Engaging Students in Storytelling

Article excerpt


Storytelling is an ancient art, as old as oral communication itself. To be human is to be a storyteller; we use stories to define ourselves, to make sense of our world, and to create community. Unfortunately, educators--including teacher-librarians--have often neglected storytelling as a teaching tool and as a useful skill for students. A renewed interest in storytelling, not only by youth but also adults has resulted in storytelling associations, festivals, and clubs. As teacher-librarians, we can help keep storytelling alive in our classrooms and libraries by engaging students in storytelling activities.


The oral tradition of telling stories goes back to the beginning of spoken language. Long before historical events were written down, storytellers relayed stories to preserve culture and heritage (Vansina, 1985). The earliest recorded stories, such as the tales of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and the Greek and Norse myths, were first communicated as oral tales (Thompson, 1946).

In the 19th century, the rise of nationalism resulted in many of the large collections of stories that we are familiar with today. To preserve the tradition of the folk, folklorists and other collectors would record the stories they heard and preserve them by publishing them. The most well known of these collections was the Grimm brothers' Kinder und hausmachen (Household Stories), first published in Germany in 1812. Likewise, Peter Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe collected stories in Scandinavia; Alexander Afanasiev recorded Russian folktales; and Joseph Jacobs collected stories in England (Thompson, 1946).

The first systematic use of storytelling with children was not in libraries but in kindergartens. When German immigrants moved to North America in the 19th century, they brought the kindergarten movement with them. Storytelling instruction was part of the curriculum for instructors in kindergarten training schools, and in 1905 the first American storytelling text was published--How to Tell Stories to Children, by Sara Cone Bryant (Greene, 1996).

When public libraries in North America began to flourish in the mid-1800s, most did not include children's books, much less allow children in the library. Many had restrictions that refused admittance to patrons under a certain age, the particular age varying from library to library (Stems, 1894). However, in the ]ate 19th and early 20th centuries, service to children in public libraries developed as part of the social reforms initiated during the Progressive Era. These changes included educational reforms as well as the institution of playgrounds, settlement houses, and an increased demand for reading material aimed at children.

In contrast to teachers whose chief interest was to teach children how to read, librarians believed that their job was to create an interest in reading by choice rather than by requirement. To promote reading, librarians employed several means, including storytelling, which they found to be particularly successful (Kimball, 2003).

It is impossible to determine which public library was the first to have a children's story hour, but many story hours made appearances around 1900 in various locations, including the Pratt Institute Free Library in Brooklyn, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and the Buffalo Public Library. Also at this time, public libraries were influenced by Marie Shedlock, an English storyteller. Shedlock had been a teacher for 25 years when she decided to retire and become a professional storyteller. Following 10 successful years of giving storytelling lectures and recitals in Great Britain and France, she came to North America to embark on a recital tour that lasted several years. She gave storytelling recitals, lectured to teachers and librarians, and taught storytelling skills as part of the Carnegie Library Training Class for children's librarians in Pittsburgh (Pellowski, 1990; Thomas, 1982). …