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September 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 1

Building Classroom Community Through Storytelling

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Classroom Management
I fell into storytelling on a rainy afternoon during my inaugural year teaching 1st grade. It was 2015, two seasons into my teaching career, and I was attempting to conduct a reflective closing circle with a group of six-year-olds who hadn't been outside all day. They were predictably wiggly and impulsive, and all I wanted to do was say a thoughtful goodbye, tell them their dismissal plan, usher them off, and take a breath by myself in an empty classroom.
In the eye of the commotion, as I began to read aloud the printout of who was going where after school (bus, pickup, after-school program), an inquisitive student asked me, "Mr. Turner, where does the list come from?"
I almost put up a finger in that ask-me-later-please motion that teachers like me are so fond of, but something stopped me. I held up the piece of paper and said, "This list?"
She nodded.
I was about to explain to her that Ms. K, the administrator who delivered the list every afternoon at 2:00 p.m., generated it from her computer in the school's main office. But that reply seemed so mundane, especially given the genuine curiosity on the girl's face, and I wanted to end the day on a high note.
"Well," I began, with absolutely no idea where I was going, "the list actually comes from a different world."
More heads turned toward me.
"A different world?" the girl parroted, an eyebrow raised.
"Yes. Well, you see, they aren't made here at school. The lists are delivered every day, at exactly 1:54 p.m., without fail. They come coiled up tightly, like scrolls. They smell like smoke and fire and … saltwater when they arrive."
I was extemporizing, but the room was nearly quiet now. When I proceeded to tell them that it was an enigmatic, verbose, four-eyed squirrel who hand-delivered the list through a secret (and possibly enchanted) door under Ms. K's desk, I had every eye in the room glued to me, their faces painted with that brand of intense curiosity only seen in children: I need to know exactly what this new and interesting thing is, and I need to know it right now.
An almost yearlong story emerged from those improvised details, with the help of an imaginative, creative, and exceptionally engaged class of children. Every day, if we had time before dismissal, and if the kids cleaned up efficiently after their free time, I'd tell a new installment of "The Land of the List," as I affectionately began to refer to the story.
In the tale, a community of four-eyed squirrels, living in a land where every hour that passed equaled a mere second here on Earth, worked together in harmony to generate end-of-day dismissal plans for every child in every school in the human world. But there came a day when their land was in danger, threatened by unseen forces, and they begrudgingly asked a human—me, and by extension, the kids themselves—to help them for the first time in their millennia-long history. As it developed, the story comprised a land of strange trees, mechanical wooden devices, secret portals and whimsical songs, unexplained events, plot twists, 1st grade humor, mystery, and lots of perilous adventure. I'd like to believe I gave them a kid-friendly mashup of Twin Peaks and Lost, although I'm sure the truth is far more prosaic.
As it evolved through the year, this story did more than entertain. It gave us a collective bond and motivation. My students all wanted to believe. Even now, three years later, some of them still drop by to ask me if "The Land of the List" was real—even though they helped me build the narrative. In truth, they probably know it wasn't; most of them surely suspected as much during the telling of it. But the desire to believe in its reality overrode any doubts, and even though they were all over the map in terms of maturity—a normal, expected constant in the world of teaching—they were united in their belief that I had visited this world and that it existed in some sense.
Bret Turner and his 1st grade class. Photo by Jahi Johnson

A New Chapter on Classroom Management

I'll never forget the professor who told me in my teacher-certification program that "discipline is a back-up plan." I've taken that to heart. Classroom management and leadership—the systems and routines that become ritual, the community we build through shared agreements and explicit expectations and consequences, the agency given to kids—are discipline; or rather, they serve as more loving and supportive substitutes. Building a fun, safe, positive environment is the backbone of an elementary school classroom, but it's both an art and a science, a never-ending feedback loop of responding, tinkering, resetting, and rethinking, and sometimes even starting over from scratch.
"The Land of the List" provided an ideal lens through which my class and I could practice, troubleshoot, and problem solve together. The story became a fertile ground for teaching and role-playing social scenarios. It helped build a healthy and thriving emotional environment and class culture.
For example, when our elementary school adopted a new emotional literacy curriculum called Toolbox, my class applied the framework of this program to our invented world. Characters in the story would need to use various tools to get them out of sticky situations. Larry, for example—a class favorite who was an ordinary human-world two-eyed squirrel who faked his way into the Land of the List by wearing two extra googly eyes—was always working to regain his friends' trust after being discovered. He had to make frequent use of his Empathy Tool to forgive his friends for their wariness. The character of Mr. Turner, a version of myself, used his Patience Tool whenever anything new and confusing cropped up, which was nearly every installment. Squirrels who were angry about something needed to exercise patience and understanding, and yes, sometimes they needed time and space to simply be angry and frustrated.
It also soon became clear that the story provided a perfect vehicle for integrating our classroom charter. As a community, we had spent the early weeks of the school year drafting and later publishing maxims that we all signed and agreed to adhere to, including "We will clean up messes" (literal and figurative alike) and "We will make wise choices." In the story, characters were guided by these precepts, weighing the pros and cons of a tough emotional decision. Squirrels made mistakes, said unkind things, and worked hard to rectify them; in short, they acted human. Each time a new dilemma surfaced, the 1st graders gamely offered advice, predictions, postmortems, and dissections. And, in the end, their acceptance.
Through storytelling, Bret Turner saw his students develop a classroom community—and a natural curiosity. Photo by Bret Turner

