I teach the children’s literature classes at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. One of my assignments is for each student to learn and tell a folktale. We study traditional literature such as nursery rhymes, fables, mythology, and the various categories of folktales, including trickster tales, animal stories, numbskull tales, pourquoi stories, and tall tales. The two main characteristics of folktales I teach them are 1) that the original author is unknown, and 2) the stories were originally passed orally from generation to generation. My students are required to pick a folktale for their story choice because of this oral transmission characteristic; these stories were shaped to be told.
Storytelling is a first-time experience for most of these future teachers and librarians. Learning to tell a folktale is a good introduction to the craft of storytelling.
I model storytelling for them. I tell them versions of “The Squeaky Door,” “Sody Sallyratus,” “The Enormous Turnip,” and “The Woman Who Flummoxed the Fairies.” I show them videos of other storytellers. We go over the selection process. I introduce the students to Twenty Tellable Tales by Margaret Read MacDonald, The Story Vine by Anne Pellowski, and picture book adaptations such as How Chipmunk Got His Stripes retold by Joseph and James Bruchac and Just a Minute retold by Yuyi Morales. I also share folklore books by Eric Kimmel, Judy Sierra, I.B. Singer, and our blog host Lise Lunge-Larsen.
The students receive a list of folktales they cannot choose for this assignment, well-known stories such as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” or “The Three Pigs.” Many students can already tell a passable on-the-spot version of these stories without much preparation, so I send them to the 398 section of the library to find a tale new to them.
We go over how to prepare/practice their story, and the actual presentation itself. We divide into small groups and share the stories. They will learn that by focusing on folklore to begin with, storytelling is a wonderful way to share diversity in the classroom, the library, and the home. A good way to learn about another culture is to share their literary heritage.
In the end, I acknowledge that some of my students will do this assignment and decide storytelling is not their thing. For others, however, they will include storytelling in their arsenal of ways to make literature come alive for young people, along with reader’s theater, choral reading, creative dramatics, and reading aloud. They may eventually add modern stories to their repertoire, but I firmly believe that sharing a wonderful folktale is a strong start to learning the art of storytelling.
For your own storytelling and practice:
Rob Reid is a senior lecturer for the Foundations of Education Department at the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire. His specialties are children’s literature, literature for adolescents, and storytelling. Among Rob’s nine books are his latest, Silly Stories to Read Aloud and What’s Black and White and Reid All Over?. He is a regular columnist for several magazines, including Book Links and LibrarySparks. His blog, Heart of a Child, appears regularly on the Children’s Literature Network website. Rob served on the 2006 Newbery Award Committee and was named as the Wisconsin Library Association’s Librarian of the Year. Rob travels the country visiting schools and libraries as a children’s humorist and speaks to library school professionals about children’s programming.