Once Upon a Time

Posted October 13, 2016

by Sarah Sivright

Dictating and illustrating in a story journal

Dictating and illustrating in story journals

“Once upon a time…” those words capture the attention of both children and adults. We hold our breath and wait expectantly for the tale that will follow. Stories have been at the heart of human experience from the beginning.

Current and past All Seasons families know that story journal writing and acting are important features of our curriculum. But you may wonder why? Vivian Paley, a master teacher and author, created this classroom version of story telling as a vehicle for the expression of children’s ideas. This practice has spread to many schools in the U.S. and abroad. We have eager storytellers this year, as well as actors.

Each child has his/her own story journal in which the child’s words are written word for word by the teacher. At group time, when these stories are read out loud, correct grammar is modeled verbally, but the journal itself maintains a written record of the child’s language development. Illustrations by the children often accompany the story, usually done while the teacher writes—a cozy arrangement! During the child’s dictation, children are being exposed to the conventions of print, as well as having lovely one-on-one time with the teacher. Concepts about print that experienced readers don’t even think about are modeled by the teacher; print goes left to right, top to bottom, sentences and names of people start with a capital letter and end with a period (or maybe an exclamation mark, and what does that mean?), groups of letters make up words and each word is separated from the next by a space, etc. Then, wonder of wonders, those very words are read to the whole class and children come onto the stage to act out the child’s story! It’s a powerful experience for the author and a community-building experience for the entire group.

Last year, we collected stories from our Grandmas and Grandpas upstairs and acted them out for an audience in the Community Room. Acting out favorite folk tales is also a hit with both young and old, and draws a large and appreciative crowd.

Acting out our stories with the seniors

Acting out our stories with the seniors

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have discovered that storytelling engages more areas of the brain than even music or math. Their studies show that listening to stories activated sensations, emotions, and memories not just on one side of the brain, but across the entire brain. “Understanding a story requires access to all kinds of cognitive processes—social reasoning, spatial reasoning, emotional responses, visual imagery, and more,” says study author Alex Huth.

So, besides being an enthralling experience (or because of that power?) stories are good for brain development! As a teacher, I know that if I have five or ten minutes to fill before lunch with a squirmy group of preschoolers, I just need to pull out a good story, and everyone is happy.