Teaching Today

The Art of Storytelling

By Jill Zehner, Middle School English

When I was in third grade, Mrs. Cassidy gave our class a project titled “My Family’s Journey.” We had been studying the 13 colonies, and she wanted us to begin to make connections with the brave people who came together to build our nation. She might as well have given me a perfectly wrapped present because I could not wait to share all I already knew about the Griffins and the Kinsellas. According to my grandfather and my Uncle Gene, both proud members of the Griffin clan, my sister and I descended from a long line of kings and queens. Our ancestors fought dragons, rescued damsels in distress from tyrants, ruled with an iron fist or with care and a compass (depending upon which side of the family we were discussing at the time), and, ultimately, left Ireland to share their many unique talents with the rest of the world. While my presentation fell a bit short on factual evidence about the harrowing trip my family members actually took across the Atlantic in the early 1800s—and their less-than-regal welcome when they reached the shores of Massachusetts—my faith in the art of storytelling took root.

A few short years later, I get the pleasure of encouraging my students to time travel to worlds they have imagined or perhaps never dreamed about visiting before. The sixth grade English, reading and history courses fall neatly under the banner of Global Journeys. The theme is intentionally broad to allow for wiggle room when exploring the skills and strategies necessary to cultivate creative and critical thinking. One stop along our adventure occurs when students, dreaming of snow days in dark, dreary January, are transported to the sparkling blue waters of Greece. The students read an adapted version of The Odyssey, immerse themselves in D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths and continue to explore chronology, geography, government and economics as they begin to connect the past with the present. All of this work naturally centers around wild and wonderful stories.

The students are amazed to learn that Homer, a blind bard who is given credit for composing The Iliad and The Odyssey, memorized epic poetry to share orally when traveling from town to town. His stories are filled with every plot point I treasured as a child sitting at the foot of my grandfather’s leather recliner. Odysseus, a valiant and vain warrior, allows lust and hubris to lure him, and his loyal crew, way off course. The students love to read about the powerful women, menacing monsters and unsuitable suitors who threaten Odysseus’ glorious return home. When deities intervene along the hero’s journey, students draw on their background knowledge about gods and goddesses they read about in D’Aulaires. Students also make a connection to the role that the Greek values of hospitality and loyalty play in the outcome of the classic tale steeped in history but embellished for the sake of entertainment.

The culminating event, our annual Greek Festival, arrives as the students put the final edits on their own clever myths to explain the seemingly unexplainable. Their creative pieces run the gamut: We have had tales that explain the origin of Pop Tarts, how Hermes created fire engine sirens, a quest for Poseidon’s trident and how the iPhone XZ was created, complete with a cameo from Stan Lee to meld the ancient and modern worlds. The students, in true democratic fashion borrowed from ancient Athens, vote on the stories they believe deserve to be shared on stage. Wearing chitons, laurel wreaths and often carrying thunderbolts, bows, tridents or hammers forged in Hephaestus’ shop, the newly minted bards carry on the oral tradition begun thousands of years earlier. The only break we take during the festival is to feast, which may be the next best family tradition to storytelling. The students sit in groups, reliving the legendary tales and happily eating baklava, dolmades and spanakopita.

Three decades after regaling my classmates—and, I am sure, unnerving poor Mrs. Cassidy—I am pleased to note that storytelling is very much alive and well at Tower Hill. It will continue to be the cornerstone of our humanities curriculum as we embark on our global journeys with the intrepid explorers we have the pleasure to teach each year in sixth grade.

Jill Zehner
Middle School English