Developing Storytelling Artists

The fifth grade folktale unit is a culminating cross-curricular project, integrating Jewish studies, reading, writing and public speaking. Our goal is for students to see themselves as a crucial link in the continual midrashic, storytelling tradition.

During this unit, students become familiar with a range of stories in their various versions. They see how these stories fit into the spectrum of Jewish and non-Jewish literature, while gaining confidence and understanding in order to retell these stories with purpose. We incorporate the know-how of multiple experts to meaningfully accomplish this broad range of objectives.

We begin with the expertise of the students. They research folktales from Jewish and other traditions, discovering stories they have heard from their rabbis along with connections to tales from other cultures that they have studied previously. Next, we invite our rav beit sefer to explain how he tells stories. In this “behind the scenes” lesson, students gain insight into one storyteller’s methodology. He models how he breaks down the tale into events and the message, shows how he uses space and gestures, and provides all the other tricks that has helped make his stories so powerful to the students.

Once this introduction is complete, students shift their position from audience to storytellers. Through the generous support of our PTO, a local theater troupe is brought in to conduct lessons in storytelling. They begin with theater games, designed to build confidence in using voices, gestures and other devices that may seem intimidating at first. Next, they delve into the stories with the students. By analyzing setting, theme and character, students infer emotion and motivation, gaining insight that will help with their retelling. Students then reflect on their goals for their story. They read the forewords to various story collections, including Peninnah Schram’s “Storyteller’s Prayer,” reflecting on the hopes and dreams of the storytellers. Internalizing this background material, students are ready to conduct partner discussions and reflect on their knowledge before writing their own prayers.

As they continue to analyze and practice their stories, a special virtual visitor joins the conversation. Rabbi Ed Feinstein, author of one of their favorite collections, Capturing the Moon: Classic and Modern Jewish Tales, graciously agreed to connect online from California to Philadelphia. During the video conference, he discusses with students the tales that they love and reasons why they are meaningful. He shares his personal story as to why he wrote his book, and the students leave the discussion feeling like they have been charged with carrying forward these great messages from our tradition.

The fifth graders bring all these pieces together by creating an eBook. They start with their storyteller’s prayer, then they record themselves retelling their favorite Jewish folktale. They finish the eBook with lessons learned from the folktales. Of course, you can’t write a book without a dedication page, so we discuss for whom the book is written and why. Finally, students proudly share their tales with students throughout the school in live performances.

Our goal is that students leave the school as readers, analyzers and transmitters of our rich literature tradition, with the confidence and desire to share it with the world. By elevating a reading unit from text study into a multisensory unit with experts from outside the classroom.

Mindy Civan
Deepening Talent
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning