In the Presence of Each Other

In the Presence of Each Other; A Pedagogy of Storytelling by Johanna Kuyvenhoven, PhD . University of Toronto Press 2009

Many – perhaps most – teachers tell stories in their classrooms: casual stories, tiny anecdotes, formal storytelling occasions, and many other variations of oral storytelling appear in classrooms all over the world. In Dr. Johanna Kuyvenhoven's book In the Presence of Each Other A Pedagogy of Storytelling a way of teaching intentionally based in storytelling as a teaching methodology is explored, articulated, supported, and validated.

A well-researched, lucid, and gratifying book to read, In the Presence of Each Other presents a clear and compelling argument for the conscious and deliberate use of oral storytelling in the classroom. Kuyvenhoven spent five months in the classroom of Vancouver Grade 5 teacher Linda Stender closely observing and recording all types and circumstances of storytelling. From what Stender calls "skinny" stories (the kind of impromptu brief account a student - or anyone - might offer of an incident or event), to stories told with a particular didactic purpose in mind, to the deep experience of interacting with a story as a separate planned event, persuasive examples and clear rationales are presented for using story to create both a learning environment and a learning community.

In Chapter 1, the writer introduces herself and her relationship to and interest in stories, storytelling, and the unique, complex experience that an oral storytelling event provides. We learn why and how stories are valuable and powerful, and why they are especially significant to the relationships and community that form the real learning circumstances of a classroom.

The concept that all learning happens in relationship is now widely accepted. The idea has been refined by Dr. James Comer to be even more specific: "No significant learning happens without a significant relationship." In Kuyvenhoven's research, it is clear that storytelling as a pedagogy, besides presenting learning opportunities within the story itself, also creates these significant relationships which foster learning.

Subsequent chapters introduce us to Stender, her classroom, its wider community, and different types of storytelling and their place in the continuum of learning, and then explore how these are woven into a single pedagogy with a unified purpose. Included is a thorough study of imagination: what it is, how it works, why it is important, why and how it is useful, as well as how children appreciate and articulate its value and uses. The benefits to all areas of curriculum of using storytelling are demonstrated, as well as storytelling’s relevance to that overarching goal of education: to equip children to live in, creatively cope with, and contribute to the world in which they live. The book concludes with a how-to chapter for new storytellers, followed by appendices that include Stender’s classroom layout, photographs, quantified data, books cited, and an excellent resource list.

Kuyvenhoven observes with great sensitivity the needs, actions, reactions, noises, repressions, suppressions, rules, and breaches of rules that collectively create, destroy, and re-create the classroom culture. With an engaging and vivid writing style she draws the reader into both a detailed knowledge of and sympathy for the circumstances of her study. The classroom comes alive, and storytelling permeates all levels of learning.

"The pedagogy of storytelling … is embedded in the medium of experience and memory. It depends utterly on human relationships held together by storytelling. A story's meaning is not merely elaborated in the presence of others; it is made in that presence …The sounds of words, the light of eyes, and the hook of a story drew them (the students) in to a learning event with its own rich trove of knowledge and empowering abilities." (p65)

For anyone interested in education, anyone interested in storytelling and the power it contains, this book is a fascinating and informative read. For teachers who might wish to shift their style of teaching to include more oral storytelling on many levels, as well as those teachers who are interested in transforming their teaching practice into a storytelling pedagogy, this book is an indispensible guide to the use of storytelling in the classroom, and the riches to be reaped from it.

After our introduction to the study and why it was undertaken, Chapter 2 introduces Linda Stender, in whose classroom we dwell for the balance of the book, and who says, "Storytelling is an inescapably human activity." (p21) Kuyvenhoven notes that "Linda knew the nourishing capacity of storytelling within teaching". (p23)

While making it clear that this exploration does not pass judgement on other teaching methods, this second chapter expresses the "why" of using storytelling – the reasons for it, what it really means, why it is important – and lists the clear benefits in children’s learning. An interesting outcome of which not all teachers are aware (but should be) is that storytelling made children want to read books. (p23) Perhaps even more significant than the direct correlations to and influences upon the defined curriculum is the profound opportunity that stories create for children to encounter and to process issues that are intrinsic to learning how to live: "…storytelling helped children explore values and ethics in issues or events discussed."

Chapter 2 also introduces (p26) the quest for "what is happening during storytelling" as Kuyvenhoven and Stender seek to discern the underlying and supportive structure, and express excitement over the project and what might be discovered.

