Storytelling, for Empathetic and Cooperative Listening

Storytelling, for Empathetic and Cooperative Listening

By: Deepa Kiran

Would you like to listen to a story?” It is quite unlikely that any teacher would have to hear “no” for an answer.

In 2000, I began to experiment with oral storytelling in the English language classroom. Also by 2008, I had begun storytelling professionally and from 2011 training teachers in employing storytelling as a pedagogical tool for English Language Teaching. My journey with tours, performances, talks, and conducting workshops, across India and around the world, with over 75,000 teachers and 300,000 children has brought many insights with respect to the employment of this tool. People have an inherent love for storytelling, which can be cleverly milked by us teachers for the purposes of learning. Here I would like to highlight one aspect which is easy to miss: Storytelling and listening go hand in hand. When I say “listening,” however, I am not referring to merely the listening done by the student, but to the listening done by the teacher. Let us look at how this happens.

2012, Vishakapatnam, India. Padmapriya, from grade 2 was known to be super quiet; a child who’d just about manage to mumble her name. After listening to a story from the teacher, she was so excited that she forgot all her shyness and in fact, talked nineteen to the dozen about the story, the characters, the dialogues, and so on and so forth. Her teachers were shocked. Let’s try and understand what happened. The teacher had drawn out Padmapriya through the story and had encouraged and invited the girl to open up by becoming the listener. Let’s explore:

Here Is a Story You Could Tell

Yes! Come on! Faster!” shouted the animals of the jungle as they watched a unique race. It was a race of frogs up the vertical walls of a castle. A very strange race indeed it was. The frogs had decided to race up the walls of a castle which was as high as a hill. All the animals came to watch and cheer. Hundreds of frogs took part but they all gave up very soon.

Pichak! Tupuk! The frogs fell off the slippery wall. Soon there were only three left. These three kept climbing on and on, higher and higher. The animals below began to worry about the frogs now. “Hmmm…what if the frogs have a bad fall and hurt themselves?” they thought. So, instead of cheering and encouraging them, the animals began to shout, “Stop! Come back! It’s not safe! Return now!”

These shouts soon reached the three climbing frogs. Two of them stopped in their tracks. They decided to return and very carefully came back to the ground safe and sound The third frog however kept going. Forget returning, this frog didn’t even stop for a moment. On and on he went, climbing higher and higher. There was absolute silence below as everyone watched with bated breath.

The crow flew up, tried to warn him but it was too late. The frog had reached the top of the castle! “Hurrah!” everyone cheered and clapped below. The victorious frog sat there on the top of the castle. The excited crow asked, “Congratulations frog, but first tell me, what gave you the courage to continue even when so many animals were discouraging you?”

And what do you think was the winning frog’s answer? The frog looked up at the crow, confused, and said “Eh?”

You see the frog was deaf and so hadn’t heard a thing!

Tips for Telling the Story:

  1. Make the cheering sounds of the other animals in a high pitched and loud voice.
  2. Dramatize the lonely frog as anxious yet moving on upwards.
  3. Add in a small song, like a boat race folk song to enliven the telling.
  4. Imitate the silent anxious animals staring up at the dangerous scene above them.
  5. Insert questions such as, “Can you name some animals who were watching the race?”
  6. For children below ten, start the story by explaining the race first.
  7. Put in a very long pause before the last sentence.

Benefits for the Child as Listener:

Have you noticed the face of a child as he/she listens to a story? The story is imagined and created in the mind of the listener, and these emotions are triggered:

  1. Visual imagery – The children creatively visualize the story in their mind
  2. Memories – They end up remembering similar episodes from their life
  3. Curiosity – Their curiosity is aroused about what is going to happen next in the story. The children also become curious to know the meaning of new words that they might have bumped into.
  4. Concept – They could gain understanding of a topic/theme
  5. Emotions of the character (joy, sorrow, anger) – As the children listen, they vicariously experience these emotions. They empathize with the emotions of the characters and other emotions that the situation generates
  6. Trust – Thus, the storyteller-teacher takes the children on a creative, emotional journey and brings them back happy and safe. A bond of trust is nurtured between teacher and child. This bond makes the children feel safe. It encourages them to open up and communicate their feelings and thoughts.

We can therefore agree that listening to the oral telling of a story catalyzes a spectrum of experiences in the child. From here we shall move to the main theme of this article—the importance of the teacher becoming the listener. It becomes our responsibility (the teacher’s) to make sure the child feels confident to share what is going on in his/her head and heart.

Therefore, by telling stories in the classroom, we, as teachers, are building a safe and encouraging space for the children to open up. And we can benefit from this more post-storytelling.

Benefits for the Teacher as Listener:

For the story above, you might use this follow-up:

Ask questions like…

Did you enjoy this story? What did you like the most in the story? What did you not like?

Rather than questions about the details, such as “What kind of building was it?” Comprehension-based, closed-ended questions might simply kill the joy and confidence of the child. Open-ended questions asked post-listening, on the other hand, make room for creativity. They excite the child and melt inhibitions. They create legroom for responses which are beyond right and wrong. They provide an opportunity for even the quiet child to get excited about communicating.

Post-storytelling is when the iron is hot and the teacher can strike. And how does she strike? BY LISTENING! Right after storytelling is a very good time for the teacher to switch to listening mode.

After listening to a story, children are in a highly creative space. They have, after all, just created the entire story in their minds! They have imagined, experienced, critically thought about, remembered, and even learnt it. Their responses at this time are bound to be full of creative energy and uninhibited, joyful sharing.

It really is “Listening Time” now for the teacher. You have done your job. The story has done its magic. It is time to patiently and gently hear out the children. Encourage them to speak up and quietly observe as even the shy ones also begin to respond.

In fact, you might even consider a silent pause. Magic can happen on its own then. Let’s listen without interrupting and without correcting. This is a beautiful and powerful way to acknowledge the child. Remember that whatever they share is indicative of listening comprehension.

Let’s look at this act more deeply. Through this apparently simple activity, we, the teachers, can offer unconditional love to our listeners. There are no right or wrong answers. There is no better or brighter reply. The act of storytelling and listening builds a strong bond between the teller and the listener. And by listening we are conveying to the learner, “To me…you matter; your voice matters.”

Let us listen with the intent of “taking each child with us,” not only the brighter and more articulate ones. Sometimes we might have to wait for the child who takes time to speak, the one who might need a little help with stringing words or thoughts together, the one who makes errors in language or cognition. Let us prioritize fluency over accuracy when we listen. Let’s listen to all forms of communication: verbal responses (spoken/written) as well as non-verbal responses (art-and-craft/ drama/song/dance).

"Storytelling is never just one way. "
Deepa Kiran
TT Author

This special bond and the creative energies generated post-storytelling hold immense potential for learning. As teachers in the classroom, we can leverage these in many interesting ways and connect with our children, build their confidence and nurture them.

Having come this far, I trust you are with me that sharing stories orally in the classroom can be a magical tool for listening to the child. Storytelling is never just one way. So, let us listen with our ears, eyes, with open-minds and open-hearts, with the whole of ourselves. It is an act of love.

Deepa Kiran is founder of the Story Arts Foundation, storyteller, educationalist, and TEDx speaker working across the world. Inspired by oral traditions of India, she weaves music, chants, and movement into her telling. Her programs focus on teaching of the English language in multi-lingual classrooms. She is a  national award recipient: “Best E-Content’ ”for teacher-training videos.

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