The Power of Story

by | May 31, 2020 | Inspirations

The power of story is in the words and silences.

‘Once upon a time,’ the storyteller begins. Words – four words – capture attention and frame the listeners’ expectations. These few words, cast like a fishing line onto a still blue lake, are spoken with intent and power to shape the listeners’ thoughts and feelings. The storyteller pauses. There is silence.  Storyteller and listener turn their gaze together toward the finely split surface of the lake where lure and line have landed, expectant and curious to discover what will emerge.

Storytellers and story hearers alike know that both words and silences are essential to the meaning and power of stories. Well-considered words lure listeners into thinking differently. Well-positioned pauses give listeners time to feel and recognize truths that live below the surface of our everyday expressions of being human.

‘Story Power: Growing Resilient Children’ is an e-course for parents and educators designed to give us an opportunity to contemplate what we believe, assume and value about our children. It’s a course that offers us the chance to consider how we view children, and what we hope and want for our children now and in the future.

As a child I loved listening to stories. Every night my mother sat on the floor beside my bed, my older sister snuggled in beside her, me perched on top of the bed where I could see the book my mother held in her hands. Though we sometimes borrowed picture books from our local library, most of our bedtime stories were chosen from a collection of fairy tales, classics, and poetry that had been published into three volumes of children’s read-alouds. All the illustrations in that collection were pen and ink sketches. As I listened to the rise and fall of my mother’s words and silences as she read out loud, my imagination filled those sketches with colours and details the artist had never rendered.

The joy of listening to these stories with my family each night; of being able to carry the struggles of characters into my dreams and into my thinking and play the next day has been one of the most enduring memories of my childhood.

So, of course, story sharing became a part of my parenting routines with my own three children too. Each of my children had unique interests in stories. My eldest loved stories filled with science, fantasy and mystery. My middle child loved books he could physically interact with, books about how things worked. He also loved, loved, loved storylines that made him laugh. My youngest child longed for stories of the heart with characters, especially female characters, who struggled and discovered ways of being true to themselves.

Yet, though they loved hearing stories, the process of learning to read was not so joyous. Before going to school for the first time, my eldest child Justin had been steeped in stories and information books that explored big ideas. We talked about pictures and thoughts in books we read together. Justin had a million questions about everything he encountered in his toddler and preschool years. We searched for books at the library or bookstore that would help him pursue his curiosity. We talked about what we knew and didn’t know. Justin had a voracious appetite to learn.

When he started school, though, Justin resisted his teacher’s efforts to help him become a reader. Every night the teacher would send home a beginning reader with a few words on each illustrated page. Justin was expected to read these short readers and check off that he had completed the task. My job, as a parent, was to ensure Justin read these books each night and, if he got stuck on a word, to help him sound it out. This seemingly simple task for both of us was like getting our fishing hook stuck on a log at the bottom of a muddy lake. Justin, who adored stories, books, and learning, hated this nightly requirement. Soon I did too.

As an early learning educator, I tried every playful strategy I knew to help him recognize alphabet letters, hear the sounds in words, understand letter-sound connections, and develop sight word vocabulary. We transformed blank index cards into playing cards with upper and lower-case alphabet letters so that we could play ‘Go Fish’ and ‘Concentration’. We rolled brightly coloured playdough into snake-like cylinders that we could spiral or cut into letters that spelled his name or mine. We drew shapes around words I printed on pieces of paper and turned those shapes into pictures that showed the meaning of the word. We would draw, for example, an oval shape around the three letters that spelled ‘car’. Then we would take turns adding the features a car needed. We drew in wheels, headlights, steering wheel, and even Justin as the driver waiting to get inside his car and zoom away. We made up silly rhyming songs and tongue twisters to focus on the ending and beginning sounds of words. While waiting for appointments in the doctor’s office we played eye-spy games looking for the letters linked to the oral sounds we liked. (Justin knew that the first sound in my name was a particular favourite of mine.) As Justin hung off the back of our grocery cart, we played word matching games, looking for matches between the words on my grocery list and food labels we discovered throughout the store. Justin liked the games, but he still hated his reading homework. By grade two, I could see Justin was not reaching the reading outcomes expected by his teacher and the school curriculum. As a mom and educator, I worried. I felt helpless.