In Chapter 3 we learn a bit more about the classroom in which the study takes place. There are the sounds of neighbourhood, of traffic on the road and the river, and industry. These factors make up a shared knowledge that the children hold in common, despite the significant differences among the students in the classroom. English, though not the first language of the majority of the children, is the only language common to the whole class. The neighbourhood is not an established population, but rather fluid, meaning that there is little shared history or even established points of reference among the students. Kuyvenhoven describes how she integrated herself into the classroom and made her observations. Her intention was to be as un-teacher-like in her persona and as unobtrusive in the life of the classroom as possible.

By Chapter 4 we are learning about the life and the liveliness of a group of 10 and 11-year-olds. We get a feel for the ebb and flow of daily activities, schedules, interactions, and minor drama of the classroom. Kuyvenhoven also ponders some of the differences between reading or being read to, and oral storytelling. She observes that "Print is not the same thing as presence – storytelling depends on presence." (p43) She further comments on the contrasts with reading thus: "(in reading) students must be able to enter into silent interactions with absent writers and into silent conversation with print, not people." (p44) She concludes by defining "storytelling as intersection of life with school presence."

Chapter 5 discusses the variety of types of storytelling observed in the study. The author describes how she worked to organize and make meaning of all the various storytelling incidents and circumstances in her study, and the necessity to discard the usual categories, frameworks and views. Kuyvenhoven observes that: "I realized that part of what I knew about storytelling depended on having been there." (p46) She notes that "…storytelling created a break in the stream of talk and action," (p47) and that "Only by making personal connections do we actually engage with the story." (p49) She speaks of taking up "story-language," and observes that, over time, "The flexible language of story continues to yield new or deeper meanings." She further comments that "Teachers help students plumb their own memories for experiences and linkages that give the story meaningful resonance." (p49) Almost immediately Kuyvenhoven also asserts: "Children's unrestrained, intensive use of story language is the ground on which linguistic abilities are developed," (p50), pointing to authors of children’s literature as examples of how this works. This is proven over and over as the study unfolds.

In Chapter 6 Kuyvenhoven defines and elaborates on the various situations, styles, and awareness levels of storytelling, giving three main classifications, described as concentric circles in which the outer circle has greatest awareness of self and others, and moving inward to an impermeable state:

Talking with stories: the listener is aware of self among others; the event is social and interactive; there is awareness in the listeners of one another.

Thinking with stories: this enhances learning; it is used to illustrate a point, give a concrete model for an abstract idea, make a context, or give a place to revisit which can be of use for further learning. The listener is less aware of other listeners and very attentive to teller. There is mindful interaction with story.

Imaginating with stories (this new word is the invention of one of the children): listeners give themselves up to the experience of a longer story, framed as an intentional event consciously separate from other activities. This is a clearly defined occasion, "an intense activity of deep imaginative engagement" with the story world. (p53) There is less awareness of self, others, or storyteller; the engagement is with the story and the world in which it exists.

"Together," Kuyvenhoven relates, "they (the three ways) create a pedagogy of storytelling that spans three ways of listening, telling, and being with a story out loud." (p53) Kuyvenhoven also makes a minute analysis of postures, eyes, focus, activity, and attention of the audience. The author has observed, recorded, interpreted, and drawn conclusions that are indisputable. We can learn the meaning of this from her description of one boy who was a restless listener at first, but progressed to a state in which "He was thoroughly absorbed by his experience inside the storyworld. He was inside the story experience, deeply lodged in a space beyond the room we shared." (p56)

Chapter 7, entitled "Three participations, one pedagogy" demonstrates how these very different levels and styles of storytelling experiences weave together to create an integrated teaching and learning climate which supports creative thinking, critical thinking, literacy, social awareness, and a probing of ethical questions in a safe and nurturing environment. The planned and sustained storytelling events, in which the teacher presents a story quite distinctly separate from the rest of the day create "a kind of bubble in the midst of other activity." (p60) The human connection of oral storytelling and the medium of presence merge the three storytelling levels into an integrated whole.

