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.

Digital Storytelling Program Empowers Students with Disabilities

A young woman operates a video camera outside while others look on.

Students operate video cameras as part of the OCCTAC program.

At the Orange County Children’s Therapeutic Arts Center (OCCTAC), a year-long program in technology, arts, and inclusive leadership training offered youth with disabilities an opportunity to use digital storytelling as a tool for self-empowerment. The program, held quarterly from October 2016-August 2017, taught high school juniors and seniors fundamentals of art, video production, and self-advocacy.

Pheobe Stanciell, After School Arts Coordinator at OCCTAC, says that many of the students came into the program with no prior experience in art, so the first sessions featured lessons on the elements of art and color. Then the students explored the basics of video production and technology. Next, the program leaders started a conversation with the students about what it means to have a disability, the differences between advocacy and self-advocacy, and how they address challenges they face.

Stick figures drawn on yellow sticky notes, arranged in two rows of four notes.

An example of a storyboard created by students at OCCTAC.

Armed with their new knowledge, the students broke into teams and created their own original short film projects. Stanciell says storyboarding was an important part of the students’ creative process. “Our teaching artist showed the students how to create a storyboard collaboratively by giving the students sticky notes and encouraging them to contribute to their team’s story by writing or drawing on their note. It was a great and flexible way for each team to work together since the notes could be easily rearranged as their story unfolded,” she explains.

The conversations that happened during the self-advocacy lessons inspired many of the students’ films. According to Stanciell, many of the film projects tackled topics like bullying of students with disabilities and how to stand up for your peers. She adds, “Some students walked away from the program saying, ‘I might want to do video editing or be a camera operator professionally,’ and that’s exciting. But everyone also leaves with increased self-confidence and leadership skills to help prepare them for the future.”

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

Building Reading Comprehension Through Inclusive Arts Learning

Educators participate in an Embodied Storytelling workshop.

Educators participate in an Embodied Storytelling workshop.

Many students need support in developing their ability to read confidently. VSA Intersections conference presenters Arianna Ross and Suzanne Richard have developed arts integration learning strategies and activities that engage learners with disabilities and support reading with comprehension. Ross and Richard combine elements of dance, storytelling, visual art, and drama for their professional development workshop, which they call Embodied Storytelling.

Embodied Storytelling, according to Ross, is using the body and voice to help students tell, plan, and comprehend a story. She emphasizes that the process utilizes all arts genres to embody the story, and that greater reading comprehension comes from that experience. Richard describes the Embodied Storytelling process as, “…breaking down the story, then beginning to read it, then embodying it in group and collaborative work.”

Arianna Ross headshot

Arianna Ross

Ross and Richard each bring their own unique perspective to Embodied Storytelling, which together create a valuable professional development experience for educators. Ross’ background as a multi-disciplinary teaching artist, along with her knowledge of arts integration and Common Core State Standards, offers an understanding of multiple arts genres, teachers, and school systems. Richard adds her personal and professional expertise in inclusive education, through her years as a teaching artist and accessibility specialist and through her own experience as a person with a disability.

According to Richard, the Embodied Storytelling workshops model a focus on ability rather than disability. “We find out what students can do and then expand on that idea,” says Richard. “Also what they love to do,” Ross adds, continuing, “If they like to draw but the teacher thinks they cannot, we suggest they use a modified strategy to bring that in.”

Suzanne Richard headshot

Suzanne Richard

One inclusive strategy frequently utilized in Embodied Storytelling is gesture partners. “For kids who don’t talk, a physical and voice pairing allows everyone to work together with their strengths,” says Ross. Group work is an important part of the Embodied Storytelling approach, so strategies for successful, inclusive collaboration are discussed in the workshops.

Since October 2014, Ross and Richard have led professional development workshops on Embodied Storytelling for over 100 special education professionals. These three-hour workshops focus on arts integration and reading comprehension, with an emphasis on nonfiction reading. Ross says the idea for their upcoming Intersections session came from the positive reactions they have received during these recent workshops.

Educators participate in an Embodied Storytelling workshop.

Educators participate in an Embodied Storytelling workshop.

At their 90-minute Intersections session, participants will learn specific exercises that they can immediately apply in their own community, as well as strategies for adapting their own activities. The interactive workshop will include opportunities for hands-on learning and questions. Ross and Richard will also discuss the process of how the two of them co-taught together and how you can work with an inclusion specialist in your community.

Ross and Richard will present their Intersections session, “Harnessing the Power of Arts Integration: Using Interactive Arts Integration Strategies to Build Reading Comprehension,” on Monday, August 3, at 2:30 PM. Visit the VSA Intersections website to learn more and to register for the conference.