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Towards a Stories Based Curriculum
Published in The Storytelling Classroom: Applications Across the Curriculum
Nancy King Ph.D.

Part of our predicament today is due to the impoverishment of the natural images in us all. This narrow, rational awareness that we have developed has cut us off from the image-making thing in us. Meaning comes to us in the first place, I believe, straight out of life in symbols and images, and this meaning is always greater than any concept we can consciously make of the images. It is greater than any words we can say or pictures we can paint. But these images are the source of an enormous spiritual and psychic energy, if we have access to them. When we are cut off from these images we lose the transforming energies with which we are endowed and we are poor (Van der Post, 1961, p 6).¹

            Imagemaking, storymaking and storytelling are integrative activities that nourish our creativity and help us regain access to our natural images. They require us, as makers/tellers to take disparate bits of information, internal images, and personal points of view to create something new and whole. When we make images based on a story we have heard, we learn to concretize abstract thoughts and to verbalize ideas and feelings in a coherent and articulate manner. When we tell stories we learn something about who we are, develop a sense of our authentic voice, and begin to appreciate our value as human beings in a collaborative learning community. Working with stories from around the world to develop oral and written language curricula broadens horizons, cultivates empathy, and provides the possibility for connections across time, culture and experience. Sharing stories of our lives, both real and fantasy, helps to center us within ourselves, provides connection with others, establishes community, and makes it possible for us to appreciate our unique and common experiences.

            After more than forty years, in a wide variety of classrooms, I have come to believe that the use of imagemaking and storymaking in a stories-based language curriculum is an effective and challenging way to teach native and/or foreign language. Since we know that students learn best when they are curious about, and involved in what they are learning, why not use stories of the world and of students’ lives to engage their hearts and minds when teaching reading, speaking, and writing?


            What we know about our inner life and how we see ourselves not only affects how we understand ourselves in the world, it also impacts on the meaning we derive from what we see and hear. Because we take in more information than we consciously process, we know more than we consciously realize. An important task for educators is to enable students to discover what they know but don’t know they know, in life as well as in the classroom.

            When I first began to ask students to visualize I discovered that not only did many have trouble visualizing, they also had poor access to their imaginations. Their puzzled looks in response to questions such as, “What do you imagine the protagonist was wearing?” or “How do you think the house looked when he opened the door?” made me realize that many students were not used to seeing images in their mind’s eye as they read a text. I explored ways to improve access to students’ imagination and creativity and discovered this could not easily be done through activities dependent on verbal acuity. My decision to use fingerpaints and clay came after reading a letter Albert Einstein wrote to French mathematician Jacques Hadamard (Einstein 1957, 43 ).² In this letter, Einstein explained how he used “certain signs and more or less clear images which could be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined” to discover what he knew. Einstein made it clear that it was only after he made the images and then wrote down what came to him that he began to know what he knew. Just as Einstein “doodled,” I discovered that when students make spontaneous images in response to abstract concepts such as courage or an image of the protagonist at a moment of crisis, immediately followed by writing words or ideas that come to mind, they are able to learn more about what they know. The images and words in combination help them to access both feeling and thought.

            The process of making an image in about one minute, with no preplanning, makes censoring more difficult. The words and ideas that become conscious often provide new insights that make it possible for students to discover and express aspects of knowing for which they may previously have had no words. Making images of particular moments in a text initially helps students to focus—to start thinking about the text at hand and to discover their unique and personal relationship to it. Imagemaking structures thought. It is the first step in the process of learning what we know. Students move from preverbal to imaginal (nonverbal) to verbal expression by tapping into their imagination, particularly important today when many are so used to seeing prepackaged images on television and video games. Watching pre-produced images weakens one’s ability to create images or visualize from one’s imagination. Not only does this make it difficult for people to enter into a text to explore and connect their symbolic understanding of themselves and their world to their response to the text, it also makes it harder to feel and think about what it might be like to live as a specific character in a variety of situations and events. The process of making spontaneous images helps students regain access to their own, unique imaginations because the prepackaged video images do not fit the abstraction they are asked to visualize. Imagemaking is particularly useful in EFL classrooms because the images serve to stimulate interest in words and ideas, and to communicate these in the language being learned where the focus is on discovery and expansion of vocabulary and expression.

            This paper describes some of the imagemaking and storymaking techniques that have been developed over the course of my teaching career. They are responses to events and situations where I devised activities to encourage student involvement in their study of written and oral language in first, second, and foreign language learning. These activities work with students of almost any age or ability and can be used with any text. Although some of the activities were initially designed for elementary school age children, they work well with any group of any age beginning language study. The activities are designed to move students from feeling inadequate and uncomfortable to knowing that wherever they are is where they start and the rest of the class, as well as the teacher, will help them learn in a safe and supportive environment.

Interactive Classroom Activities

            In many classrooms, teachers have students of widely varying abilities. In order to encourage each student to work toward his/her potential, it becomes necessary to design activities that appropriately develop each person’s language learning and usage. Storypartnering is one way for students of differing abilities to work together with each benefiting from the experience since each works at his/her level without judgment or comparison.

            After the teacher tells a very short folk tale, myth, or legend, drawing from cultures around the world, each student paints, draws or sculpts an image from the story. Using the image as a focal point, each student writes a short story, even if it is only one sentence. The length of the writing will depend on skill levels of students but even one sentence is encouraged, especially if partners are allowed to help each other. With students whose language is very limited, even one word can be a beginning.

            For example, when working in a bi-lingual classroom with students whose native language was Spanish I discovered that many children felt so uncomfortable using English they were refusing to write in either language. Given their level of fear, I asked them to write just one word that they either remembered from the story or that came to mind when they thought about the story. Going around the room, we practiced asking questions to further the story, that can’t be answered with a yes or no. I asked each child to read their word. Two children had no words so I asked them to write their word in Spanish, which they did. Immediately, their seatmates translated their word into English. When I told them they had written a story most of the children giggled and shook their heads. One child said, “How can one word be a story?”
            “I’ll show you,” I said.  His question stimulated the development of collaborative learning through group questioning. To begin the development of their writing, I put the following words on the board: description, feelings, circumstance, experience, point of view, what if. Although these words are similar to who, what, how, why, and when, the children like learning the “big” words and they seem to provide writers with a more focused way to enhance their writing than when using the more familiar words.

            Roberto’s word was ‘happy.’ The children and I read through the words and when they understood their meaning we started to work with the first category, description.  I asked him, “Who is happy?”
            “The girl was happy,” he answered.

            When the children were asked if they could think of any more questions whose answers might enhance the description of the girl, they asked the following questions: Who is she? What is her name? What does she look like? Does she have any brothers and sisters? How old is she? When is her birthday? 
            I asked Roberto if the questions gave him any ideas. He nodded and laboriously wrote: Her name is Maria. She is ten years old. She lives with her grandmother and her uncle.
            We moved on to the second category: feelings. “What is she feeling?”
            “I already said, she was happy,” he complained.
            The children quickly asked: Why is she happy?
            Roberto said, “I don’t know.”
            We suggested some possibilities. “Is she happy because she got a puppy? Is she happy because his grandmother gave her something nice to eat? Is she happy because she is going to Disneyland? Is she happy because her mama is coming to visit?”
            Roberto sighed and began to write. By the time we had worked our way through each of the categories, he and all the other children had written stories that surprised and pleased them. So many of the children wanted to read their stories to the rest of the class, the teacher decided to incorporate this into their regular reading activity.
            Although these were elementary school age children, I have used the same technique with older students who have trouble writing. Encouraging students to admit they are stuck allows the class, through the use of collaborative questioning, to create an environment that feels safe and allows students to learn and develop without criticism and/or judgment. I stress that whatever is told or written is a first draft; what matters most is to write or tell as much as they know to so at the time. Subsequent revisions focus on discovery and deepening what is already told or written. As Roberto was questioned, he discovered he had much more to say than he originally knew. Writing lost its onus of punishment and became a way for him to express his feelings.
            Students select a storypartner for the week by having half of the class draw from a box, the name of one person from the other half of the class. In order for storypartners to develop an effective working relationship it is best that they work together for at least one week. The next week those whose names were in the box draw names from the other half. The aim of storypartnering is to enable partners to develop a cooperative connection that enhances language development through the use of questions that cannot be answered yes or no and compassionate responses that connect the writer/teller’s story with the listener’s reactions.

