Five Tips for Using Embodied Storytelling to Build Student Vocabulary and Communication Skills

By Arianna Ross

Embodied Storytelling is an art form utilizing the body and voice to tell, analyze, and create a “story.”  Its process directly leads participants into comprehension of the material they have embodied. In its presentation in the classroom, a teacher will use a combination of dance, storytelling, drama, and visual art elements to teach various subject matters.

Having students move and speak in front of their peers builds self-confidence, body awareness, and vocal strength. The tips in this article, originally developed in collaboration with Suzanne Richard, Open Circle Theater, and Story Tapestries, provide effective tools for increasing a student’s ability to comprehend and effectively use vocabulary through arts-integrated instruction.

The strategies listed below are inherently accessible to multiple types of learners and are consciously inclusive, regardless of students’ developmental or physical abilities. These educational tools, geared at students in preschool through 8th grade, can also be used to tie into STEM, language arts, writing, and socio-emotional learning. A teacher can utilize these tips in various subjects, using a combination of dance, storytelling, drama, and visual art elements. The tips also serve to allow teachers to assess knowledge and students to demonstrate their ability to communicate clear, creative ideas both verbally and non-verbally.

 

  1. Act out everyday words to jump start learning. We encourage students to focus on increasing their “Power Words,” which are any words that empower students to feel more confident about their vocabulary. They can do this by acting out, vocalizing, and visualizing vocabulary they see and experience on a daily basis. Additionally, the meanings of simpler words are reinforced as they are being physically and mentally learned.
  2. Utilize partners to explore words and ideas. For students who find it difficult to move, we have found it valuable to employ a “Gesture Partner” who models and speaks to their partner about how to move to reflect the meaning of a word; if this student is comfortable with being touched, the partner can move the student’s arms for them. Likewise, students with difficulties in speaking can use a “Voice Partner” to verbalize ideas. This partnership can be employed in games that provide exercises in mirror imaging, body or voice sculpting, and puppet play (in which one person is the marionette and the other is the puppeteer).
  3. Consider introducing one step or one exercise per day. For example, spend a day using your voice to play with a word. The next day, ask students to turn off their voices and show the word, and on the third day, practice putting word and gesture or movement together. Once students have broken it down into pieces multiple times, they will be able to do all three activities at once. Also, it is helpful to draw a picture of the word so diverse types of learners have a visual, kinesthetic, and audio demonstration of the meaning of the word.
  4. Physicalize words. Model and use tableau (a grouping of motionless figures, representing a scene from a story, painting, or from history; also, known as a tableau vivant) to teach a specific concept, in this case, vocabulary. It is important to model one word before you have students create their tableaus alone. Tell them that although a tableau is a frozen picture, they will be moving into their tableau from a neutral position. Their movement should not be robotic, but should illustrate the meaning of the word just as the tableau does. Once they do freeze, their tableau should clearly demonstrate the meaning of the word.
  5. Connect words and story one section at a time. It is important that when you apply the acting out of words to develop students’ understanding of a story, you read through the story one section at a time, repeating it using multiple strategies. This is especially useful for students with autism spectrum disorders and intellectual disabilities. Just as it takes time to explore words with voice and gesture before putting them together (see tip 3), it is important to break stories into a beginning, middle and end. Also, it is helpful to draw out a story with students so they have a visual, kinesthetic, and audio demonstration of the meaning of the words.

 

_MG_6147Story Tapestries and Arianna Ross create international, dynamic programs that weave the power of dance, music, theatre, and spoken word. For 20 years, Arianna has performed and taught students and teachers across the United States and Asia at festivals, concert halls, colleges, libraries, and schools and for organizations such as the National Writing Project @ West Virginia University, East Tennessee State University, Hillwood Museum, and Washington Performing Arts. She is also a contributor to the book Storytelling Strategies for Reaching and Teaching Students with Special Needs.

For more information on Embodied Storytelling, check out our 2015 interview with Arianna Ross and Suzanne Richard.

 

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Breaking Down Barriers Through Storytelling: an Interview with Sherry Norfolk

Picture of a woman in a black shirt and necklace, with short, light brown hair, smiling with her arms crossed.

Sherry Norfolk

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.

Seven Tips for Using Storytelling to Engage Students with Disabilities

By Sherry Norfolk

Storytelling is a natural, organic way to engage students with cognitive, physical, and emotional disabilities in story-making and story-sharing. Here are a few tips:

  1. Make it multi-modal. Storytelling provides opportunities for the teller to use meaningful facial expression and body language, expressive character voices, sound effects, and audience interaction – making the stories accessible to auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learners.
  2. Note audience response. This feedback allows you to differentiate accordingly – moving the action away from some students and towards others, for example. You’ll be surprised what you learn!
  3. Call it storyMAKING rather than story writing. Take the onus off of the mechanics and put the emphasis on the creativity and fun! Stories can be made and shared with pictures, puppets, in creative drama, orally, with props, students’ own tools, or adaptive technology.
  4. Model, model, model. Model the process of generating a story, first by telling a story with a clear pattern (think folktales here), then using that pattern to lead the group in brainstorming new characters, settings, and so on.
  5. Tell the resulting story – then let the class explore it through creative dramatics, puppets, etc., until it’s clear that the pattern is understood. Students can then work separately or in pairs to generate their own ideas and present their story to the class in whatever way they choose.
  6. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Research tells us that kids will continue to ask for the same story as long as they “need it” – emotionally, intellectually, socially – so tell it again, and make up more new versions together!
  7. ENJOY!