Lore and Behold

In addition to helping with classroom management and community building, the storytelling project helped illustrate and develop academic skills. The obvious curricular connection is, of course, literature and—more specifically—literacy. Recapping, summarizing, predicting. Vocabulary, character motivations, development. The story was a perfect vehicle for priming basic and even some advanced literacy strategies and skills. Natural academic extensions followed, from writing assignments to art projects, math and science connections, even a classroom-generated phonics book called Squirrelina's Primer: Sight Words in 'The Land of The List.' ("Squirrelina"—to reveal the limitations of my then-nascent storytelling abilities—was the name of the main character.)
The storytelling framework also allowed an easy entry point into issues of social justice, which created a new space for current events. Discussing sensitive topics is always tricky in the elementary classroom, and the makeup of our school—racially diverse by private school standards but still very white, largely wealthy, and politically homogeneous—adds an extra layer of complexity. Co-developing characters that were part of a shared narrative paved the way for issues of inequality, oppression, racism, and white privilege to take center stage. As the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum in the country and as we discussed related developments more and more in class, complex issues arose around such questions as "Whose voices are being heard, and whose have been historically squashed?" Themes of agency, voice, fairness and unfairness, and abuse of power were weaved into the tale and connected to the real world. What would it be like for these squirrels to invite a human into their secret world? Why are they working so hard to make lists for kids? Don't they have families of their own? Can we hear their side? Kids have a way of asking plainly stated, probing questions with no easy answers.

A Never-Ending Story

I've continued to tell similar tales with other classes, and I continue to be astounded at the ways in which they affect classroom dynamics. The stories form a collective ethos that engenders our shared systems, procedures, and values. My students last year were fascinated by our classroom gecko, and we always seemed to be running low on pencils and glue sticks, and so the story we created revolved around a group of mysterious lizards who were sneaking in at night and stealing our supplies. It was called, imaginatively, "Pencils and Glue Sticks." This year, a large communal rug with a drawing of a tree inspired a story about a community of birds whose well-being is in peril and who turn to an unsuspecting 1st grade class to help. It's called "The Mystery of the Midnight Birds."
The deep, transformative power of a good story is nothing new. But what has bowled me over is the way that a tale crafted by a small community of kids can spread into the nooks and crannies of 1st grade life. A communal story helps us all feel tethered and connected as we navigate the beautiful but treacherous waters of getting along and learning the rules and culture of school life. The stories have served as anchoring points for us all; as we become more and more invested in the characters and the plot, the classroom seems to hum just a little better. Students begin to have a little more buy-in to the whole idea of school, and our classroom rules make a little more sense.
I don't mean to paint this idea as a panacea. It hasn't been a perfect road, and I've learned from my mistakes along the way. I used to end episodes with cliffhangers that were far too stimulating for the conclusion of a school day. Kids would bust out of the door like battering rams, teetering on the edge of downright unsafe behavior. On hard days, despite my best intentions, I'd occasionally use the promise of an episode as leverage in ways that would make my Responsive Classroom instructor wince, holding the story hostage to encourage good behavior. My memory would also occasionally fail me, and kids would wrestle with the confusion of the capriciously established world-building we were engaging in, sometimes to the point of frustration. There was the occasional day when the episode fell totally flat, and there were times when the story simply wasn't, for whatever reason, weaving its magic.
And yet, even during the bumpy times, we pushed through. The kids were always game to tackle a problem, to make tweaks, to rework glitchy patches as needed; and besides, I had other help: my intern teachers Mary, Katie, and Jahi; our art teacher Marissa; the famous Ms. K who received the daily list scrolls; parents. They were all in on it, all on board with engaging in the absurdist narrative we were building.

Weaving Tales Together

Things shift with each year's tale. A new focus for this year's story is on gender, for instance. The birds are, whenever I meet them in the tale, genderless to me, and I find myself using pronouns without actually knowing what they would prefer. I bring the students' attention to that: "I notice I'm calling the silent crow character he, even though the crow has never identified as either male or female. I wonder why that is?" No matter the story or emphasis, though, the results are the same: deep engagement, creative input, more deeply ingrained classroom management and routines, and a more tightly knit community.
As amazing and magical as books are, there's something so pure and direct about oral storytelling. There's absolutely nothing between you and your audience. No pictures, printed words, props, or anything besides the sounds you weave together to make a story. Everyone has the same point of entry, the same experience, and it becomes a shared, collaborative endeavor. It allows for eye contact, knowing glances, nuanced facial expressions from me and the audience alike, and perhaps most importantly in this context, total freedom: We are creating this together.
And creating something big, messy, and entirely authentic with a group of kids, well—that's the best part of teaching.
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