            Storypartners share their stories and then, each partner in turn, asks a question that cannot be answered with a yes or a no. The storyteller answers in any fashion she or he chooses. Because it is best to keep the structure simple, I suggest additional questions be postponed until everyone feels comfortable with the process. Students then return to their written story to add information, addressing the issue(s) raised by the question. If the storyteller doesn’t like the question, he/she is free to ask for some more questions or to add spontaneous information to the story. These stories can be shared in small groups or with the whole class on a voluntary basis to teach ways to revise written work.

            With young children or students of any age who are learning a foreign language, this activity can become part of the daily reading/writing process if each day, the teacher gives new directions. For example, the second day might focus on the main character. Paint an image (draw or sculpt) of this person. Who is this person? What does this person look like? An opportunity to further develop language occurs when students as a group, suggest "who" questions which are written on the board for students to use as reference. The third day might involve where the action takes place. Students paint (draw or sculpt) an image of the environment in which the story occurs. The fourth day might begin with students creating an image of a "peculiar incident" or a "surprise" which they can then incorporate into their story. Each activity allows students to add to their stories, always in consultation with their storypartners. On the fifth day, students might design a cover and title for their stories before adding, editing, or honing the complete version of the story which they then share with their storypartners as they collaborate, reading each other's stories and helping one another to smooth out any rough spots. If the class is a foreign language course, all discussion might be held in the foreign language as a way to practice if students’ skill levels permit.

            More advanced students can work more quickly and therefore, it helps to have partners ask many questions, all of which the student writes down without comment. Later, he/she can decide which questions, if any, to address, as the story is revised and developed.

            The structure of the initial story and selection of a storypartner serves as the frame to explore many different aspects on which students can focus their storymaking such as:
            Point of view;
            The story before the story--what happens before the story begins;
            A story from the story--a story evoked by the story--a memory;
            Stories between stories--what happens between one episode in the story and the next;
            The story after the story--what happens after the story ends.
            Correct language usage is always an issue yet one cannot achieve fluency and perfection simultaneously. I use the following categories to help students decide their current level of proficiency. The first the level is private. This means students are essentially writing for or speaking to themselves. There is no interest in sharing what is expressed. The second level is personal.  The student shares what is written or told with another person. The student is present to answer questions, clear up confusion, or explain what is missing in the narrative. The third level is public.  The work, in this case written, is “published;” the writer is not present to explain or clarify. The work is grammatically correct and fully developed. I use the idea of publishing to include putting up work on bulletin boards outside of class, as well as hanging up written work in more public places for anyone to read as well as collecting stories to be made into a book.

            To help hone written work, students work together in groups, read each other’s stories as if they were editors, trying to perfect a piece of writing. If there are questions, or if students miss errors, this can be the basis for further learning. The edited stories might be shared with the class, put up on a bulletin board, or collected and printed so that everyone has a copy of each classmate's stories. In one classroom, students kept a record of “writing errors” with no names attached so that students could see how to correct their own mistakes before showing their stories to a reader. While it is meaningful for teachers to talk about the importance of imagination and possibility, it is vital that the supporting structure of sharing stories and reflection be collaboration rather than criticism. Teaching students how to ask questions that cannot be answered yes or no, whose sole aim is to help their classmates deepen, extend, enrich, and create, as the integral part of storymaking will enhance the learning process for all students regardless of their experience and expertise. Helpful questions are not judgmental; rather they enable writers to revise their writing. For example: Why did you put in the part about the donkey can be transformed into, tell me how the donkey came to be in the story, a much more useful question in terms of deepening the story. Saying, “That part doesn’t make sense,” is not nearly as helpful as, “How did you decide to have your character disappear?” The extent to which students view questioning and editing as a positive process is often the extent to which students enthusiastically correct, hone, shape, and revise their work.

