Storytelling Makes History Come Alive for Bored Students

Associated Press

The ancient art of storytelling is making a comeback in California schools, where lessons on history, language structure and word use are woven into dramatized proverbs, myths, folklore and fairy tales.

Credited with this resurgence is Catharine Farrell of Martinez, whose Word Weaving Storytelling Project has trained 5,000 teachers in California, Nevada, Michigan and New Mexico.

In California, storytelling was included in the new state English and history frameworks, the guidelines for reading, writing, literature and social studies instruction.

Farrell, 46, said she stumbled into storytelling in 1966, when a class she was teaching got bored with her Greek mythology lesson. A self-described “closet actress,” she began acting out the myths and brought down the house.

Teen-Agers Couldn’t Read

“I was shocked by schools. Nothing was happening. Teen-agers were coming into my classes who had not learned to read,” she said. “There was no rapport between students and teachers.”


In 1979, Farrell won a grant from the Zellerbach Family Fund to launch her storytelling project. The success of pilot programs in San Francisco and Contra Costa County schools led to its adoption in 1983 by the state Department of Education.

The training project relies on basic acting techniques. Participants fill in the blanks of a story framework with their own lives and then tell them to each other.

Educators also learn how to divide stories into elements, many of them getting a first-time understanding about the value of characterization, plot and climax, she said.

A 130-page booklet of stories and suggested follow-up activities accompanies the training.

A Pittsburg study of the project showed that students who participated improved their vocabulary and were more creative than their counterparts who did not take part.

Preliminary findings in a study conducted at Claremont Graduate School also indicated that storytelling boosts reading and writing skills, Farrell said.

She has recounted stories like “Three Billy Goats Gruff” to younger children. Farrell also has told the story of “Julius Caesar” to high school students.

Value Recognized

Teachers and state school officials agree it’s a worthwhile program.

“Unfortunately, many children think history is dull,” said Francie Alexander, state associate superintendent of curriculum instruction.

“But it’s not dull when they hear a 100-year-old person talk about what it was like to grow up before there were airplanes. And children start to learn they are part of history,” Alexander said.

Caroll Webster, a teacher in Union City, said the program changed her whole way of teaching literature and oral language.

“I have never told a story when I didn’t have the kids in the palm of my hand. You can tell by their expressions. You can tell by the feeling in the room and the absolute quiet,” she said.