Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, says just what her father told her anxious brother who had to write an assignment on birds he’d had three months to write and which was due the next day. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
In this pair activity, we'll take it step by step.
Students pair up: one takes the role of listener. This student (B) needs a paper and a pencil to draw what their partner (A) tells them.
A tells B exactly how to retrieve an object of special sentimental value from his/her apartment or house. A explains exactly what B will see/have to do to get the object, describe the object and also explain why it is so important. B has to be able to repeat all the steps, based on the drawing she did, and ask questions to fill the gaps.
The objective of this activity can be language function-related (giving instructions, describing, etc.). From a storyteller's view, though, it illustrates the difficult to bridge gap between what we see in our mind’s eye and what we tell.
The important thing is to remember to just take it step by step:
“Reality can be entered through the main door, or it can be slipped into through a window, which is much more fun.” Gianni Rodari, The Grammar of Fantasy: An Introduction to the Art of Inventing Stories (1973)
Rodari believed that stories lie in the connections between objects or concepts that belong to completely different worlds, and seemingly have nothing to do with each other.
This idea lies at the heart of the following activity: The teacher asks two children to each write a word (noun) on opposite sides of the board. One can either give free choice or direct children to write animate nouns on one side, and inanimate nouns on the other. This may be repeated until there are two longer lists of words on the board. The educator then invites the students to come up with a story that features two words, one from each list. It's important to encourage the students to be adventurous and find connectins in apparently absurd combinations. One way to do this is to find connections between these words through prepositions. If, for example, the two words are "chicken" and "cabinet", the teacher could write the following connections on the board: The chicken on the cabinet; the chicken in the cabinet; the chicken under the cabinet; the chicken's cabinet, etc. A way to guide children through a set plot structure is to suggest they build the story in three parts: first something good happens to the chicken with/and the cabinet, then something bad happens, but in the end everything turns out well when another good thing happens. I first learned this activity in a storytelling workshop by Spanish storyteller Reyes Calleja, and later read up on it in Gianni Rodari's The Grammar of Fantasy (1973), and Jack Zipes'
Creative Storytelling (1995)
As an educator it helps to be able to spin a good yarn, yet in the education of the whole child (and adult) we should encourage the student to become a storyteller as well. Whether in language arts, mathematics, life sciences, or history, students should feel empowered to engage in storytelling in order to connect content to their own experience. This is why Gianni Rodari's 1973 book The Grammar of Fantasy continues to be so groundbreaking and a must-read for every teacher, no matter what the discipline. Making connections requires imagination, and it is imagination that is getting short shrift today. Hopefully this blog will help you incorporate storytelling into your teaching as well as into your everyday interactions with others.
Anna Witte is a writer, artist, and educator, and the author of award-winning, bilingual (Spanish-English) children’s books including The Parrot Tico Tango (El Loro Tico Tango), Lola’s Fandango (El Fandango de Lola), and of the sung stories for the Tikitiklip Precolombino Series.