When Janet Raskin walked into her Drama Appreciation class in the Foreign Language College of Shenyang Normal University in Shenyang, China, she was greeted by about 30 graduate students, all studying to be English language educators, not stage performers. But Raskin, an English Language Fellow in Shenyang (2011-2012), wanted to help her students communicate more freely in English, as well as master teaching methodology, so she received permission from the university to add this drama course to her teaching roster. She thought back to her years as a graduate student in performance studies and how the lessons learned there could benefit her students in their English language learning.
Raskin decided the best way to get her students to open up in the class would be to have them tell their personal stories in a performance piece that involved the entire class. And what better model for storytelling than Thornton Wilder’s classic American play “Our Town,” with its archetypal vignettes of everyday life in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Granted, Grover’s Corners is no Shenyang, population 8 million-plus, but she knew the students would connect to the play’s universal scenes – conversations between parents and children, first love, a wedding, a funeral. “I wanted them to become the storytellers of their lives in their hometown in 2012,” says Raskin. The result: “Our Town Shenyang,” written and performed by the Drama Appreciation students of Shenyang Normal.
“We’re primed to hear stories from the time we’re little. Stories entertain us, connect us to one another, and help us better understand our place in the world,” says Raskin. “And in the English language classroom, they work on many other levels – developing language skills, self-awareness, and confidence, as well as creating a unifying thread that bridges barriers as well as cultural differences.”
The ancient art of storytelling is having its moment in the English language classroom. From reinforcing grammar points to understanding the world, from learning vocabulary to sharing ideas, storytelling is increasingly working its way into English language programs, syllabi, and textbooks. “Storytelling is at the heart of effective communication,” says Richard Silberg, a Fellow (2015-2017) and Specialist (2019) in Cambodia, and a Specialist in East Timor (2020). “If we ascribe to a communicative-based language pedagogy, then logic tells us that storytelling needs to be at the heart of our curriculum.”
For his assignment in Cambodia, Silberg, a long-time drama and English language teacher, drew from an abundance of storytelling activities he has developed over the years. To put students at ease, he would typically start each class with a storytelling “freeze tag” activity. When the tagged student froze in place, the tagger would have to answer a question posed by Silberg: Who is this person? What do you think happened before this moment? What will happen after? As the activity progressed, more complex stories emerged as well as new vocabulary words and phrases that Silberg would review with students at the end of class. “While new language was generating, we also built a community of storytellers,” says Silberg.
During this and other storytelling activities in his classes, students put all the tools of communication into play, including intonation, tone, rhythm, stress, and gestures – what Silberg calls “the hidden gems of using storytelling.” And because students were engaged and having fun, each class became “a unique environment where magic could happen,” Silberg notes.
That magic can also happen when the storytelling takes on more serious tones. As a Fellow in Jerusalem (2019-2020), Joe Voigts helped facilitate a workshop, “Humanizing the Other,” whose participants included Israeli Jews, Muslims, and Christians. The goal of the day-long workshop, hosted by David Yellin College of Education, was simple and profound: through storytelling, address the tension among Israel’s diverse populations. Participants were assigned several tasks. First, they read and discussed Shirley Jackson’s short story “After You, My Dear Alphonse,” which explores racial prejudice in the United States. Then, the approximately 30 participants, placed in mixed groups, were asked to write a short fiction story that explored racism in Israel. Finally, the groups performed their stories for workshop participants.
According to Voigts, by writing and telling their stories, participants were able to control the narrative of Israel’s internal conflict from a safe vantage point. “The idea was to help participants empathize with one another and share the burden of racism in Israel by developing stories together.” That is not to say the workshop was without tension. Discussions became heated and tempers flared, yet participants persevered. In the end, they were able to “share ownership of the direction of the conflict and change its trajectory, perhaps even find a resolution they couldn’t find in real life,” says Voigts.
Storytelling can also have personal resonance for an educator. Karen Jury, a Fellow and Specialist in Thailand (2013-2015) had always considered herself an introvert. As an ESL instructor in primary and secondary schools, she would listen to the stories of the students and marvel at their ability to speak so openly about their experiences and feelings but never reciprocate with stories of her own. “I saw my students’ funds of knowledge as valuable assets in the classroom, but I didn’t grow up with oral traditions and am not a natural storyteller. I perceived telling my story as self-centered.”
All that changed during her fellowship with the Lower Mekong Initiative Project (LMI) when she was asked to work with Customs Department employees in Vietnam. Upon arriving in Hanoi, Jury was struck by the contrast between lush, tropical Bangkok and grey, rainy Hanoi. She expected the dreariness to cross over to the week-long seminar she was to teach to mid-level government officials.
Her fears were unfounded and soon Jury had a story of her own to tell. On the first day of class, the students not only warmly welcomed her, they were engaging and funny. At lunch each day, the entire class invited her to eat with them at a nearby restaurant. Jury, who assumed she would have solitary meals at a university cafeteria, was stunned. “A group of strangers invited me into their close, intimate circle,” she recalls. “I felt more connected than I’d ever been before.” The rest of the week was a whirlwind of activities with her students – tours of Hanoi, quick stops at local eateries, visits to students’ homes – and now Jury had a treasure trove of stories to share.
Vietnam was indeed a game changer for Jury, transforming her into a storyteller. She realized that she had meaningful tales to tell, particularly ones that centered on her experiences during her fellowship. For example, there was the Bangkok hotel that, despite the word mansion in its name, was “anything but.” Another story involved a motorbike ride in Hanoi, taking a sick student to a doctor. And then there was an incident at the border crossing between Thailand and Burma.
Not only did her stories abound, they also changed her identity as a teacher. “Storytelling is best enacted as a two-way street,” she says. “It’s all well and good to extract your learners’ stories but if you’re giving nothing in return, that’s a poor contract. We all have stories to tell, and they all matter.”