- The Golden Thread: Storytelling in Teaching and Learning
Susan Danoff has produced a small, sparkling gem of a book that addresses not so much the "how to" as the why of storytelling in the school curriculum. She explores how storytelling operates as an integral part of the learning process, arguing that "storytelling is a method of teaching, a way to gain trust, to communicate effectively, to inspire imaginative thinking, and to provide a foundation for the thinking that is basic to literacy" (xv). Building trust and communication skills are essential to establishing a learning environment; imaginative thinking enables "resourcefulness in dealing with new or unusual experiences" (89), a significant part of the learning process; and the skills involved in story listening, visualization, reflecting, and retelling are core elements of literacy development. Danoff describes her early realization, when she tutored as a teenager, that one of her students, a self-acknowledged slow learner, had never realized "that letters were symbols and that words signified meaning" (18). She discovered that he thought reading was "magic" that some people could do and others couldn't. It took her many more years to learn the effectiveness of storytelling as a classroom tool to break the secret code and help students recognize the magic of reading for themselves—and to understand why storytelling contributes so much to the learning process. Educators are fortunate that in this book she passes on what she has learned.
Danoff's use of stories, both traditional and original, to establish the framework of her book suggests vividly how she incorporates her telling into teaching. The book is divided into six parts, each set off with an appropriately chosen story. She opens with an original story, "The Forgotten Gifts," which pays tribute to the creative arts of dance, song, and storytelling, more valuable by far than material goods; this is followed by an assertion that "every teacher can be a storyteller" (39). She explains processes involved in storytelling, either informal anecdotes or polished performance, and why folktales, in particular, are important tools for teaching narrative. The anecdotes she shares from her classroom experience support her argument that storytelling works.
A section on "Storytelling and Classroom Culture" follows, beginning with a vivid retelling of "The Tiger's Whisker," a Korean folktale of a woman who needs patience and understanding to gain the trust of a tiger in order to communicate with her troubled husband. Danoff then explains how storytelling can be used to build a sense of community, setting the stage for learning to take place. Oral storytelling can be especially effective in drawing in students with differing learning styles, who may have trouble learning through more conventional teaching methods.
Part 3 is an ardent tribute to the powers of the imagination, the way storytelling enables imaginative play among listeners, and the connection between [End Page 409] imaginative play and effective learning. She draws parallels between children's use of the imagination and the Scottish folktale "The Lost Child," in which a mother wins her child back after it is stolen by the Sidh, who love beauty but lack the power to create. Creative use of imagination is an important human skill, taught through stories.
Part 4, "Storytelling and Literacy," is a core section, explaining how storytelling serves as a bridge to reading and writing, a way to help learners to decode the symbols that create literacy. The process of decoding letters as symbols can in itself be so onerous that meaning may be lost to new readers. Storytelling unlocks the link between oral and written language, helping readers to hear voice upon the written page. Hearing stories also frees students' voices in their own writing and helps to develop a sense of narrative structure. Danoff deftly draws parallels between the Chinese tale "The Magic Brocade" and actual student performance in classrooms as their reading and writing skills are enhanced through story.
Danoff then moves briefly from practical to philosophical in a section called "The Gift" (drawing upon Lewis Hyde) as she comments on the spirit that...