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Interview with Sherry Norfolk

Sherry Norfolk

Sherry Norfolk describes herself as a “teaching artist.” In her own words, “someone who uses their art form to teach the curriculum.” Putting stories to work in classrooms is her creative passion, and she is committed to helping educators discover the myriad resources available to them in this endeavor. Discover how to integrate folktales and the oral tradition into the curricula and why they are the foundation for human communication.

Raven: In your writing, you’ve stated that there is no way to effectively tell a story in a classroom without addressing multiple aspects of the Common Core Standards. How can teachers easily use stories to address these standards?

Sherry: Okay, I’ll give you an example of a typical lesson plan that I use. First, I talk with the teachers about what standards are the highest priority to address. Then I choose a folktale that addresses those themes or those standards. On the first day, I tell that story to the children. Now we’re addressing listening skills, right off the bat. Then we discuss the pattern of that story. Folktales have wonderful, clear patterns that we can define and follow. Patterning is in the Math standards, as well as the Language Arts standards.

Next, we work together to create a story based on that pattern—we generate new ideas. Those new ideas are generated collaboratively. In every single grade level, the ELA standards require children to collaborate. The kids are generating those stories collaboratively, and they are building off of prior knowledge – that’s another ELA Standard: generating ideas based on prior knowledge. It might be prior knowledge based on their own experiences, it might be based on events that are happening in the world, or something from another story they just read. The important point for students in aligning their learning with the ELA Standards is that they’re making connections to themselves, to literature, and to the world. I tell them the story that we’ve generated; then, each student creates his/her own story and they then tell their new story to a partner so we’re back to collaborating, listening, and evaluating.

R: With folktales and the oral tradition, teachers are able to implement more interactive classroom assignments?

Sherry: Exactly, and that leads to asking the children to start writing so we’re incorporating the writing standards, as well. As they begin writing, they start to revise, and they’re revising for word choice, for vocabulary, for clarity. In addition, they are working with others to evaluate and revise their work together so they’re working collaboratively again.

Eventually they publish their work and that can be done very easily using technology. It depends on the teacher, the amount of time we have, and the support resources that are available, but often the kids will do their final drafts on a computer so that we can also include a technology component.

Then, having published the story, we start rehearsing and learning about a good audience. That component transitions into civic lessons and the Social Studies Standards. The children actually perform the stories, so now we’re back to listening, evaluating, and being a good audience. The children are required to provide positive peer feedback for every story. That requires each child to evaluate, assess and also reflect on specific elements that work well in a story. In this lesson plan, we’ve easily addressed well over a dozen Common Core Standards.

R: It sounds like the students, and the teachers, are really getting a lot out of this method of teaching.

Sherry: The Common Core State Standards really, really emphasize the integration of the curricula. It’s fun to see how you can look at all these different standards and integrate them, making the class more interesting and more creative for the students. It’s absolutely possible with the way that the Common Core Standards are organized.

Now, whether or not teachers are allowed to do that in their school system is another issue. Sometimes, administrators don’t recognize these opportunities and that learning can actually be more effective this way, even though all the research says it is. They’ll come into the classroom and see the students are actually having fun, and then things clamp down. But the truth is that the standards can contribute to an environment that is better and more conducive to learning. If you read the introduction to the Common Core state standards, it actually encourages integrated learning.

R: How would you convince administrators that using the oral tradition and folktales is extremely beneficial in learning these different skills?

Sherry: There’s a growing body of research that says when children are interested, when their curiosity is piqued, they will pay more attention, comprehend more and retain more knowledge.... When we are interested, when we are curious, we simply learn more—it’s intuitive.

In order to engage listeners, to engage our audience, our kids, our learners... we need to apply the principles of play. All types of play have some kind of underlying learning going on. But it doesn’t have to be just frivolous. The lesson plan and sequence of assignments sounds like fun to kids. They think they are simply having fun, and they’re also actively involved in the process of learning new skills. Even the kids who refuse to write a sentence, end up writing a story, an entire story. During the revision, even though they hate making revisions, they do it because it feels like a game and they see their progress.