The thirty-second hotline:

            Many students enjoy recording their uncensored views on books and stories. If available, tape recorders are a marvelous way to create a hot line for fellow classmates. Students read a book and then record author, title and one or two sentences about their response to the book. The tapes can be changed weekly. Comments recorded in one middle-school classroom about a variety of books ran the gamut between terse judgment and enthusiastic raves: "This one is really good because you never know until the last minute whether he is going to win the race.” This book sucks. I hate the girl. She’s so stuck up." "This book has some hard words but don't worry, the story's great." "This one is boring because you just know what’s going to happen and it does." "It's a really good book. I liked the way everyone has to help solve the mystery." When tape recorders were not available, students used loose-leaf notebooks, putting the name of the book, author, and title at the top of a page, leaving room for one or two comments per student. Several notebooks were available around the room for just this purpose. Students also kept their own records of books they read and what they thought and felt about them. As a storytelling activity, students sometimes made up the “next chapter” as a way of nourishing imagination and developing writing and storytelling skills.

            Students learning a foreign had fun recording their ideas and impressions of stories they had read in the new language. The teacher kept the recordings and toward the end of the semester, played some of them back. Students laughed at their early attempts yet at the same time, developed an appreciation for how far they had come.


The view from here:

            In the corner of the back blackboard we hung a bulletin board for students to write on an index card, the name of the book read, its author, one or two sentences about the book, and one or two questions about their reading. We suggested that students reading the same book talk with each other, discussing their questions and sharing ideas. At the end of two weeks, the class was divided into four groups and students shared their impressions of a book they had read. They were encouraged to ask each other questions that would stimulate reading but not give away plot. For example, one student read a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt and asked, “How do you suppose she transformed herself from being a shy, retiring wife into the Eleanor Roosevelt known by the whole world? Another student who read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography asked, “What did he do to survive twenty-seven years in prison and then, emerge without bitterness or wanting revenge?”

            In another classroom we taped large pieces of paper to the back wall and on each we put the name of a book and its author. After students read a book they wrote short views and reviews of the book on the paper. Each Friday, the teacher held a session called "The Critic's Corner" where students shared their ideas, discussed why there were different views of a particular book, and talked about what they liked and disliked in stories. In one classroom where students resisted most writing exercises, I asked them to write a short incident that happened to one of the characters before or after the book began or ended. This gave us a chance to talk about style, vocabulary, sensory information, dialogue, and exposition in enjoyable ways. Many of the students who felt writing was an onerous burden said this was not “really” writing because it was so much fun.

Partnering up:

            In one classroom where students’ reading abilities differed widely, we paired students by interest in topics such as environment, history, culture, etc. Within these small groups students selected a partner with whom to read at least one book on a required list. Partners read out loud to each other, deciding among themselves whether to switch after a page, paragraph or chapter. In some cases, when one student was a much better reader than the other, they apportioned out the book so the less accomplished reader read one paragraph while her partner read a page. Each pair decided how to choose their book and sometimes, each partner picked the book she/he wanted to read and the pair read two books before switching partners and topics. Students with limited reading ability benefited by reading (hearing) a book they would likely not have read while the more advanced students said that reading out loud made them pay closer attention to the material. After the book was read, the partners collaborated on a brief report sharing the highlights and important information. Very often, the student with limited reading ability proved to have useful abilities such as designing a poster on which to put information or creating a slide tape presentation. What students commented on most often were the benefits of partnership where each had skills and information to offer the other.


Show and tell:

            One morning a week, some teachers and students come together for a book sharing session. Students are given a minute or less to praise, pan and/or reflect on a book. Sometimes students work in pairs so that those who feel too shy to speak have the necessary support. To increase writing skills, students make an annotated class bibliography for a semester or year, at the end of which, copies are given to each student.