Chapter 8 discusses the concept of Talking with Stories. We learn about the class meetings that occur regularly in Stender’s classroom, and how she uses these occasions to nurture the children’s ability to speak, their understanding of one another, and their sense of belonging together. We also come to understand all the small ways in which children's own spontaneous recounting of events, and even jokes and riddles are all storytelling moments which help to connect the students and create a shared body of oral experience in which they can experiment and from which they can grow together. "Linda assigned roles (in the class meeting) in such a way that almost every student in the classroom contributed to at least one meeting a week." (p69)

Though it is widely understood that oral fluency is crucial to reading fluency, Kuyvenhoven regrets the lack of available literature to guide oral language instruction. She describes "talking with stories" as "language exercise." It is clear that this is different from – and far more meaningful and durable than – the language callisthenics used for the study of grammar, spelling and vocabulary, especially for students for whom English is not their first language. She recounts the circumstance of a child retelling a story during which he sought in his memory the exact word needed to describe a moment in the narrative: "…if he'd been prescribed a hundred vocabulary worksheets and dictionary drills he would never have come to appreciate the power and delight of finding just the right word.…(he) was able not just to tell the meaning of the word but to use it in context. This again speaks to the importance of storytelling as a tool to enrich vocabulary." (p79)

The author notes that the multi-ethnic makeup of this particular class connected to a wide variety of stories, and cites a number of sources referencing other works concerning the importance of verbal ability to the development of the skills of reading. She goes on to note that "Conversation with stories created strong engagement and motivation for further studies." (p88) From a diversity of backgrounds and not much more than age and place to draw them together, storytelling among and with and to the students helped to create a community in which to learn: "developed vocabulary, expressiveness and knowledge. But it also wove a sturdy social fabric that supported learning together." (p85)

In Chapter 9 we have an opportunity to delve deep in to the new term "imaginating." This freshly minted word goes beyond the usual concept of imagination, which can be consciously engaged to do our will, to a letting go, a freeing up of the imagination and abandonment of the physical setting and even the storyteller and the storyteller’s voice, to be fully inside the story. This process takes the listener away from present reality to the storyworld; it erases or dims real circumstances. "Uncluttered by papers and not screened by text, the storyexperience has keenness and intensity," Kuyvenhoven asserts, and goes on to say, "…the experience…lodges deeply in the mind, remembered easily and relished long afterwards." Stender "told these stories ‘by heart’ or from memory. I don't mean she memorized the words; rather she remembered the story and used her words… she had considerable commitment to her task." (p105) Storytelling like this is unusual in the classroom. It is rarely taught or even encouraged by teacher training programmes.

As to the importance of stories in the classroom, Stender states that "Folktales are as significant to the study of literature as the number system is essential to the study of mathematics." (p104) "The stories also pose moral and ethical questions, the response to which helps shape our values. They teach lessons about human behaviour that are common… can be enjoyed and understood at different levels." And in her journal, Stender wrote: "The storyteller has responsibility to give pleasure or to share something of beauty, to give a gift. That is enough. The gift is enough." (p106) Kuyvenhoven’s remark upon this is that "This aspect (the gift)... superseded Linda's other intentions. (But) she often integrated her storytelling with commonly held curricular goals for language arts teaching." Stender also knows she has a "responsibility to see that the children are clear about what they’ve been given. I need to make sure they’re learning something." (p106) Kuyvenhoven muses further on the practical and curricular goals versus the less measurable rewards: "When I asked Linda why she told stories, she gave me many reasons: oral language abilities, helping children work with each other, reading and writing skills, studies in literature, and the pleasure of its gift. Among all her reasons for storytelling, there was one she repeated often…Linda told stories to her students because she loved them. She was also sure storytelling helped them love each other." (p144)

It is this gift, this loving offering, that so distinguishes Stender’s (third circle) storytelling occasions; the children are freed from any behest to remember or to learn from the story, and in this freedom are able to immerse themselves fully in the experience. This in turn liberates them to learn a broad variety of things, to deduce or absorb concepts and values and learnings about life and about themselves that, if they had been directed to a particular goal in their listening, never would have occurred. Such is the power of story, and the level of engagement termed "imaginating". "This phenomenology, this felt shift of experience is critical to our thinking about the aspects of imagination," asserts the researcher. (p123)

Kuyvenhoven observes that during storytelling: "The still and intently attentive postures of the entire class give us a clue that an importantly distinctive activity is occurring," (p111) and that "The teller and listener enjoyed a deeply satisfying harmony of interests. Diverse children, competing interests, clamouring agendas merged in a profound unity." (p 112) Afterwards, "The children …emerged saturated and jubilant with the effects of being inside…their storyworlds."

