My son started Grade 6 this year at a brand new school. This was a nerve-wracking shift for us as he had been attending his previous school since preschool. His fears were largely centered around finding new friends and fitting in, but as a teacher/parent my fears centered more around the learning environment and if his new teacher would conduct the class in a way that fostered inquiry and creativity.
After the first few weeks of school, it became clear that this teacher had a different style of teaching than the ones at my son’s previous school and I fretted that he wasn’t learning enough and that he was going to be bored with this new style of instruction. In one of my particular moments of panic and after just finishing a lengthy text to rant to a teacher friend of mine about my fears in regards to the way my son was learning, my wise sage of a friend responded with a simple response – yeah, but how much do you really remember what you learned in Grade 6 content wise anyways? What you should really be asking yourself is what type of classroom community is being fostered.
Just that one simple question quelled the storm of concerns and made me reflect. What was my son’s new classroom community like? So, when he came home from school each day, I stopped listening for what he learned and focused more on the tidbits he shared with me about how he is learning. Once I started listening for the how, I realized the gift that his new teacher was sharing with him was the gift of story. I soon saw that my son who so often answered questions of “what did you do at school today?” with a shrug and an “I don’t remember” was now answering the question by sharing the stories he learned. You see, his new teacher has created a classroom steeped in story and story is a powerful community builder. Every day he tells the students stories of his life, stories of the past, and stories of his hopes for the future. He also surrounds the students with stories with a huge classroom library that the students are free to access at any time. Most importantly, however, is the culture he has created by one simple habit- everyday he reads aloud to his Grade 6 class. I soon began to realize that my son was excited to tell me the stories that were being read to him and his classmates and recounted them with a verve and detail he has never had before when talking about school. Will my son remember the content of his Grade 6 Social Studies lessons? Maybe not, but he will remember the power of those stories being read aloud to him and what they made him feel.
In her blog and in her book Passionate Readers: The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, Pernille Ripp discusses the importance of reading aloud to our students and the importance of providing joyful reading experiences. When we read aloud to our students, we model our own enjoyment of reading, tap into the inherent human love of story, and provide a joyful reading experience for our students. Why then do we stop reading aloud to our students as they get older? This was the question that came to mind when I thought about my own teaching practice. Do I read aloud to my students? In reflection, I realized I do read the practice sample reading paragraphs to prepare for the Provincial Exams to my Honours English 11 class and I occasionally read out samples of strong essays, but this would hardly count as joyful reading. I quickly realized that I had fallen into the mindset of the senior English teacher – the one that does not see reading aloud to her senior English students as a valuable use of time.
For more detail on techniques to bring read alouds alive in your senior classes, please read Amy’s post on the topic.
Once this realization hit, I went straight to my senior English department colleagues and started to brainstorm ways that we can bring the joy of storytelling into our senior classes and these are the first steps we took.
Besides integrating daily reading time to each class, we also focused on how we can bring storytelling into their lives. Our school is a K-12 school and our senior students are fortunate enough to have many connections with the junior students. One program we have is a Kindergarten/Grade 12 buddy program where our Kindergarten students and our Grade 12 students meet once a month. Right away, I knew this was a perfect opportunity to allow my Grade 12 students to share stories. Prior to our next buddy meeting, I took the Grade 12 students down to the library and set them free in the picture book section with one simple task – find a story to read to your buddy. Off they went and magic quickly happened. As they were searching the shelves, stories started to present themselves to them. They found their favorite picture books they read as a child or ones that were tied to special reading memories. These were the books they choose to share with their buddies – the stories of their childhood. As they read the stories to their buddies the pride and the joy of sharing stories was evident.
Another storytelling initiative I took on was having my Honours English 11 students create a living library for the Grade 3 and 5 students at our school. A living library is where students become living books with a story to tell. The Grade 3 and 5 students circulate around the library and “check out” an Honours 11 student and listen to the story the Grade 11 has prepared to tell. The purpose of the living library is not to ask questions or to engage in conversation with your audience, but simply to share your story. My Honours students have recently been studying how authors create voice in their writing and what better way to study voice than to create story using our own voices. When I first proposed the idea to my Honours students, I presented it as an exciting opportunity in storytelling and I was met with less than enthusiastic groans. They wanted to know if they really had to do this (the answer being yes, I want you to try) and “are we being marked on this” (the answer being no, but it will help you develop voice in your storytelling). Despite their reservations, they all actually showed up on the living library day and ended up having a blast. Upon reflecting on the experience afterwards, my students talked about how they had to change their stories to suit the different audiences that were listening to them. In some cases it was because they had an older or a younger audience, but in many cases it was because of the way the audience was reacting to the story. At the end of the experience, all of the Grade 11 Honours English students could agree on one thing – they loved telling their stories and they wished they could do this every class.
While running a living library every class is not really possible, this experience reminded me how I need to weave story into my daily classes more because story is a powerful tool. By reading aloud to my senior students, by giving them opportunites to read aloud, by sharing my stories, and by allowing them to share theirs I can help foster a class community that is steeped in the joy of story and storytelling.
Pam McMartin teaches Senior English, is the English Department Head, and the Senior School Teacher Librarian at a school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia Canada. When not trying to balance her many teaching roles, she loves sharing stories with her students, her son, her dogs, or anyone who will listen. She tweets at @psmcmartin.