            Students struggling to learn a foreign language often feel shy about sharing thoughts and opinions in a language in which they are not as competent as they are in their native language. Sharing ideas informally, with an emphasis on fluency and communication of ideas and feelings, not only improved language usage but also the level of comfort when speaking.
            The underlying principle that guides all storymaking and storytelling activity is the idea that reading, writing and sharing stories and books is pleasurable, and an unending source and resource for learning about ourselves, our communities, and our world for the whole of our lives. Just as people are different, so are our responses to books and the ways we speak and write about them. As long as the speaking and writing are referenced by the text, all ideas have value.

Connecting the story to the storymaker:

            Every human being has stories to tell--of the lives we live, from our imaginations, or retelling those that have made a deep impression. Stories comfort, educate, explain, amuse and challenge us to become our deeper selves. It is one thing, however, to be told that stories live within us but quite another experience to find and express them. The process of storymaking leads us, along our inner path, to find the places where our stories live. There are many ways to begin and no one way works for every one every time. What is always required is acceptance--of our selves and our stories. We begin where we are, with what we know and experience, however we know to tell it, with an audience that is willing to listen.  

            The initial story or poem, told or read, acts as the container--the issues/ideas/feelings evoked by the text serve as our point of departure. For example, after telling a Norwegian tale about what happened when a husband and wife change places for one day, I might ask my class to imagine themselves in their families as someone other than who they are. If the class needs help thinking of ideas I offer some possibilities: becoming larger, smaller, heavier, skinnier, invisible, a family pet, an only child, one of twenty-seven... I continue to make suggestions until the group offers ideas of their own and students feel ready to select one that fascinates them. Some ideas students have suggested include, becoming the family pet, a talking dining room table, the oldest rather than the youngest child, a long lost child, coming home after having lived away from home—in a foreign country, at a posh university, or working as an au pair.  After choosing, they paint an image of their new self, imagine what this new existence might be like, and title their image. Sometimes, especially with beginners who are not comfortable with spontaneous writing, I ask each student to sculpt an image of this new self in relationship to their family at a particular time and place and to think about what might have happened when they interacted with their family as their new self. After doing this, the story is practically born. All they need to do now is to write about this experience. If teachers incorporate the use of a dictionary and thesaurus into the storymaking process, these books become allies as students search for ways to improve and enhance their expressive capacities.

            Afterward, we share the stories and students ask each storymaker questions that might deepen the work without negative comment or judgment. In one case, a small female student with two older, bigger brothers decided to be a giant so she could order her brothers around. One student commented, “It’s easy for big people to order small people around. What would happen if you were the same size but were so much more powerful than them they treated you the way you want them to treat you?”

            The girl looked puzzled and asked, “How would I do that? It’s because I’m big that they don’t bother me.” This stumped the class temporarily until one student offered a suggestion.

            “What if you thought you were bigger and more powerful than them?” She shrugged, as if this was too silly to even consider. “But this is a story,” he insisted. “You could have your character eat special food or wear clothes that give your character courage and power. I think it’s much more interesting than just making yourself physically bigger.”

            His words got the class thinking and soon the girl had more suggestions about how to deal with the brothers in her story than she knew what to do with. “Ok,” she said, “let me think about it.” In a subsequent version she wrote about a girl who devised strategies to deal with her brothers that included staring, laughter, ridicule, sarcasm, and, most important of all, learning karate so she could “deck them every time they touch me.” She not only ended up writing a very funny story, she also felt personally content. As she said, “This version is much more satisfying that the first one I wrote because the girl does stuff I can really imagine doing.”