R: What do you do when a child feels frustrated and they’re having difficulty engaging in the creative process? How do you help them through that phase?

Sherry: Brainstorm with them. We all process information at different rates of speed, so yeah, every once in a while, there’s a kid who just kind of stalls out. They sit there, stare at the wall, chew on things. Part of what I do in the classroom is constant, constant moving around the room, checking on kids, making sure they’re progressing, helping them get through that stall.

When I encounter a kid who is stuck, I brainstorm with him. I’ll give him, like, forty-two different ideas. Usually he won’t take one of mine, but it helps him move out of that stalled place, keeps him off the wall. Then he comes up with an idea he likes and he starts to move forward. It’s very rare that I encounter a kid who can’t come up with a story. I mean, it just doesn’t happen.

Recently, I’ve been doing more work in special education with self-contained classrooms that serve children with fairly profound disabilities. About nine of the classrooms I worked with last year were middle school kids with severe behavioral and emotional disorders. The teachers don’t believe we’ll be able to help these kids write. Yet in every single one of those classrooms, every single kid wrote and told a story. The teachers were amazed. There was a comment that I got back, and I love this comment: “Kids who passionately hate to write are now passionate writers.” And that was so exciting because it was from the teacher’s perspective! It wasn’t me saying that’s what I observed. It was the teachers who were seeing a profound change in their kids. That’s the impact storytelling can make in the classroom. Storytelling changes the whole learning paradigm in the classroom.

R: That’s amazing. What do you think made the difference?

Sherry: We came at the writing assignments from a different perspective. One of the key points that I encourage teachers to do is not immediately say, “Okay, come up with an idea and start writing.” Instead, I’ve found that it works much better when a teacher asks the students to start telling a story. Talk about the story with the other children before they try to put it into writing. For most of us, it’s so much easier to be creative out loud. You’re not worried about forming the letters on the page, not worried about spelling, not worried about grammar. You’re just telling a story.

Once you’ve shared the story out loud, you have a chance to assess, “Well, let’s see what worked?” They’re actually doing the first revision before they ever put pencil to page. This fundamental shift makes a huge difference, especially for kids who’ve had a lot of negative experiences in writing. That’s one of the real benefits, I find, that storytelling brings to the classroom: the oral creative process.

R: It makes perfect sense. I find that I need to share my thoughts out loud because I have these ideas buzzing in my head, but I can’t formulate them into a coherent message until I can speak to someone and get feedback.

Sherry: In the arts they call it the “authentic audience.” There’s got to be a real reason for doing this work: you get to tell it to somebody. You’re going to get feedback from that audience. Unfortunately, kids often perceive the work they do at school as “busy work”. We know they’re “practicing the skills” and they’re learning and making progress as they “practice the skills” but it just feels like busy work to them. Typically, the feedback they receive is maybe just a grade. But if they know their work is going to get published, it’s going to get listened to, their story is going to be shared with other people, then there’s an authentic purpose for doing the work. It makes it all real and it’s exciting to them.

R: When I’m working with the student that I mentor for the writing program, there are times when he is trying to come up with an idea for his story and he has to process his ideas verbally with a partner. It really helps him to problem-solve, and he’ll take those skills with him.

Sherry: Yes, but if you’ve already written all of the story down, especially by hand – which is what most kids have to do in school, right? – if you’ve written all that down and then people begin asking you questions, you don’t want to go back and change all that work. No one does. The kids can get all stubborn and uncooperative. When it’s on a computer, you can go in and add sentences or move passages around, but it is a pain if it’s all been done by hand. I have horrid memories of doing everything by hand and trying to revise things and hating the process really badly. I completely understand why kids feel that way, but teachers have been basically told, “Keep the classroom quiet.”

Since language is very much predicated on oral language, it’s actually counter-productive to keep classrooms quiet. It’s one of the practices that I really try to impress upon teachers when I’m in their classrooms. (The other thing is not to constantly badger the kids when they’re doing a rough draft. When they’re actively involved in the creative phase of their work, leave them alone.) If the processing is oral, then kids can take note of those ideas and change the story immediately. By the time they get around to actually writing the story down, most of the revisions are done, so the story is already in pretty good shape. The oral processing is essential, and it’s something that most classrooms preclude these days. When you bring storytelling into the classroom, all of a sudden it becomes recognizable as a strategy that works.