Another invaluable by-product of the "imaginating" experience is that children develop the ability to focus intently and disregard interruptions and distractions. Kuyvenhoven expresses concern for the capacity for sustained engagement or attention in a culture which "normalizes interruption." (p139) In contrast to this, she observes that during storytelling, "Children's desire to stay in the story leads them to develop abilities to shut out disruptions. Such self-monitoring and purposeful thought is a significant element in learning." (p135)

The storytelling circumstance also provides an environment in which the creative imagination is freed, and not subject to judgement. In listening to a story, individuals create their own details, which are not the same from listener to listener, but which do not disagree. (p140) For example, when Stender told her class a story which included a giant, each child imagined the giant in a different way, but none of these conflicted with the story: "Children's descriptions of the giant were consistent with (the storyteller's) details…(but) were as varied as the students in the room…elaborate, evocative, and all different." The children themselves found ways to describe how "imaginating" works in their own experience: "Your brain gets bigger." (p147) and "You can hold a giant in your head." (p148) Kuyvenhoven contemplates "…the high value of imagination with a story. It (imaginating) develops skills that range from listening and imaginative capacity to community development and flexible thinking." (p149)
The author further comments that "evaluation practices (that) depend on getting the information right" (p141) cannot be applied to contexts in which imagination is the faculty being employed and exercised. "The emphasis today on evaluating comprehension by responses that reiterate details in story texts risks compromising children's ability to think with stories." Ability to regurgitate and replicate exact pieces of a text should not be confused with the ability to imagine, create, extrapolate from, and enlarge upon the characters, circumstances, and concepts of an orally told story.

As well, Kuyvenhoven says, "…if storytellers and teachers (believe) that stories…simply furnish psychological truths, they miss the most important aspect of the experience." (p142) The creative way in which "Children make, use, and play with characters and landscapes in an effort to explore ‘real’ issues" (p142) reminds this reader of the question that was asked of Thomas Edison after he explained his new discovery, electricity, in a public lecture: a woman said that this new "electricity" was all very well, but "what use is it?" His answer was, "Madam, what use is a new-born baby?" In all cases, the potential, though unknown, is immeasurable. As Kuyvenhoven remarks: "The story's meaning develops significance over time." (p144) Though the lesson or meaning may have importance as counsel over time, the immediate joyful experience of engaging in the storyworld experience has its own validity.

The building of a community in which to learn is an important but often unrealized foundation for a classroom of diverse individuals. "Shared and repeated storytelling experiences built affectionate and accepting relationships among those who went into the circle of deep imaginative engagement together... When they came out from these experiences, together, they felt joined by adventure and thrilled by their outings. They reached immediately for each other." (p146) The researcher goes on to contemplate some of the other satisfactions of a story listening experience:
Storyworld experiences satisfy an ache that wells up over the dry days, months, and years of schooling. Inside the deep well of imagination, loosed to create and explore new landscapes, children find what they need. Cultivating playfulness, imaginating with a story, nourishes abilities to re-create. Participants practice and try out relationships and situations. They develop aesthetic senses. They satisfy or renew curiosity about people, emotions, and the quality of power. They develop empathy. They explore nuances of relationship that elude their touch and talk in the other life. Freed from the limiting logic, rigid detail, and time constraints of the classroom world, children try out ideas, images, and dilemmas. They do this in the safety of the story's world. (p143)

The researcher ponders the manner in which storytelling nurtures the children as individuals and as a group. "They experienced a profound sense of refreshment from the storytelling experience: hearts and minds were replenished and invigorated." She further points out that "Children dreamed possibilities for themselves, for how the world might be and what they might do in it." (p144)

Chapter 10 examines the middle circle of storytelling, thinking with stories. How stories may be used consciously for many different ends, in a variety of contexts, is thoroughly and convincingly explored. The researcher reiterates the difference from reading: "storytelling is a medium of presence." (p161) She looks at three possible uses (among many others) for "thinking with stories": storytelling to understand a concept, storytelling for reading, and storytelling for writing.

The researcher observes that "Significant ideas about social values, ideals, and behaviours are developed in discussions…spurred by a story." (p161) In addition, Kuyvenhoven asserts that "The experience strongly nourished the children's reading and writing work." (p156) She then relates numerous vivid and indisputable examples of this.

"Much of what I've read about storytelling and teaching encouraged the idea that storytelling is (only) a great tool. Educators think of it as a technique, not realizing that it is a distinct praxis with its own complex of practices, knowledge, and meaning-making language." (p154) A quote from Paolo Freire supports this remark.