 

Picture of a woman in a black shirt and necklace, with short, light brown hair, smiling with her arms crossed.

 

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. www.sherrynorfolk.com

Playwright Discovery Call for Scripts Now Open!

A girl with long braids and glasses, wearing a pink shirt, looks at the script she is holding while a man in a gray baseball hat and gray sweatshirt looks on.

A past VSA Playwright Discovery Award winner works on her script.

Do you know a budding creative writer? The annual VSA Playwright Discovery Program, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program, is accepting scripts for its 2018 competition through January 17, 2018.

The Playwright Discovery Program invites young writers with disabilities and collaborative groups that include students with disabilities, in U.S. grades 6-12 (or equivalents) or ages 11-18 for non-U.S. students, to explore the disability experience through the art of writing for performance: plays, screenplays, spoken word poetry (for single performer or a group), or music theater. Writers are encouraged to craft short works from their own experiences and observations, create fictional characters and settings, or choose to write metaphorically or abstractly about the disability experience.

Six students stand on a black box stage floor holding glass awards, along with a seventh student whose face appears on a screen; audience members are applauding.

Past VSA Playwright Discovery Award winners are recognized for their writing at the Kennedy Center.

Selected winners in the Senior Division (grades 10-12 / ages 15-18) will receive exclusive access to participate in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., and the opportunity to participate in staged readings and workshops alongside the nation’s premier collegiate playwrights as well as participate in the festival’s award ceremony.

Before you or your students apply online, consider the following six tips for creating a winning script.

  1. Address the topic of disability in a meaningful way. Be thoughtful about how you incorporate disability into your script, and try to avoid clichés. Check out the playwriting resources available on the Kennedy Center’s website, including a series of short essays on the disability experience written by theater professionals with disabilities.
  2. Thoroughly develop the plot. Vary the stakes throughout your story to increase the sense of mystery and interest. Incorporate plot twists and subplots, but remember to resolve them.
  3. Pace the action well and sustain interest throughout. Many scripts have promising starts, but convenient or rushed conclusions. If the plot unfolds throughout your script, you will keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
  4. Make your characters believable and compelling. The characters in your play should elicit an emotional or intellectual response from your audience. Work on making them relatable and give them opportunities to learn and grow throughout the story.
  5. Use dialogue effectively. Dialogue is the playwright’s tool to further character development and express a range of human emotions. It should also reflect the writer’s language skills and a sense of natural speech patterns.
  6. Make your script your own. Tell a story that is unique, complex, and surprising, and your script will stand out!

The 2018 VSA Playwright Discovery Program is accepting applications until 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, January 17. Applications must be submitted online.

Announcing the Winners of the 2017 VSA Playwright Discovery Competition

The Kennedy Center’s Office of VSA and Accessibility is pleased to announce the winners of the 2017 VSA Playwright Discovery Competition, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program. This annual competition invites young writers with disabilities and collaborative groups that include students with disabilities to examine the disability experience and express their views through the art of writing for performance.

The winner in the Primary Division (grades 6-7) is The Lesson Taught by a Slice of Pizza by Lucas Correal from Baltimore Lab School in Baltimore, Maryland. The winner in the Junior Division (grades 8-9) is The Beauty of Roses by Courtney Brown from Derby High School in Derby, Kansas. The winners in these divisions will be featured on the VSA blog in the coming weeks.

Selected winners in the Senior Division (grades 10-12/ages 15-18) receive exclusive access to participate in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., and the opportunity to participate in staged readings and workshops alongside the nation’s premier collegiate playwrights. The young playwrights also participate in the festival’s award ceremony.

The winning Senior Division plays include: A Change of Heart by Cicely Henderson; The Forgotten by Anna Hiestand; Silent Thank Yous by Dana Langston; What Now? by Lissette Lendeborg and Angeles Parada; The Pain of Scoliosis by Jacob Radford; and Dimples and Diabetes by Elle Shaheen.

Photo of Ciecely Henderson, a girl with light brown braided hair and a blue sleeveless top.Cicely Henderson (A Change of Heart) is a sophomore in the San Francisco School of the Arts Theatre Department. During her two years there, she has developed a love of both Shakespeare and playwriting. She especially enjoys playwriting because it allows her to express and discover new perspectives. Cicely is currently in recovery for an eating disorder. She is honored to be participating in the 2017 VSA Playwright Discovery Program.

