Just as language and thought are correlative, so too are reading and writing. You cannot very well become an inspirational storyteller if you haven’t read, studied, or been moved by stories yourself. This unit focuses on a variety of stories that range from children’s picture books, to young adult literature, to adult fiction. Students will study the various structures of storytelling in existing stories and in their own writing. They’ll study children’s picture books, Sandra Cisneros’
House on Mango Street,
and Mark Haddon’s
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
as models for telling the stories of their own journeys. The culminating project will be a collection, or portfolio, of their favorite original stories which they will share with the class orally.
I am often surprised by the overwhelming response of my students to hearing stories read, or told to them out loud. It doesn’t seem to matter which age group or grade, kids love to
stories, not just read them silently. Therefore, the unit will begin with the oral tradition of storytelling as I’ll read to the class from a collection of children’s picture books, starting with Leo Lionni. In his introduction of Lionni’s
Frederick’s Fables: a Leo Lionni Treasury of Favorite Stories,
Bruno Bettelheim says “Only when words begin to say something of real significance to us has [the story] served its purpose: that of providing us with the material of meaning to our existence.” This supports Berthoff’s idea of composing as a continuum for meaning making and reiterates the idea that language holds the power to communicate what is significant. For children, it is not just the language that is powerful, but the images as well. Lionni’s picture books are as loved for their illustrations as they are for their language, both of which work together by inciting the child’s imagination, and telling a story that transmits something of meaning to the child. As we get older we develop the skill of automatically visualizing images as we take in language, but developmentally, young children need the images to stay engaged with the text.
In having stories read aloud to them, my students will be able to enjoy the entire experience of storytelling as I will model methods used by storytellers to capture audiences. For example, I’ll use my body language, whether it’s eye contact or gestures to punctuate important moments in the story. I’ll use my voice by changing the volume, pitch, tone, speed, or dialect as called for to create mood. All of this will be gradually introduced, discussed, and imitated as the unit progresses, for students will ultimately be expected to share their stories with the class. They too will use oral language and all the aforementioned storytelling techniques in order to convey meaning and emotion.
As part of our picture book collection we’ll read Aesop’s fables aloud, discussing the structure, craft, and moral of each. Students will use these fables as models for their own first story, which they will eventually either read, or tell to the class. In writing these fables, students not only learn about storytelling structure and the process of fictionalizing family stories, but they also learn about themselves and their classmates. By studying fables, students will learn to fictionalize characters (for anonymity) by turning them into animal representations of themselves, or other people in their lives. Since the fables are short we’ll be able to read a wide variety of them in order to explore the animal character’s traits, as well as the moral of each. As they study the moral of each fable, students will begin to consider the lessons they’ve learned in their personal experiences as fodder for their own writing.
This segues nicely into another writing activity from Ponsot’s book, the format of which is a sentence starter that begins: “Once I was ___________, but now I am _____________” (72). What this asks writers to do is to explore what has happened between the past and present that has been the catalyst for change. This is the journey I’d like students to explore in their storytelling in order to complete the circle, reshape what has hurt them, highlight what has guided them, and connect them to other writers in their learning community. In having students begin with childhood memories, childhood stories, we give them a natural place to start telling their stories, to explore where they’ve come from and how that’s shaped who they are. It also allows them to naturally explore all that they’ve experienced, while giving them a place, a history, a story to return to. The following is an excerpt from Ponsot’s text,
Beat not the Poor Desk,
which explains the rationale for using these fable writing activities: “the childhood anecdotes give the reader confidence…these anecdotes provide something imaginative for everyone to give (29). All of my students will learn that they have something to give to the classroom community.
Any of the unit’s writing activities can be used with a variety of children’s books. Another that lends itself particularly well to the discussion of circular journeys is Ezra Jack Keats’
Regards to the Man in the Moon.
This book speaks to a slightly older audience than “Swimmy,” as the text, images, and dialogue are not only more plentiful, but more sophisticated and complicated. Yet the message is simple: Louie doesn’t fit in because his father is known as the junkman. Keats might be hinting at biased class distinctions, or perhaps discrimination against children who are different from their peers; nonetheless he uses Louie as the ostracized individual who goes on a journey both literally and figuratively, only to return home, anew in his place in the world. By encouraging his would-be friends to use their imagination, Louie has redefined himself and the “junk” that initially plagued him.
Starting the unit with children’s picture books has several benefits. It reminds us of what we loved about reading when we were young, or for some, introduces that joy for the first time in a way that is not intimidating or threatening. Picture books also provide concrete examples of characterization. What Cisneros does abstractly in creating Esperanza’s persona, Lionni has done by painting Swimmy as a small, unique, black fish. Picture books are the best tool I can think of to introduce students to the concept of fictionalizing their own stories in order to explore and ultimately share them. By asking students to identify and then connect personally to thematic threads in the children’s stories, we are automatically, yet indirectly, showing them the endless possibilities for weaving the threads of their own experience into beautiful tapestries of fiction.