiple illustrations for one of her stories, writing some of its key words, and turning her story into a book.
Her enthusiasm and self-directed focus, combined with technology and teacher-family collaboration made the idea a reality. Her family shared photos of her illustrations and the words she chose to write, along with her dictated descriptions of the illustrations. I combined the photos, dictated story, and illustration descriptions into a book in both hardcopy and digital formats.
She was delighted to find a printed copy of Merry Christmas Snowman in her Learning at Home bag that she an her family could now read together. She was "officially" an author and illustrator!
But that is not the end of the story. Her parents sent the digital version of the book to her grandparents They printed it, and read it aloud to their granddaughter during a video chat.
An idea had become a story - spoken words had become symbols and images – and a moment in time had become a tangible expression that could communicate beyond the limitations of time and space.
It is empowering for young children to see themselves as authors and storytellers. It sparks their desire to understand the complexities of reading and writing – not because an adult says it is important - but because they have experienced symbolic communication as a meaningful and compelling way to share their stories and ideas with others.