Telling Tales in Middle School

Coal mining, World War II, ghosts and getting in trouble: it was a fine day for storytelling to eighth grade students today.

The middle school students will be entering stories in the local writing contest, and for the past 6 years I have visited the school to tell stories and talk about writing and what makes a good story. In past years the focus was on ghost stories but this year the students will be writing stories from the hills--stories about where they live, about life experiences and perhaps even stories from history.

I brought coal mining artifacts with me, along with letters, photos and other documents that are part of my story about my parents meeting in England during World War II. Realia can be a valuable addition to a storytelling program, particularly one that includes topics that might be unfamiliar to an audience. For children, using the letters, coal mining hardhats, lamps and other items provides a visual stimuli that enriches the experience and the story.

So we had a fine time--great listeners, good questions and participation. I had one period with no class, and was using the time to catch up on email on my phone when another group came into the library. These were a sixth grade class, I think, and they were there to read and use the computers. My display caught their attention and soon the group was around my table, asking questions, trying on the helmets and looking through the World War II notebook of documents. I didn't mind; it was my break but their interest made me happy.

Then they spotted the bottle of turpentine, and they asked what story I told with it. I asked the teacher if he minded if I told them a story, and with his permission told them a tall tale series of dog tales. They loved it, and so did I! This little impromptu telling was the highlight of my day, I think--these kids really wanted to hear a story, and how often do we come across a group this age who beg for a story? I got many hugs as they left.

This group made me appreciate the joy of what we storytellers do. While the teachers must deal day-to-day with apathetic students and curriculum standards, we get to come in and tell them stories, engaging them in a whole new way that makes them eager to hear what we have to say. Learning certainly took place with this group, perhaps unplanned and not in the textbook, but I am betting these children will remember the stories, remember how the carbide lamp worked, and maybe, just maybe, they will be inspired enough to find and write stories of their own.