But as ever, it is the stories told about the classroom events that create the convincing evidence:
Linda told the story of Rumplestiltskin. The next day, a thick (600 pages) book that was worn and unattractive was making the rounds with the children. When asked, one child said, "It's Rumplestiltskin! I sat beside Leon and Leon read it. He read Rumplestiltskin to me, and then I read it and then we said, let's read Rumplestiltskin again." (p163)
(The thing which gave this circumstance special import was that these children, two of "the weaker and more reluctant readers in the room were enthusiastic about reading.") Not just reading, but its component parts benefitted from storytelling: "…storytelling provides the incentive to take up the long struggle with words they didn't know." (p166) Example after example demonstrates again and again the various ways in which the skills of reading and of writing and of analytical and creative thinking are cultivated, encouraged, and enhanced by storytelling experiences.

Chapter 11 draws the content of the research together into a coherent pedagogical philosophy and practice which is powerful and satisfying for teachers and students alike. The researcher makes a strong distinction between using storytelling as a tool, a means to an end, and using a storytelling pedagogy, conscious of its great power in diverse aspects of the learning experience of students. The reader learns how the differing types of storytelling become an integrated whole which permeates the classroom life.
Part of the joy of reading this book comes from the luminous prose of the author, whose phrases bring to life the concepts she presents: "The special brilliance of storyworld memories lit the children's way to further and other learning." (p185) "Hungering for every new word and turning of the story, listeners enlarged their vocabularies. They gained appreciation of the right word." (p187)

Children appreciate and articulate the distinction between being read to and being told a story; it is the relationship difference. "The pedagogy of storytelling entails its medium of presence." (p187)

In a subtle way the text filtered or screened the story experience. It located the story in a book, not in a teller's mind and mouth and this shift blunted the story's message. The printed text stepped between the teller and listener, affecting their relationship. A book interposed itself between the story and the listener, between the story and imagination. (p189)
Chapter 12 addresses "New Storytelling Teachers" and is the how-to chapter for those whose ambition to storytell has been fired by reading the body of the book. We are reminded again why storytelling has such a venerated place in the history of humankind, and why it is more than a tool, but rather a vital and potent instrument in life:
…she and other storytellers tell stories for more than that reason (the invigorating quality of storytelling to inform all learning). In the deep hush cast by storyworld-making, another syllabus was loosed. The subjects are possibility, courage, companionship, and humanity. By means of imagination, listeners go beyond what can be seen, heard, or touched. Unlimited by the classroom, they learn about the wide, wide world. Experimenting with life in the storyworld, they learn empathy for others and gain insight about themselves. The gift of a story told and shared in the presence of each other may become the hope, wisdom, and laughter needed over the course of a lifetime. (p 202)

For those teachers who are inspired to embark on the use of this remarkable pedagogy, the final chapter offers a considerable selection of approaches to learn storytelling. Kuyvenhoven is not only a storyteller herself, but a teacher of teachers and a teacher of storytelling. Her guidance in this final chapter will help even the newest beginner find stories, learn them and tell them with confidence. With little support from the institutions responsible for teaching teachers how to teach, there is need to go beyond the traditional teachers’ training to find storytelling groups, books, and other storytellers, to nurture this skill and keep it vital. Fortunately, there is a great deal available and Kuyvenhoven offers support of various sorts to the enquirer. Her appendices also include, among other things, resources for the storyteller, beginner or veteran. Copious notes to the text, as well as an index, are aids to using the book.'

In the Presence of Each Other A Pedagogy of Storytelling is a splendid book to read. It is academically sound, clearly presented, and convincingly proven in every point. Throughout the book, judicious use of extracts from both Kuyvenhoven’s and Stender’s journals help to illuminate and enliven the text. Each assertion is backed up by example, both from the research and by excerpts from other respected scholars and writers. Interviews with the children are transcribed so that we may enjoy and learn from the refreshing insights these lively students have to offer. We are also introduced to the spiritual quality of wonder, and the sense of possibilities opened by oral stories. The writing is immediate and engaging, and draws the reader into the study, eager to dig deeper as the research continues and the relationship with the children and with the storytelling classroom evolves. We read about the power of the storytelling experience and the ability of folktales to offer what we need: "Folk stories perfectly explain aspects of human experience." (p141) As a professional storyteller myself, I find the book provides grounded academic substantiation for many of the phenomena I have experienced and try to convey as a practitioner of the oral tradition using folktales tested by countless generations of tellers and listeners. I feel the book is invaluable to tellers as well as to teachers seeking to incorporate more storytelling into their teaching practice. But most importantly, In the Presence of Each Other A Pedagogy of Storytelling exists to encourage storytelling as a classroom teacher’s mode of teaching to enrich the classroom community, the curriculum, and the lives of individual students forever.

Reviewed by Carol Leigh Wehking, M.A., Storyteller
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