From Coppermines to the Alamo: Why Stories are Important in the Classroom

I grew up in a family that loved to tell its own stories.  My father’s family traveled all over the world and when my uncles and grandparents came together around the dinner table, the stories went on for hours with laughter and tears, joy and grief.  They had been to the pyramids in Egypt.  They told funny stories of bungled air travel and lost luggage. There were funny stories of the mischief of their three rowdy American boys growing up in Morocco, Spain and Iran.

Through their stories, I was introduced to an exotic culture who wore gourds on their penises in the jungles of Irian Jaya where my grandfather’s employer, Bechtel built a copper mine before I was born.  They talked politics, religion, culture, science, family lore, and more!  Many stories I heard retold again and again and they became well-loved.   This coming together through story made a big impression on me as a youngster. 2ce7cc3556efd4d6486604bf8d0eec63

My father in particular was well known for telling stories, making people laugh, and making his point clear.  Because he was so well traveled, he could stretch his listener’s imagination to these faraway places he had been.  He had a keen memory, and a great sense of timing for telling jokes.  He leaned as easily to the philosophical or political side of a conversation as he could to the humorous and ironic.

Perhaps this is part of my attraction to Waldorf Education.  In a Waldorf school where I teach, all areas of the curriculum are presented through oral storytelling given by the teacher to the students.  The teacher is seen as an artist, cultivating within themselves a love of the content through the stories, and delivering the stories with real human life and warmth directly to the students.  Rudolf Steiner, the original founder of the first Waldorf school, called story the “soul milk” of teaching.   Steiner taught his teachers at the first Waldorf school that from age 0-7 a child needs the physical milk of its mother, and from age 7 until the age 14, the child needs the “soul milk” of story. I relate to the concept of soul milk well as I reflect on my own upbringing and the rich stories I was exposed to.

So in preparing to teaching my new first grade class at Great Oak School, I wanted to beef up my storytelling techniques.  I signed myself up for a storytelling retreat in the summer of 2014.  We stayed as a quiet home-like bed and breakfast in the green hills of western Massachusetts. There about half a dozen participants.  We each chose our own stories to practice for the weekend.

Fairy tales form the basis of the first grade language arts curriculum in the Waldorf school, so naturally I practiced one of my favorites, a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs.  Fairy tales are normally quite long stories and require a storyteller to stretch his or her detailed imagery and memory through the act of storytelling, but not too far above the children’s level.

The workshop was led by an experienced storyteller and trainer named Rona Leventhal at the Storytelling Institute in Massachusetts.   From it I gained some practical ways to make my stories richer and more engaging. She used movement and theater improvisation to cement the images into our telling.  It was genius. Movement is a powerful and often underused mode of teaching and learning which Waldorf schools try to embrace as often as possible.

Preparing for storytelling is like building a road through an uncharted area.  The storyteller must lay the ground work for the road in his mind.  The road, or the path of the story had to be cleared, paved and well-marked.  The storyteller must walk over the road many times before being able to lead their listeners to the final destination. This takes the majority of my time in lesson preparation.

I learned that in telling a story, I am the tour guide. I have to know my landmarks, the history of that place well.  I have to walk that road many times, observing carefully, noticing the sights and smells, making note of the facts and interesting points to I want to bring to my listener’s attention. And the trouble with this, is it cannot be easily reproduced if a child misses school.  It is impossible to find an extra 20-30 minutes to sit down with a child who missed a main lesson to re-tell the entire story to them in exactly the same was as I told it the day before. Inevitably, if they miss it, they just missed it.


If you were on a tour of the Alamo, you would want your tour guide to be able to tell you about Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, what they were like, what clothes they wore, what weapons they had, what they ate for lunch.  You would also want your tour guide to describe the battle scene when Santa Anna showed up with his army.  You would need to know the facts and the figures about how outnumbered the Texans were compared to Santa Anna, but you wouldn’t want to bore your audience with too much of that.  Stories come alive in a totally different way for children when they are told them rather than being read aloud to.

