Sherry Norfolk is an award-winning storyteller, author, and teaching artist. She performs and leads residencies and workshops internationally, introducing children and adults to story making and storytelling. She is also the co-author and co-editor with Lyn Ford of a new book, Storytelling Strategies for Reaching and Teaching Students with Special Needs. Here, she discusses the value of storytelling in the classroom, the motivation for the book, and how educators can start using storytelling with students with disabilities.
VSA and Accessibility: What is special about using storytelling in the classroom?
Sherry Norfolk: Storytelling provides instant response. Looking at children and telling them a story orally, making eye contact, I can see an instant response and respond to that immediately. I see a big grin and I can put more of whatever spurred that in. I see confusion, and I can slow down, define. Instant response is really powerful.
Our human brains are hard wired for story. The oral stories that we use are really effective and efficient because the mind translates the sensory detail. The gestures, facial expressions, movement, pitch, volume, and tone of voice we give all help students to comprehend without additional mechanisms.
VSA and Accessibility: How can storytelling be especially effective in reaching students with disabilities?
Sherry Norfolk: Storytelling breaks down barriers; it engages everyone. Kids’ bewilderment and frustration turn to understanding and wonder, making them part of classroom. Last week I was in a high school classroom with students with multiple disabilities. Most students could not talk and several could not move, but all could participate in one way or another in retelling stories; they could demonstrate understanding.
My co-editor, Lyn Ford, recently shared an anecdote with me about working in an inclusive classroom. She was using a poem and had kids acting out different parts of its story. One of her fourth grade students said it was the best storytelling she ever did. She was a leaf blowing around, but she understood she was telling a story in her actions.
VSA and Accessibility: What was the motivation behind your new book?
Sherry Norfolk: Lyn Ford and myself both work in storytelling in inclusive and self-contained classrooms. Teachers saw over and over again how incredibly powerful storytelling is as a tool for students with disabilities, and they often asked where they could learn more strategies. Unfortunately there were very few resources available that really focused on using storytelling with students with disabilities.
We set out to fill that void. Since the children we work with are very diverse, and the perspectives storytellers come from are very diverse, we wanted to have as many perspectives as possible in the book. We went to the best story teaching artists we know around the world and asked them for their very best material; all said yes without hesitation. Everyone wanted to share their expertise because they know how much teachers and their students need it.
VSA and Accessibility: What would you recommend to an educator who wanted to start using storytelling in their classroom?
Sherry Norfolk: If possible, bring a professional storyteller in—someone who is used to working in the classroom—so the teacher can see before his or her eyes the transformation that is possible. If they cannot do that, teachers can start by finding a story they know and telling that story with voices and actions. Get rid of inhibitions, look kids in their eyes, and let them know you are there together. Find a way to involve students in the story. Use puppets, voice, and movement to help develop and demonstrate understanding. But above all, jump in with absolute confidence that storytelling will work and let your students know you are enjoying this and they will too!
For more information on storytelling, check out Sherry Norfolk’s Tips for Using Storytelling to Engage Students with Disabilities, originally published in the October 2014 VSA Update newsletter.