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How storytelling can help kids focus, learn and grow

Storytelling has been an increasingly popular medium for sharing both personal stories — and more broad-based ones. Liz Warren is trying to train more people to be able to tell stories to a particular demographic.

Warren is faculty director of the Storytelling Institute at South Mountain Community College, and she’s started teaching a class on telling stories to children.

She says when the Storytelling Institute started in the mid-1990s, it was clear that students learned better when information was linked to a story. So, part of learning how to be a storyteller involved learning how to tell stories to kids.

Over the years, though, the emphasis moved away from that. But, she says, since the pandemic, she’s seen an increase in interest for people who can tell stories to children.

The Show spoke with Warren about all of this, including how different it is to tell stories to kids than it is to tell them to adults.

Conversation highlights

How different it is to tell stories to kids than it is to tell them to adults?

WARREN: That's a really good question. And in some ways it shouldn't be different at all because a storyteller's job is always to be authentically, him or herself and to connect with their listeners as effectively as they can. But at the same time, there are things that you can do with children that we just generally don't do with adults or that adults. I think they might enjoy it, but they don't think they would enjoy it if you, if you know what I mean. So when you tell to children, the whole world of folk tales, myths, cultural stories, legends opens up, you have a lot more opportunity to include participation, music, poetry refrains.

What kind of participation do you use for kids?

WARREN: That's a really good question. And I'll give you an from one of my favorite stories. It's actually a literary story called "Millions of Cats." And I think it was a Newberry Award winner in the '40s or '50, I'm not sure. It's a book by Wanda Gag. And there's a refrain in it that goes hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats. And I teach that to the children before I tell the story, and there's gestures that go with it. And then I tell them, when you see me do this, when you see me put my hands in front of my body, you know, that's your time. That's you. It's gonna come, then they listen whenever you teach them something like that — especially third-graders and under — then they're listening with laser focus. Right? Waiting to see when their cue comes. So when you put your hands in the position, they all put their hands in the position and they do it with you.

It's such a great focusing device in a story like that. That story also has another one ... which I teach them to go over the green hills and through the cool valleys, over the green hills and through the cool valleys. Very simple things. That's not in the book, right? But when I looked at the story, I thought, oh, that's a great opportunity ... to involve the students.

Especially for younger kids who maybe have the old ants in the pants. That kind of the thing might be helpful to keep them engaged in paying attention too.

WARREN: It's super helpful. And another thing that you do is you work with a teacher and you say, "What is your get attention device? What is it that you say to them?" And then I'll say that, too, because then you don't have to teach them something new.

The other thing that's — sometimes if you're, if you're teaching them something that's a little less structured in terms of participation where they're just, you're just asking them to make noise, you teach them the cut-off signal. So that they know. So and you play and you let them go and you like, pretend, "I'm, I'm gonna stop it. Am I gonna stop it?? And then you stop it. And they will stop on a dime?

What is the relationship between storytelling and kids learning in school? How does storytelling help students learn material that they maybe have a hard time learning otherwise or maybe helps them learn in a different way?

WARREN: That is such a good question. And there's been so much research done on that recently, especially post-pandemic on how children learn and how stories and storytelling can help that. One of the big ones is on language development, vocabulary development. Learning, story structure, learning, narrative structure is important to learning how to write. So when they're exposed to story after story after story, sometimes the teacher will follow up and engage with them on ... parsing the story.

The other big thing that storytelling allows people to do allows children to do is activate their imaginations. Another important thing that storytelling does is it helps children — and it helps adults do this as well, but since we're talking about children — it's really important for social-emotional development.

So do you find that it's more effective for storytellers to try to teach material to students? Would it be effective, for example, to tell the story of somebody in the American Revolution or somebody during the Civil Wars or part of history, versus having somebody come up and maybe tell their personal story? Is there a difference there?

WARREN: Yes, there absolutely is a difference there. We call those fact-based stories. And we do find that very effective in teaching science, mathematics, really, really anything. ... [T]his can be used with younger students. I think it is more often used with middle-schoolers and older, where you're trying, you want to introduce content. And you want to show how something happened and you want to introduce them to the interesting people in the field and what they, what they had to deal with to, to make the discovery they made or to overcome what they over they overcame. One of my favorite examples of that is the story of Marie Curie, who won the Nobel Prize twice and she won the second one after her husband, Pierre, was killed. He was run down in the streets of Paris and she was left alone with two small children. And he had been the breadwinner. He had been ... the professor. But the university where he was, there were no women professors. But she was so respected that they appointed her to his chair, and she became the first, the first woman professor at that university. And then went on to win another Nobel Prize.

So let's say I was a science teacher who was teaching about Marie Curie. How would a storyteller approach telling her story different than maybe a science teacher who hadn't gone through a program like yours?

WARREN: Well, I think as educators in general and as academics in general, we're taught how to put an essay together. And a lesson plan is very much like an essay, where you state the objective and you support the objective with your facts. And then you summarize it and say, and now you know this, you know. A storyteller approaches it in a very different way. A storyteller wants to be grounded in moments in time that bring the listener into the moment and allow them to see it.

So when I tell you about Marie Curie in Paris when her husband is run down on a snowy street in the dead of winter, and she is all along with two children, that gives you a different feeling for Marie Curie. And maybe I don't even remember all the facts of what she did, but I know how to find that. Right? Because I care about her. Now, that's the, that's the thing.

We want them to care. We want them to develop to — I think story helps really any listener make a connection with what's being discussed ... a human connection.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

EDITOR'S NOTE: KJZZ is licensed to the Maricopa County Community College District.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.