Certainly a rollicking retelling of the battle of the Alamo from a well-prepared teacher or tour guide would be more exciting than reading it from a textbook.  Reading is wonderful and important part of our education today, but a storyteller exemplifies the power that the human being has when he relates in a personal way to another human being.  Every story alone has power, but it is also important for children to see that a human storyteller also has power.  We are all storytellers.  We all have the potential to be storytellers in our lives everyday.  This is a big key to the power and beauty of this type of teaching, as Joseph Campbell would say,

“Myth is much more important and true than history.
History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.” 

― Joseph Campbell

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone
for the heroes of all time have gone before us.
The labyrinth is thoroughly known …
we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.
And where we had thought to find an abomination
we shall find a God.

And where we had thought to slay another
we shall slay ourselves.
Where we had thought to travel outwards
we shall come to the center of our own existence.
And where we had thought to be alone
we shall be with all the world.”

― Joseph Campbell, from the Hero’s Path



Why Storytelling?

Stories are gifts wrapped in words.  They touch people by expressing the whole range of human experience and emotion, allowing us to see the world through a different lens. Weaving the thread of the tale thorough each listener, the storyteller binds an audience together. Listeners are invited in, and the gift is passed. This power of story has been used for centuries as a gateway to learning about ourselves, cultures and history, the natural world, and of course to entertain.  They’re effective, magical, powerful tools for growth, transformation, knowledge, and wisdom.

10 Reasons to Tell Stories in the Classroom

  1. Storytelling is fun.
  2. Storytelling stimulates learning.
  3. Storytelling strengthens the imagination.
  4. Storytelling enhances communication.
  5. Storytelling builds cultural awareness,
  6. Storytelling enhances empathy.
  7. Listening to stories encourages critical thinking.
  8. Storytelling builds literacy skills.
  9. Storytelling creates classroom culture.
  10. Storytelling changes the world.

Benefits and Skills of Story Listening

  • Develops the imagination muscle
  • Auditory memory
  • Gain familiarity with story structure
  • Hearing descriptive language
  • Hearing the rhythm of language
  • Vocabulary building
  • Sequencing
  • Improved reading and writing skills
  • Increased motivation to read and write
  • Eye contact
  • Non-verbal communication
  • Exposure to other cultures
  • Developing empathy
  • Appreciation for the spoken word
  • Storytelling is oral language and oral language is often a form of literacy that is overlooked in schools.


Family Storytelling Ideas

  1. Spontaneous stories: Fantasy. Have your child choose one or two characters and a location.  It is also easier to have a problem that you have to solve.  You can make this up as you go along, have your child choose one or make up a set of cards for your child to choose from. To create a story, simply start telling a story, and ask your child questions about what happens next?” “What did he/she say?” Emphasize descriptive language, bringing in all of the senses.
  2. Real life: Create a story with real-life issues: A fictional character who you would like to be your best friend, the best holiday party you can imagine, a favorite toy that broke.
  3. Issues: Create a story for and with your child about a difficult issue she/he is dealing with. For example, if kids at school are making fun of him/her, make up a story about a character who is rejected at first, but is respected in the end by showing that he/she is a good person, has something to offer, has a hidden talent, etc.
  4. Books: Have your child re-tell his/her favorite version of a book you’ve read or just change the ending. Have your child make up a story from a picture book.
  5. Objects: Create a story around an object, or show an object that has a story for you. Tell them the story, and have them make up their own story about the object, or something it reminds them of.
  6. Family stories: Tell about the people, places, events of your family, a funny aunt, the summer house where strange things always happened, an uncle who was a hero.
  7. Nature: If you spend time outside with your child, create stories about what you see. Where did ants come from? What are they going to do with the bread crumbs they marched away with? Look at cloud shapes and make a story about the things you see.  Most importantly, have fun!

The above was taken from handouts and notes given at the Storytelling Institute, August 2014.  Rona Leventhal.


Additional Links on Storytelling

Storytelling podcasts for Adults

Storytelling Podcast for Adults

Story Podcasts for Children

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