Gateway to the Classics: How To Tell Stories to Children by Sara Cone Bryant
How To Tell Stories to Children by  Sara Cone Bryant

Some Specific Schoolroom Uses of Story-Telling

In Chapter II., I have tried to give my conception of the general aim of story-telling in school. From that conception, it is not difficult to deduce certain specific uses. The one most plainly intimated is that of a brief recreation period, a feature which has proved valuable in many classes. Less definitely implied, but not to be ignored, was the use of the story during, or accessory to, the lesson in science or history.

But more distinctive and valuable than these, I think, is a specific use which I have recently had the pleasure of seeing exemplified in great completeness in the schools of Providence, Rhode Island.

Some four years ago, the assistant superintendent of schools of that city, Miss Ella L. Sweeney, introduced a rather unusual and extended application of the story in her primary classes. While the experiment was in its early stages, it was my good fortune to be allowed to make suggestions for its development, and as the devices in question were those I had been accustomed to use as a pastime for children, I was able to take some slight hand in the formative work of its adoption as an educational method. Carried out most ably by the teachers to whom it was entrusted, the plan has evolved into a more inclusive and systematic one than was at first hoped for; it is one from which I have been grateful to learn.

Tersely stated, the object of the general plan is the freeing and developing of the power of expression in the pupils.

I think there can be no need of dwelling on the desirability of this result. The apathy and "woodenness" of children under average modes of pedagogy is apparent to anyone who is interested enough to observe. In elementary work, the most noticeable lack of natural expression is probably in the reading classes; the same drawback appears at a later stage in English composition. But all along the line every thoughtful teacher knows how difficult it is to obtain spontaneous, creative reaction on material given.

Story-telling has a real mission to perform in setting free the natural creative expression of children, and in vitalising the general atmosphere of the school. The method in use for this purpose in Providence (and probably elsewhere, as ideas usually germinate in more than one place at once) is a threefold giving back of the story by the children. Two of the forms of reproduction are familiar to many teachers; the first is the obvious one of telling the story back again.

It is such fun to listen to a good story that children remember it without effort, and later, when asked if they can tell the story of The Red-Headed Woodpecker or The Little Red Hen, they are as eager to try it as if it were a personal experience which they were burning to impart.

Each pupil, in the Providence classes, is given a chance to try each story, at some time. Then that one which each has told especially well is allotted to him for his own particular story, on which he has an especial claim thereafter.

It is surprising to note how comparatively individual and distinctive the expression of voice and manner becomes, after a short time. The child instinctively emphasises the points which appeal to him, and the element of fun in it all helps to bring forgetfulness of self. The main inflections and the general tenor of the language, however, remain imitative, as is natural with children. But this is a gain rather than otherwise, for it is useful in forming good habit. In no other part of her work, probably, has a teacher so good a chance to foster in her pupils pleasant habits of enunciation and voice. And this is especially worth while in the big city schools, where so many children come from homes where the English of the tenement is spoken.

I have since wished that every city primary teacher could have visited with me the first-grade room in Providence where the pupils were German, Russian, or Polish Jews, and where some of them had heard no English previous to that year,—it being then May. The joy that shone on their faces was nothing less than radiance when the low-voiced teacher said, "Would you like to tell these ladies some of your stories?"

They told us their stories, and there was truly not one told poorly or inexpressively; all the children had learned something of the joy of creative effort. But one little fellow stands out in my memory beyond all the rest, yet as a type of all the rest.

Rudolph was very small, and square, and merry of eye; life was one eagerness and expectancy to him. He knew no English beyond that of one school year. But he stood staunchly in his place and told me the story of the Little Half Chick with an abandon and bodily emphasis which left no doubt of his sympathetic understanding of every word. The depth of moral reproach in his tone was quite beyond description when he said, "Little Half Chick, little Half Chick, when I was in trubbul you wouldn't help me!" He heartily relished that repetition, and became more dramatic each time.

Through it all, in the tones of the tender little voice, the sidewise pose of the neat dark head, and the occasional use of a chubby pointing finger, one could trace a vague reflection of the teacher's manner. It was not strong enough to dominate at all over the child's personality, but it was strong enough to suggest possibilities.

In different rooms, I was told The Half Chick, The Little Red Hen, The Three Bears, The Red-Headed Woodpecker, The Fox and the Grapes, and many other simple stories, and in every instance there was a noticeable degree of spontaneity and command of expression.

When the reading classes were held, the influence of this work was very visible. It had crept into the teachers' method, as well as the children's attitude. The story interest was still paramount. In the discussion, in the teachers' remarks, and in the actual reading, there was a joyousness and an interest in the subject-matter which totally precluded that preoccupation with sounds and syllables so deadly to any real progress in reading. There was less of the mechanical in the reading than in any I had heard in my visits to schools; but it was exceptionally accurate.

The second form of giving back which has proved a keen pleasure and a stimulus to growth is a kind of "seat-work." The children are allowed to make original illustrations of the stories by cutting silhouette pictures.

It will be readily seen that no child can do this without visualising each image very perfectly. In the simplest and most unconscious way possible, the small artists are developing the power of conceiving and holding the concrete image of an idea given, the power which is at the bottom of all arts of expression.

Through the kindness of Miss Sweeney, I am able to insert several of these illustrations. They are entirely original, and were made without any thought of such a use as this.

The pictures and the retelling are both popular with children, but neither is as dear to them as the third form of reproduction of which I wish to speak. This third kind is taken entirely on the ground of play, and no visibly didactic element enters into it. It consists simply of playing the story.

When a good story with a simple sequence has been told, and while the children are still athrill with the delight of it, they are told they may play it.