R: Let’s talk about your work with helping students retain factual information. Your website references Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage. It includes a brief dialogue on how to “weave a basket of storytelling to hold the grains of facts.” Could you explain this concept?

Sherry: Research tells us that we don’t retain factual information as well as we do the elements of a story. If you put the facts into story, we tend to retain it. For example: one time I was asked to teach about the differences between the Brazilian rainforest and the Madagascar rainforest (I have no idea why, it’s just what I was asked to do), so I did the research. Then I thought, okay, I’m a teaching artist, it needs to be taught through story.

I started by finding a folktale about a little girl walking through the rainforest and meeting up with a big monster. In my version of the story, she’s walking through the rain forest with her sister and as she notices things, she would say something like, “Look at that! There are butterflies everywhere and they’re all different colors of the rainbow.” And her sister would say, “Bimwili, there are over 300 kinds of butterflies in the rainforest. If we stop to look at every one, we’re never going to get where we’re going.” So they keep going. Then she says, “Ah, look at that great big lizard! It’s got eyes that are going in both directions and– hey! it just changed colors! And look at those toes!” “Yeah, that’s a chameleon. Chameleons can change colors because of their moods. Right now, he’s scared. That’s why he just changed colors. Let’s go!”

The sisters keep on going back and forth through the story and I’m describing the animals and plants that live in the rainforest. Then I would go back a week, sometimes two weeks later, and I ask the kids, “What were the things that Bimwili saw in the rainforest?” They would tell me the entire list. They retained it, and I swear that if I had given them a list of facts without Bimwili experiencing it through story, they wouldn’t have retained half of that information. That’s what I mean when I say weaving the facts into a basket of story.

R: Do you see that same phenomenon with other folktales? Is it applicable to other stories?

Sherry: I’ve seen this effect so many times. Another great example is a story Bobby tells of westward expansion, the Lewis and Clark Expedition through the eyes of York, the only African-American who was on that expedition. In the forty-five-minute story, the number of facts has to be somewhere up in the thousands. This is something he’s studied for over twenty years, and he knows this stuff backwards and forwards. He embeds all of these facts, weaves them into the basket of story.

After he performs the story in an auditorium, I follow the kids back into the classroom and I ask them to research and write a story from the perspective of some other explorer on the expedition. Remember, most of these kids have never heard of Lewis and Clark and it’s certainly the first time they’ve ever heard of York.

It’s really interesting to watch the kids who don’t write and read very well. They always choose York. Because they just heard his story, right? They can repeat back almost word for word the details that Bobby put into the story. All those facts, they will come right back out with them, almost as if they had a tape recorder and they had taped what Bobby was saying. However, if he had presented those points just as a list of facts they probably would not have remembered half of them.

R: You also noted how there are many different ways to tell a story orally. Could you discuss how teachers need to be able to perceive what is needed from their class?

Sherry: A good teacher is always very much aware of what their students need. They can do so by looking at body language and facial expressions. One of the interesting observations that teachers have shared with me over the years, is that when they watch their kids listening to a story, the teachers are able to observe things that they don’t normally see in the classroom. It’s probably because they are not actively engaged in the actual teaching at that point, so they can really focus on their kids. When I’m telling a story for the first time in a particular classroom, I can start to figure out the learning styles of every single kid.

R: Just in that one day?

Sherry: Just in that one story. If you’re really observant, you can figure out, very accurately, the learning styles of every child. For example: the kid who never looks at you is certainly not a visual learner. He’s probably auditory, so just looking and watching is a distraction to him and he’ll tend to look away. That doesn’t mean he’s not paying attention. It just means that’s the way he processes information.

The kid who is mimicking every single thing you do, she’s a kinesthetic learner. She needs to move around in order to learn. Children who are repeating every single sound effect and doing the kinesthetic stuff, they probably have a really good combination of all of the of the styles. They’re actively watching, listening, mimicking.