A photo of Anna Hiestand, a girl with reddish brown hair and bangs, wearing a dark blue dress.Anna Hiestand (The Forgotten) is a high school senior from Blue Springs, Missouri. Anna, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety, has a deep passion for writing, fueled by her desire to bring comfort and healing to others. She cites her disability experience as providing the empathy, emotional insight, and sensitivity necessary to make her a better writer. Anna believes we can accomplish things not only in spite of our disabilities, but also because of them!

A photo of Dana Langston, a girl with chin length, dark brown hair, wearing dark round glasses and a gray shirt.Dana Langston (Silent Thank Yous), age 17, hails from Pensacola, Florida. She is a senior at West Florida High School of Advanced Technology. Dana has severe depression and anxiety, which inspires much of her work. She is a published author, as well as the founder of Defective Dynamic, an organization that helps those with mental illness. She will be attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago after high school.

A photo of Lissette Lendeborg, a girl with black, braided hair wearing dark rim glasses and a black jacket.Lissette Lendeborg (What Now?) is a junior in the Creative Writing program at Miami Arts Charter School. Her work has been published in Orange Island Review, Poetry Matters, and di-verse-city Youth Anthology. Lissette has major depressive disorder, which she cites as the biggest obstacle she faces in producing work. She spends agonizing nights hovering over taunting blank pages, but rejoices when she takes part in the production of art.

Angeles ParadaPhoto of Angeles Parada, a girl with long, blonde hair and reddish rimmed glasses, wearing a pint shirt. (What Now?) is an eleventh grade student at Miami Arts Charter School. Angeles has migraine headaches; she aims to create art that helps others understand the disability experience.  She has been published by Poetry Matters and received two Silver Keys from the prestigious Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

A photo of Jacob Radford, a young man with short brown hair wearing a collared shirt and blue tie.Jacob Radford (The Pain of Scoliosis) is a 19-year-old senior at Seneca High School in Louisville, Kentucky. He enjoys listening to music on his headphones and playing basketball with his friends. His bowling team recently finished 4th in the state. Jacob, who has multiple disabilities, says his favorite assignment in his academic career has been writing this play; it is one of his most accomplished pieces.

A photo of Elle Shaheen, a girl with long, dark brown hair, wearing a blue shirt.Elle Shaheen (Dimples and Diabetes) is a 12th grade student at Portsmouth High School in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Elle, who has type 1 diabetes, uses her talents and passion for the performing arts to be an effective advocate for people with diabetes. The story of her life became the New York Times bestseller Elle and Coach. Elle has served as Co-Chair of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Children’s Congress, campaigned for the restoration of stem cell research, and founded a production company to produce and perform The Diary of Anne Frank along with new works while raising money for diabetes research.

Excerpts from the winning scripts will be performed on April 22 at 10 a.m. in the Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab. To reserve a free ticket, email Megan Bailey at mebailey@kennedy-center.org before April 17.

5 Tips for Working with Literature Artistically and Inclusively

by Susan Snyder, Ph.D.

Literature, whether a book text, oral story, poem, or script, provides a springboard for work on comprehension. You can explore the text through ears, eyes, bodies, and minds. You can use sound/music, image/visual art, movement/dance, storytelling/theater, and media arts/film. When considering adaptations for students with disabilities, remember that one disability does not impair other abilities.

  1. Establish routines and patterns for working with literature that provide options for expression, with a goal of comprehension.
  2. Use repetitive structures to provide students many chances to improve and succeed. The brain seeks pattern to learn, and repetition is a characteristic of many literary forms. Think of repetition in songs, visual art images, dances, and stories you know and love. Books have these repetitive patterns as well, whether a picture book or a passage from a chapter book.
  3. Provide choices to address student needs, and to challenge students to perceive the message through different lenses. Have students read or listen to the text four times, isolating the sounds, images, movements, and sequence. You can create a retelling with each student choosing to elaborate with either sound, gesture, or image.
  4. Help students learn writing mechanics with artistry. For example, imagine the shapes of punctuation, and how they might be visually organized on a page to emphasize the purpose of each. Victor Borge was a master of matching punctuation symbols with sounds for emotional effect. Add a movement for each, and you reinforce the concept visually, aurally, and kinesthetically.
  5. Be flexible about whether students write stories first, or read the stories of others. Some students do better when they write first, then read. Others prefer to read first, then pull out key words or phrases to inspire their writing.

For some students, our adaptations allow them to achieve in one modality when they cannot through traditional strategies. For those who succeed in traditional classrooms, they sometimes find that they are lacking the skills to think and learn through music, visual art, dance and theater. For all students, exploring literature through multiple modalities enriches learning and increases understanding.

 

A photo of a woman in glasses and a pink top.

Susan Snyder, Ph.D.

Susan Snyder, Ph.D. is an arts-integration teacher and consultant, and president of arts education IDEAS: a company supporting the art of exceptional teaching and learning. Susan creates curriculum designs that place the arts and artistic processes at the center of inclusive learning strategies. She has developed Total Learning, an arts-integrated professional development program www.aeideas.com.