Tell Me A Story

Nancy Marie Brown
September 01, 1993

"One touch of storytelling may . . . make the whole world kin."
—W.R.S. Ralston, Russian Folk Tales, 1873

"When you mention storytelling, people think of lullabies, of putting a child to bed at night," Kim Spanos Telsing says.

It's much more than that. According to Telsing, "What you can express in story is what you know about yourself."

A professional storyteller, and a doctoral student at Penn State, Telsing wanted to be a school librarian "since I was seven," she says. That was the year she read all the books for second grade in the first week of class. The principal called in her mother, a reading specialist. What should we do? Said her mother: Give her more books. "I became the librarian's assistant," Telsing recalls.

It was as a librarian herself that she discovered storytelling, from a professor at Catholic University aptly named Elva Van Winkle. "She did storytelling in a very traditional, 'voice-is-the-power' mode," Telsing says, while also teaching its folkloric and anthropological background. Captivated, Telsing learned performance techniques—"how you project your voice, how you move your body, what to do with your hands, how to get people involved in a story"—from professional storytellers, and briefly turned professional herself before deciding to pursue her doctorate in curriculum and instruction.

Through storytelling, she explains, "I started to think of literature as how you make sense of the world." And she became interested in how schools view oral storytelling as part of the curriculum. "I've always felt that oral storytelling is a part of what you should do in school, but I've found that schools today don't think of it at all 90 percent of the time. Any time they mention stories, they mean reading, not speaking."

It was not always so. In the early 1900s, Telsing discovered while researching the issue, oral storytelling was considered crucial to education: It was an age warned by educator John Dewey that without a literate populace there could be no democracy. "They talked a lot about democracy and community —about how storytelling, as a community event, brought people together and helped them to understand themselves and each other."

Their comments—and warnings—are still true today, Telsing believes. Listeners at a storytelling, she explains, are not a passive audience, as they are watching television, film, and even classical theatre. "When you come into a story space," she says, "you're part of the story.

"For example, when I'm telling a story to a group of children, I'm communicating with them all the time—I'm watching how they cock their heads, listening for the comments they make. 'Oh, no!' a little girl blurts out. I'll pick up on that and play the story with her." And when the story's over, "everyone listening will have a different version of it. If I ask each child to draw a picture from the story—even to draw the main character—every picture will be different. They'll draw things the story never mentioned. So I know they've been actively participating. They've been creating the story for themselves, making a movie in their heads."

Hand-in-hand with such exercising of the imagination comes understanding, through "putting themselves in the place of a character in the story," Telsing says. "That's the child who calls out, 'Look out!' Or, you'll see them moving their bodies." Telsing will tell the classic tale of the polar bear who wanted to fly and so gets himself sprinkled with the fairy dust Santa uses on his reindeer, for example, and when she gets to the part, Well, he lifted one paw . . . he lifted another paw, she recalls, "I'll look out at them and all their paws will be in the air."

Identifying with the characters in stories gives children a way to express their own feelings, just as avid readers (folk for whom the act is as unconscious as breathing, Telsing says) will see in a book a parallel with their own lives. "Have you ever read a book and said, 'I've felt this way myself'?," Telsing asks. "And having read it, did the book then give you the words to explain your feelings to someone else?" It is this quality of the storytelling experience, Telsing argues, this distilling of anger, fear, love, and joy into words, that makes it as necessary for today's adults as it is for children. Although storytelling does help children acquire reading skills, "it is not a tool for anything else," Telsing says. "Storytelling stands alone as a literate behavior.

"How many adults do you know of who only read the newspaper or the TV guide? Who don't like to read because it's too hard? Do you think they'll listen to a story?

"You'd better believe it. The most popular music in America is country and western. Why? Because it's stories. People call up the radio and ask for certain songs because the stories in the songs remind them of their own lives, their own loves, and the words of the songs give them safe ways of expressing their own feelings.

"Now you get these people into a real storytelling, and they'll walk up to you and tell you you've changed their life."

Kim Spanos Telsing, M.L.S., is a graduate student in the department of curriculum and instruction, the College of Education, 256 Chambers Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814- 865-2161. Her graduate adviser is Daniel D. Hade, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department.

Last Updated September 01, 1993