It is lunchtime and there are two empty seats at the table. Everybody knows that Trinity and Amanda are best friends, so the two seats have been left for them. But neither Trinity nor Amanda wants to come to the table. They had gotten in an argument and told each other that they never wanted to be friends again. Now, with the only two seats remaining being next to each other, they refuse to come.
I approach them and bring them together away from the table and place myself between them. I tell them a story from my childhood. It is a story of when I was a child and I had an argument with my best friend, and we said we would never be friends again. I tell them how I had gone home that day and cried, but the next day we were playing together again, and even today I still am friends with him on facebook. I tell them I can sit between them at lunchtime to help them while they are arguing, but that I think they will be friends again. They don’t believe me, but join me at the table. Sure enough, that afternoon they were inseparable once again.
Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse say that “Stories can cross the borders of time and place better than many other experiences because they connect children and adults to each other through the sharing of universal feelings and experiences” (Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse 2008, p. 7). In this situation, Trinity and Amanda were having difficulties with conflicting feelings. They had been close friends all year, but recently Amanda had gone away for an extended time, and ever since her return they were having more arguments and their friendship appeared to be suffering. But my story helped bring them closer together by helping them to realize that they can come back together after an argument.
Many people equate the word “story” in a classroom with the word “book”. When I talk about telling a story to a child in my class, people often assume I am referring to reading a book. But stories are both much deeper and more diverse than that. As this example reveals, told stories can also play a very powerful role in the classroom. Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse tell us that “told stories can extend linguistic learning that happens through natural conversations and language play” (Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse 2008, p. 74).
In my bilingual classroom, linguistic learning is very important. While I read books in both languages, my told stories for a long time were only in English. I recall the moment I realized that I needed to start creating told stories in Spanish. In my classroom we had these Story Starters in a Jar, published by a company called Free Spirit Publishing. They contain a short phrase with an ellipsis in a thought bubble to help trigger the imagination. Several children enjoyed using the Story Starters to tell their own stories. When I noticed that they were all in English, I contacted Free Spirit Publishing to see if they had a Spanish version available. They did not, and also informed me that they had no intention of publishing a Spanish version. They gave me permission to translate them myself for my classroom.
A short time after adding the Spanish version to my classroom, Brandon told me he wanted to do one of the Story Starters in a Jar. I decided to try out the Spanish ones with him. As I read it to him, he stared at me blankly. I read it to him again and he stared at me blankly again. After repeating this several times, I asked him if he was going to finish the story and he told me, “You know what, I change my mind. I don’t want to do this.” I then offered to make up a story myself based on the story starter, and he sat and listened to my story in Spanish.
However, I discovered I had difficulty creating a story in Spanish. I realized that I needed to tell stories in Spanish more often. Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse say that “Children with little or no knowledge of English will generally enjoy the same stories as children who are native English speakers, provided that you are expressive and use props when you share them” (Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse 2008, p. 83). I quickly discovered that the same is true for English speakers when telling stories in Spanish.
One day shortly thereafter I told a story in Spanish at lunchtime. It was a story about a rabbit going for a walk in the grass and coming across a dog. The rabbit ran home to its mother who kept it safe. Later that day Amanda created the following story:
One day there was a little cat. And then she saw a rat. And then when the rat saw the cat it ran away into the forest, because that’s where its home was. But it didn’t know the path home. And then the little mouse found a tree. It found its home. And then the cat found another rat.
She replaced the rabbit with a rat/mouse, and the dog with a cat. Otherwise, a great deal of this story follows the structure of the story I had told at lunchtime.
As I considered Amanda and Trinity’s relationship, I thought about this story of Amanda’s and what it revealed about the nature of dangers outside of the home. Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse reveal that “Stories weave bright threads of communication and connection through all human relationships” (Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse 2008, p. 116). Amanda connected with my story and retold it in her own way because it was one that strengthened our relationship by speaking to her concerns of the time, namely her fears of not connecting with others away from home; her fears that her teachers and peers at school will be more like the cat than like another rat or mouse.
Trinity was exploring similar fears around this time, and she created the following story:
Me and My Amigos
Once upon a time there was a little girl. And her name was [Amanda]. And there was another girl named [Trinity]. And there was a boy named [Seth]. And then there was a little girl named [Bridget]. And they were doing a story. And they were doing outside. And there was a big storm. And then the storm made me so powerful that it made me mean. And then there was the sun.
For Trinity, her story expressed a great desire for friends, and she added many peers as characters to be her friends in her story. However, she realized that friendship can be like the weather. It can go from sunny to stormy in an instant. And when that storm approaches, she herself can become mean. But she also realized that it can go the other direction and the sun can come back just as suddenly.
Not long after the lunchtime incident where Amanda and Trinity refused to come to the table, they got into another argument. My personal story had served its purpose that day, but it was a temporary solution, and now once again they didn’t want to be near each other. Birckmayer, Kennedy / Stonehouse tell us that “when we listen to their stories, we model attentiveness and reinforce children’s willingness to listen carefully when others share stories with them” (Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse 2008, p. 15). I decided this time to demonstrate such attentiveness to one of Trinity’s own stories and use it as an example rather than one of my own. I pulled out my computer and read her story from long before, “Me and My Amigos.” I told her what I had noticed about friendships being like the weather. She instantly showed that she recognized this analogy when she said, “Me and [Amanda] are having a storm right now.”
They came together to act out one of Amanda’s stories as well, and the next day, when they got into an argument once more, they immediately resolved it without my intervention. Through stories, they were able to come together and find their friendship once again, demonstrating how “the gift of stories can greatly improve any early childhood program” (Birckmayer, Kennedy & Stonehouse 2008, p. 113).
Next month I will most likely be discussing the book Including One, Including All by Leslie Roffman and Todd Wanerman. If there is a book you would like to see me discuss in this blog, please comment on the Recommended Reading page.
Birckmayer, J., A. Kennedy, & A. Stonehouse. (2008). From lullabies to literature: Stories in the lives of infants and toddlers. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
Roffman, L. & T. Wanerman. (2011). Including one, including all: A guide to relationship-based early childhood education. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.