              Teachers have often asked me, "How do you get students to make a story when they can't find the story inside themselves?" When students have trouble imagining it is best, in the beginning, to limit the amount they have to write. One way to stimulate writing or telling is to ask them to select a character that could be from a story they have read, one they make up, or a character they create from real life. They then write one sentence about this character. For example, during one class period a student selected a turtle as his character and wrote: There was once a turtle that lived under an old house. He said this was his story and he had nothing more to write about this turtle.
            I asked the class to ask him questions--what did they want to know about this turtle. Here were some of the questions they asked:

            How big is the turtle?
            Does the turtle live alone? Is it lonely?
            How does the turtle come to live under the old house?
            Does the turtle have any friends?
            Do people live in the old house?
            What does the turtle eat?
            How does the turtle get its food?
            How does the turtle spend its time?
            Is the turtle a boy or a girl turtle?
            What kind of turtle is it? A painted turtle? A snapping turtle? How do you know?
            How does this turtle behave when it’s angry or when it’s afraid?
            What adventures does the turtle have with other animals?
            Does the turtle have a family? 
            Where did the turtle live before coming to live under the old house?
            What is most important to the turtle?
            What makes the turtle angry? Happy? Frustrated? Lonely? Excited?
            What is special about this turtle?
            How does this turtle come to find love?

Notice there are no “why” questions. Over the years I have found that questions asking “why?” tend to make students anxious because there is the implied assumption of a right answer. One can ask equally stimulating questions using what if or how come and these ways of asking seem not to intimidate. Also, as much as possible, encourage students to ask questions using the present tense to help writers/speakers make active choices. Of course students don't have to answer all the questions--they merely serve to stimulate thinking and to help connect storymakers with more of the story that lives inside them. Sometimes it helps to divide into small groups and to have people write down their questions for writers to use if they choose to do so. Once people get used to asking questions to help others, they realize that asking themselves questions whenever they feel stuck is a good way for anyone to get unstuck.

            Another way to help students get "unstuck" is to ask them to make images, either in paint or clay, of the stuck moment, the moment just before the stuck moment, and/or the moment just after it. Spontaneous images usually stimulate the storymaker to conceive new ideas or feelings and help restart the flow of creation. Being "stuck" is often a collision between what we think should happen and what we want to happen, a time when our inner censor is dictating to our imagination, a situation that never works to our creative advantage. Rather, we have to learn to play with possibilities and regain access to our first thoughts and wonders so we can notice and discover rather than judge prematurely.

            Sharing stories to create community has many benefits. Students build cooperative exchanges of information. They learn to use questioning to deepen stories and to focus on enhancement rather than judgment. Telling stories improves listening skills as storytellers connect with their audience. In the process, storytellers develop self-confidence and recognize that they are people with something to say, persons of worth.

            In conclusion, I believe imagemaking and storymaking help students tell, write, and share stories and books. These activities stimulate informal usage such as improvisational drama as well as the more formal usage of analysis. These participatory activities facilitate oral and written expression and language teaching at every educational level. The use of imaginative and creative interactive techniques enhances students’ self-esteem, nourishes their ability to express themselves, creates a collaborative learning environment, encourages students’ lifelong interest in literature, and serves to strengthen skills needed to lead productive lives.

¹ Van der Post, Laurens. 1961. Patterns of renewal. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications #121.

² Einstein, Albert. (1957)  “Letter to Jacques Hadamard,” The creative process. ed by Brewster Ghiselin. NY: A    Mentor Book, 43-44. 

Selected Bibliography

Goleman, Daniel. (1995) Emotional intelligence.  NY: Bantam Books.

King, Nancy.  (1994) Storymaking and drama: An approach to teaching language and literature in secondary and postsecondary levelsPortsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

King, Nancy.  (1996) Playing their part: Language and learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Langer, Ellen J. (1997) The power of mindful learning.  Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Nancy King holds a Ph.D. from the Union Institute and University. She has written plays, articles and 7 books, the latest of which are Storymaking and Drama; and Playing Their part: Language and Learning in the Classroom, published by Heinemann; and Dancing With Wonder: Self-Discovery Through Stories, published by Champion Press. Nancy is currently a literacy, drama and educational consultant leading workshops both in the United States, Canada and Europe. As a professor at the University of Delaware she taught courses in theatre and drama, literacy and language development and interdisciplinary studies, always focusing on creative and empowering approaches to learning.

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Updated January 2019.
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