Storytelling in Sunday School Settings
A Manual by Amy Crane
The purpose of this booklet is to help teachers, preachers, and others bring storytelling into the church. This manual was prepared for Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church in Tampa, Florida by Amy Crane for non-commercial uses only.
Copyright Amy Crane. Permission granted to freely distribute and use, provided the copyright message is included.
The Bible is a story that's meant to be told.
In Genesis 1:1- 2:4 God calls forth the world into being. "Let there be light!" God speaks and from the dark chaos, light springs forth. "And God saw that the light was good."
So it seems to be with the storyteller's craft.
- Using the creative word, the storyteller of tales weaves pictures, actions, personalities, and even Truth to create a story.
- The listener is pulled into a new world, created at the moment of telling.
- As we listen to stories, we face crises, explore possibilities, make decisions, and resolve problems.
- As we listen to stories we meet people of faith like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Isaiah, Jonah, Esther, Ruth, Peter, John, and Paul. Through storytelling, we see ourselves in them, and they in us. Through those people of faith, and our story, we come to know God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the Rotation Model, the Storyteller's job is to bring the words of the bible ALIVE by telling them in a way that children will listen, be able to respond, and be able to retell.
Storytelling is primarily an oral and "aural" event, that is, voice and ears. While some props or even a storybook can be used, the emphasis is on the ability of the storyteller to tell a compelling tale that captures the audience.
What makes a story compelling so that it captures the audience?
- The story itself, retold in dramatic fashion.
- The storyteller's costume and demeanor.
- The setting of the telling, cozy, focused, not sterile.
- And an awareness of the listener's experience so that the teller knows when and how to shift gears, bring in audience participation, or bring things to a close.
Storytelling is not simply someone in costume repeating the scripture with dramatic inflection to a seated group of children. Real storytelling takes the scripture as a starting point and fills in the blanks in the story, details about the characters, context, feelings, emotions that are TRUE to the original meaning of the scripture.
The Parts of a Good Story:
A good tale should have a beginning, middle, climax, and end. Some Bible stories lack one or two of these story parts and need to be imagined by the storyteller.
The beginning is an explanation of why the story exists. It could be called the presentation of the problem. (For example, in the story of David and Goliath, the Israelites and Philistines were at war.)
The middle is the telling of the sequence of events. Emphasize the importance of maintaining the proper order. (How David came to meet Goliath, and what if David had been too afraid to speak up, no one would have fought Goliath.)
The climax is the exciting part. (David fights with Goliath and wins.)
The end is the winding up of the story. (David took Goliath's head as a trophy. Yikes! Maybe we just say, "and everyone cheered David's name over Saul's!)
All stories have a purpose/main idea that answers the question "why are you telling/listening to this story?" Note that listeners may have a different understanding of the story's purpose, which is okay as we all bring different experiences to the story. (That is why it is best not to state a moral or message at the end of the story. However, the storyteller can say how the story has changed THEIR life, helped them, taught them.)
Fashioning your assigned Story into a Tellable Tale:
Read your story in at least one Bible translation, then fill out a Story Summary Worksheet using lots of adjectives and descriptive words. This will help you understand the story better and the story will be easier to remember. Then you will be able to learn the story "by heart" rather than "by rote."
Read your story in different Bible translations, picture books, a children's Bible, and the Storyteller's Companion to the Bible series (edited by Michael Williams, see Bibliography). Look in the Bible for other variations of your story, particularly if it is a story found in more than one Gospel. Old Testament stories are enhanced by some of the colorful legends called Midrash, stories created by Rabbis to "fill in the gaps" in Bible stories; many collections can be found in your public library.
A study Bible is a quick and easy tool to use. These Bibles have brief background and explanatory notes next to the text and are a good starting point for research. Borrow one from the library, or better yet, invest in one for your own personal study.