Then there are the kids who don’t ever look away, who don’t move a muscle and are carefully monitoring every move, every gesture - they’re typically visual learners. Over and over again, I see it. And I can even begin to figure out which child is ADHD and which one has different types of disabilities because the symptoms manifest during that one five-minute story. Storytelling allows you to observe them just as they are.

R: As children are getting to be more deeply immersed in digital media, what are some of the challenges in adapting a story or making it appealing for children who are used to more high-intensity stimulation?

Sherry: Nowadays when telling stories to kids, I find that I have to use more dramatic character voices, more sound effects, more action and movement to mimic, in some ways, what happens on television or on small screens. Because kids are not used to paying attention to just the words.

R: That’s a little discouraging.

Sherry: Well, it is. I’ve been doing this for, well, years, and over those years I’ve observed – and anybody who’s been working with the oral tradition for any length of time has observed – a significant change in children’s ability to sit still and listen. It’s not necessarily what the kids are listening to that is different, I can still tell the same story I told twenty or thirty years ago, but now I have to ramp up the production quality to keep the audience’s attentions.

It’s never been true that you could just tell a story passively, at least not in my experience. You couldn’t just read the words without dramatic interpretation and then expect kids to listen intently. You need to put your own energy into each story. You have to be engaged in the story yourself. I think that nowadays it requires a higher level of energy and engagement in order to keep the kids involved in the story or you’ll lose them very quickly.

R: I was wondering if you have any tips for educators who want to use folktales and the oral tradition in their classrooms, but they’re not yet comfortable with telling stories. What advice would you give them?

Sherry: A good way to start is to observe other people, especially professional storytellers who have been performing for years. You’ll pick up some tips from them, and then think about how you can apply those aspects to your particular curriculum, to the lessons that you need to teach. My biggest recommendation for anyone who is thinking about using the oral tradition in their classroom is to just do it. Just sit down and tell a story. Put down the book, look at the eyes of your children and tell them a story. Then all of a sudden you will realize you can do this.

R: Okay, but why should teachers use folktales to begin with? Why is it so important for children to grow up with oral traditions?

Sherry: I guess the best answer is to refer you to the foreword that Carmen Deedy wrote for our social studies book: “When a child grows up without hearing family stories, she enters adulthood with an incomplete sense of her personal history. This is loss enough. But when a child grows up without hearing folktales and fairytales, she enters adulthood with an imperfect sense of what it means to be a member of the human family.... These tales carry deep within them the wit and wisdom of ancient cultures. Most are hundreds—some thousands—of years old. And they are an essential part of a complete education.”

Really, it is all about – for her, for me, for all of us who work with children – the idea that any child who grows up without hearing family stories, has an incomplete childhood. She doesn’t really know her own history. A child who grows up without hearing folktales and fairy tales has no idea of the human family, not just her own family but the whole human family. Folktales carry the whole message about who and what we are as human beings.

R: It sounds like folktales show us how to interact with other people, especially as we live in an increasingly diverse world.

Sherry: Yes, and folktales, the ones that have survived through generations of being told and retold and reinterpreted, have survived because they carry universal messages. When we tell those stories, to the children and to each other as adults, they reinforce those values and help us to understand that children who don’t hear those stories not only don’t know their own heritage but don’t know, really, how the world thinks, what the world values.

R: How do you see this happening in your work with schools?

Sherry: I just returned from Taiwan. I was working with children, using folktales to help them learn conversational English and to become more confident in their abilities to communicate in English. We were using universal folktales. That’s all we used, the entire time. It was amazing to see those children absolutely came alive to Western stories that they had never heard. It happens because these stories still carry those universal truths. The concept that we’re wired for stories as human beings is not just an abstract idea, it’s not just a metaphor - it’s absolutely true. Research has proven that. We have to, as human beings, share those stories. We simply have to.

R: So telling stories is not just a moral obligation to preserve a family history. Sharing stories also helps us maintain and sustain our values as human beings?

Sherry: Yes, it’s to maintain our humanity.


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