Why “Story Workshop” is not “Retelling-Someone-Else’s-Story Workshop”

Why “Story Workshop” is not “Retelling-Someone-Else’s-Story Workshop”

A lot of things happen during Story Workshop at Opal School:

  • Finding stories which may develop into writing pieces in many different genres
  • Writing stories, poems, various kinds of non-fiction, songs, and other genres
  • Playing with materials and languages of the arts to develop oral language, vocabulary, and poetic language and imagery for writing
  • Playing with materials to develop ideas
  • Practicing the mechanics of writing including spelling, punctuation and grammar
  • Deep dives into genre studies
  • Giving and receiving feedback to and from peers and teachers
  • Listening to other people’s stories and finding connections
  • Listening to other people’s stories and asking questions
  • Editing pieces of writing for publication
  • Using materials to translate ideas — strengthening and developing ideas by working on a story with multiple languages of the arts before drafting
  • Publishing stories in many forms
  • Acting out stories written by peers
  • Reading mentor texts in order to interrogate ideas, and to inspire writing and thinking about the craft of writing
  • Engaging in dialogue in whole and small groups around open-ended questions that have to do with all aspects of story in our lives, what it means to be a writer, how materials support ideas and writing, the craft and process of writing
  • Engaging in dialogue in whole and small groups around open-ended questions that have to do with other classroom topics and studies that support writing projects having to do with those studies
  • Author’s Teas and other celebrations that invite families in for sharing
  • Caring for the classroom environment and materials

With all these options at hand, and the boundless imagination and curiosity of the children themselves, we have never found the need to use time during Story Workshop to ask the children to retell stories that have already been written.

But it’s not only a resource issue of too little time and an abundance of imagination. We don’t ask children to retell the stories of other authors during Story Workshop because we believe that such an activity could crowd out opportunity to support the development of strong and healthy identity, agency, and empathy — the very things that, at its foundation, Story Workshop is designed to support.

I’ll explain my concern.

All of the young children that show up in our early childhood classrooms all over the world arrive with growing brains. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, the authors write,

“Young mammals play, and in doing so they expend energy, get injured and expose themselves to predators. Why don’t they just stay safe? Because mammals enter the world with unfinished nervous systems, and they require play — lots of it — to finish the job. The young human brain “expects” the child to engage in thousands of hours of play, including thousands of falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and even (within limits) acts of exclusion, in order to develop its full capacities.

But not all play is created equal. Peter Gray, a developmental psychologist at Boston College, studies the effects of ‘free play,’ which he defines as ‘activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself.’ Guitar lessons and soccer practice are not free play — they are supervised and directed by an adult. But when kids jam with friends or take part in a pickup soccer game, that’s free play.”

While Story Workshop is not intended to meet Gray’s definition of free play, it shares some of his most basic principles. In Story Workshop, we are committed to providing children with time and space to create stories that are “freely chosen and directed” by them. Story Workshop is designed to help children reflect on their own play, learning to recognize that the things they do in play are the things that make us human, and story is a part of that. Because human beings think in story, story is both a natural means and ends of play. Children have a right to learn how to write. They have a right to learn to use writing as a means for sharing their interpretations of the world with others. Story Workshop is designed to make use of that natural relationship between play and story, to teach the children how to name it, and to devote our time in Story Workshop to practicing the craft of shaping those stories into published pieces of writing that they can release into the world for others to share.

While we do propose boundaries, we don’t gate their work or their play. We believe, because we have seen, that all children want to learn to express themselves. They have a right to learn to express themselves because that is the only way that they can see themselves in the mirror of community. It is the only way they can make sense of belonging. The way we express the things we want to express and the way those expressions are reflected back to us are the things we use to develop our identity. We need thousands of hours of play because we need hundreds of thousands of opportunities to be reflected back to ourselves in myriad situations.

At the same time, we need to learn that we control our own story. We need to learn through practice that we have the ability and the right to contribute to our community, and that our stories matter. When we don’t like what is happening, we have options. We can change the story. We need to learn that everyone else in our community has those same rights, and differing abilities, and they feel the same way we do about being heard, and being seen, and being loved, and being worthy of belonging. We don’t learn those things by being told they’re true. We learn those things by finding out what happens when we participate in a community that has been designed to withstand thousands of falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and even (within limits) acts of exclusion, in order to develop its full capacities.” And, I would argue, we learn those things by finding out what happens when we participate in a community that has been designed to reflect, share, ask questions, listen, connect, include, respond, and love.

“This is the before practice right here that we are doing with one another. What we are doing now is going to set us up for what we are going to do later.” Roan, age 11

“The more stories you know, the more schema you have, and then more informed decisions are made.” Ella, age 9

“A story is powerful because after you read it, the story becomes a part of you.” Stella, age 9

Stories are important because you can hear about someone else and you can learn about yourself.” Ginger, age 9

“Friends tell stories to each other.” Marcos, age 4

Retelling other people’s stories, regardless of the beauty of the materials or the complexity of the plan — regardless of the choices offered to iterate or revise — doesn’t get us where we want to go at Opal School during Story Workshop. If you are developing a Story Workshop, I encourage you to think about where you are trying to go, and then develop a process of reflection that allows you to question whether or not you are getting there.

Also, if you want to consider the role of retelling stories during Reading Workshop (there is one!) — let me know. But that’s a post for another day!

Related Posts on Opal School Online:

A Place for Practice by Nicole Simpson-Tanner

Getting Started With Story Workshop by Susan Harris MacKay

Not Just a Pretty Place by Kerry Salazar

Keeping the Work Whole by Kerry Salazar

Constructing Identity by Susan Harris MacKay

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