And then, one day, I brought home a newly published book that had been written for budding readers but also crafted with mystery, suspense and adventure. I did a short pitch to Justin about the story’s main characters who had discovered that their tree house could magically transport them to different places and times. I expressed my curiosity about whether he thought the popularity of the book was warranted.  And then I handed him the book. Justin turned the book in his hands, examining the book jacket and fingering some of its pages. Then he took it to the couch, laid down on his back and opened the book to the first page. After a very long time, Justin closed the book and got up from the couch, his eyes alive with excitement. Immediately he launched into telling me about the story characters, the amazing tree house, where they traveled to and how, in the end, they were able to arrive back home to their tree house in the nick of time. Justin had read the entire book!  Could he get the next book in the series please?

This experience with Justin taught me something new about the power of stories – stories that will never be published or part of any reading list. It taught me that tuning into the stories that children express through their words and silences has extraordinary power. In Justin’s pushback against reading those beginning readers he was telling me that he didn’t want to lose the pleasure of finding rich, intriguing ideas inside the covers of books. In his silences he was telling me that putting a checkmark beside his reading homework list each night was in no way connected to his goals or to his meaning-making.

Justin had been absorbing all kinds of knowledge about language and literacy at home and at school from birth onwards. But when it came to reading instruction, his teachers and I had focused squarely on what we thought we needed to tell Justin about reading and on how we could measure his reading abilities using leveled readers and checklists. It hadn’t occurred to us to listen to what Justin knew about reading.

At a very young age, Justin had divined that the purpose of reading and writing, and the very existence for books and print, was to share and remember meaningful information and ideas with others. The simplistic stories in the leveled readers did not captivate Justin’s thinking or imagination. For Justin, these books were busy work that held no meaning, purpose or value. If Justin’s teachers and I had been listening to Justin more carefully, we would have heard him tell us, that to support his reading and writing skills, we needed to first capture his imagination, his sense of wonder and his need to discover ideas meaningful to him.

Listening for children’s stories, their thoughts, wonderings, and meaning making isn’t specific to literacy. We empower children whenever we hear, see and value their words and silences. By listening for children’s ideas, we empower them to know how to think for themselves and to see problems as puzzles they can tackle. By valuing their wonderings about the world, we empower them to relate to the world in unique and creative ways. By listening for their frustrations and joys, we empower children with the knowledge of what it feels like to be understood and to internalize respect and empathy for others. By listening for children’s inborn fascination with nature, we empower them to deepen their relationship with the only place we know of as home – our planet.

As an adult, holding back from telling so that I can listen is not something that comes naturally or easily to me. How do I authentically listen to children’s curiosities? Can I really share my power of storytelling with children, enabling them to teach and inspire me?

As a parent and educator, I am trying to deepen my understanding of what it means to listen with respect and insight to children’s stories – the stories they tell from infancy onwards through their words, sounds, tone of voice, and through their silent pauses, facial expressions, gestures and body language. I am trying to recognize how my parenting and teaching can be more like an equitable conversation in which we in turn, speak, listen, and grow in our understanding of the world by learning from and with each other.

Learning how to parent and teach are journeys that have no final destination. Yet the intentions and awareness we bring to our living and working with young children has incredible influence.

‘Story Power: Growing Resilient Children’ is an e-course for parents and educators designed to give us an opportunity to contemplate what we believe, assume and value about our children. It’s a course that offers us the chance to consider how we view children, and what we hope and want for our children now and in the future.

Story Power: Growing Resilient Children emerged from my desire to nurture qualities in children that help them experience and internalize resilience. Recognizing and growing children’s intelligence, creativity, and empathy are essential to helping children face challenges in the present and future with resilience.

The power of story is found in words and silences; in speaking and listening with care and intent; in learning with and from our children.

I invite you to test the waters and join me in this e-course; to enter into the power of story in which ‘both storyteller and listener turn their gaze toward the finely split surface of the lake where lure and line have landed, expectant and curious to discover what will emerge.