"Who would like to be Red Riding Hood?" says the teacher; up go the little girls' hands, and Mary or Hannah or Gertrude is chosen.

"Who will be the wolf?" Johnny or Marcus becomes the wolf. The kind woodchopper and the mother are also happily distributed, for in these little dramatic companies it is an all-star cast, and no one realises any indignity in a subordinate rôle.

"Now, where shall we have little Red Riding Hood's house? 'Over in that corner,' Katie? Very well, Riding Hood shall live over there. And where shall the grandmother's cottage be?"

The children decide that it must be a long distance through the wood,—half-way round the schoolroom, in fact. The wolf selects the spot where he will meet Red Riding Hood, and the woodchopper chooses a position from which he can rush in at the critical moment, to save Red Riding Hood's life.

Then, with gusto good to see, they play the game. The teacher makes no suggestions; each actor creates his part. Some children prove extremely expressive and facile, while others are limited by nature. But each is left to his spontaneous action.

In the course of several days several sets of children have been allowed to try; then if any of them are notably good in the several rôles, they are given an especial privilege in that story, as was done with the retelling. When a child expresses a part badly, the teacher sometimes asks if anyone thinks of another way to do it; from different examples offered, the children then choose the one they prefer; this is adopted. At no point is the teacher apparently teaching. She lets the audience teach itself and its actors.

The children played a good many stories for me during my visit in Providence. Of them all, Red Riding Hood, The Fox and the Grapes, and The Lion and the Mouse were most vividly done.

It will be long before the chief of the Little Red Riding Hoods fades from my memory. She had a dark, foreign little face, with a good deal of darker hair tied back from it, and brown, expressive hands. Her eyes were so full of dancing lights that when they met mine unexpectedly it was as if a chance reflection had dazzled me. When she was told that she might play, she came up for her riding hood like an embodied delight, almost dancing as she moved. (Her teacher used a few simple elements of stage-setting for her stories, such as bowls for the Bears, a cape for Riding Hood, and so on.)

The game began at once. Riding Hood started from the rear corner of the room, basket on arm; her mother gave her strict injunctions as to lingering on the way, and she returned a respectful "Yes, mother." Then she trotted round the aisle, greeting the woodchopper on the way, to the deep wood which lay close by the teacher's desk. There master wolf was waiting, and there the two held converse,—master wolf very crafty indeed, Red Riding Hood extremely polite. The wolf then darted on ahead and crouched down in the corner which represented grandmother's bed. Riding Hood tripped sedately to the imaginary door, and knocked. The familiar dialogue followed, and with the words "the better to eat you with, my dear!" the wolf clutched Red Riding Hood, to eat her up. But we were not forced to undergo the threatened scene of horrid carnage, as the woodchopper opportunely arrived, and stated calmly, "I will not let you kill Little Red Riding Hood."

All was now happily culminated, and with the chopper's grave injunction as to future conduct in her ears, the rescued heroine tiptoed out of the woods, to her seat.

I wanted to applaud, but I realised in the nick of time that we were all playing, and held my peace.

The Fox and the Grapes was more dramatically done, but was given by a single child. He was the chosen "fox" of another primary room, and had the fair colouring and sturdy frame which matched his Swedish name. He was naturally dramatic. It was easy to see that he instinctively visualised everything, and this he did so strongly that he suggested to the onlooker every detail of the scene.

He chose for his grape-trellis the rear wall of the room.

Standing there, he looked longingly up at the invisible bunch of grapes. "My gracious," he said, "what fine grapes! I will have some."

Then he jumped for them.

"Didn't get them," he muttered, "I'll try again," and he jumped higher.

"Didn't get them this time," he said disgustedly, and hopped up once more. Then he stood still, looked up, shrugged his shoulders, and remarked in an absurdly worldly-wise tone, "Those grapes are sour!" After which he walked away.

Of course the whole thing was infantile, and without a touch of grace; but it is no exaggeration to say that the child did what many grown-up actors fail to do,—he preserved the illusion.

It was in still another room that I saw the lion and mouse fable played.

The lion lay flat on the floor for his nap, but started up when he found his paw laid on the little mouse, who crouched as small as she could beside him. (The mouse was by nature rather larger than the lion, but she called what art she might to her assistance.) The mouse persuaded the lion to lift his paw, and ran away.

Presently a most horrific groaning emanated from the lion. The mouse ran up, looked him over, and soliloquised in precise language,—evidently remembered, "What is the matter with the lion? Oh, I see; he is caught in a trap." And then she gnawed with her teeth at the imaginary rope which bound him.

"What makes you so kind to me, little Mouse?" said the rescued lion.

"You let me go, when I asked you," said the mouse demurely.

"Thank you, little Mouse," answered the lion; and therewith, finis.

It is not impossible that all this play atmosphere may seem incongruous and unnecessary to teachers used to more conventional methods, but I feel sure that an actual experience of it would modify that point of view conclusively. The children of the schools where story-telling and "dramatising" were practised were startlingly better in reading, in attentiveness, and in general power of expression, than the pupils of like social conditions in the same grades of other cities which I visited soon after, and in which the more conventional methods were exclusively used. The teachers, also, were stronger in power of expression.

But the most noticeable, though the least tangible, difference was in the moral atmosphere of the schoolroom. There had been a great gain in vitality in all the rooms where stories were a part of the work. It had acted and reacted on pupils and teachers alike. The telling of a story well so depends on being thoroughly vitalised that, naturally, habitual telling had resulted in habitual vitalisation.

This result was not, of course, wholly due to the practice of story-telling, but it was in some measure due to that. And it was a result worth the effort.

I beg to urge these specific uses of stories, as both recreative and developing, and as especially tending toward enlarged power of expression: retelling the story; illustrating the story in seat-work; dramatisation.

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