Spend some time with your story. Reread it daily for a week or so. Think about the characters and why they may have done what they did, how they felt, and how other nameless characters in the story may have reacted. Consider the story's setting, which not only is a physical description of a location, but may also consider lifestyles and beliefs of people at that time. Do a bit of background research if you have time. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible is a reference book that is useful for researching characters, places, and things found in Bible stories.
Think about repetitive phrases or actions throughout the story that the children can help with (for example, in the story of the Ten Commandments, the people are constantly grumbling, first in the wilderness, and then when Moses is on Mount Sinai for a long time).
Remain true to the story found in the Bible, but feel free to use the information you have found in your research to make the story come alive. Think about how you can bring the senses into the story: add colors, textures, sounds, smells, even tastes (cool, refreshing water; the yeasty smell of fresh bread; scorching heat of the blazing sun). Think about why a character does what he does; think about his personality. Allow that character to come to life in your telling.
Methods for Learning a Story:
Everyone has their own favorite methods, tricks, and secrets for learning a story. The following are suggestions, but find the method that works best for you personally. The most important thing, of course, is practice, practice, practice!
You do not need to memorize a story word for word. You will inevitably forget the next word and go blank. Learn to tell the story in your own words; some words will be the same each time you tell, but it will vary slightly.
Read the story aloud over and over in front of a mirror. Try to make eye contact with yourself as much as possible. Don't worry that if when you look away from the written story, you don't repeat it word for word.
Draw a picture outline of the story. This helps you see the story as a series of pictures/scenes. It is NOT meant to be an art project; stick figures are fine. Use balloons to hold important words/phrases. After the pictures are done, try telling the story just using the pictures. (It is much easier to tell a story as a series of images than as a set of memorized words.)
Make a story map: a listing of key words, phrases, or scenes in sequence. Use arrows showing how scenes and characters relate to each other.
While most of the story should be told in your own words, it is often helpful to memorize the first and last lines of the story. This way the story will start and end smoothly.
Tell the story to anyone (or anything) that will listen, such as dogs, cats, stuffed animals, babies, children, friends, families. The more the story is told, the more firmly it will be planted in your mind.
Read the story into your cellphone's recorder, and then listen to it over and over. Listen for expression, pauses, and so on. Re-record the story, to see if you have improved. Or have someone video you telling the story. This is a good way to fine-tune a tale, particularly the movements and gestures.
Tell the story to yourself whenever you have a chance - when walking the dog, washing the dishes, waiting in line. You will learn the story well enough that you are used to telling it even if you are distracted while performing (for example, someone walks into the room).
Remember that you are learning the story "by heart" to retell in your own words, not memorizing it word for word.
Sometimes the storyteller needs a cribsheet. A "scroll you were writing" when the kids came into your student may look like a prop to them, but can be your cribsheet. You can also create drawings of key scenes and ideas and hang them to look like "tent artwork" inside your storytelling tent.
Working with Your Listeners
Before you begin, make sure that the audience is comfortable. Your listeners should not have anything in their hands. They should be sitting in a circle if there is room; otherwise, they should all be sitting so that you can make eye contact with each child. If you cannot see everyone's face, have the audience shift before you begin.
If the children are sitting on the floor, remember that after about 10 minutes, they will get uncomfortable and start to wiggle. So keep your story short and interesting, and keep your audience involved. Consider letting them help with sound effects and repeated phrases (you may want to practice before you begin telling the story).
Tell the entire story without stopping. Do not interrupt the flow of story for lessons and pop quizzes. This will turn off the listeners and will break the magical feeling created listening to a teller weave a tale. The children may not look like they are listening, but as long as they are not talking with or poking the person seated next to them, they are listening.
Sometimes, questions do fit well in the format of the story, but be prepared for any answer, or no answer at all. For example, in telling the story of David and Goliath, you tell about Goliath's challenge to the Israelites, and ask a rhetorical question: "What do you think the soldiers did?" The correct response is that they were afraid and did nothing. If someone says "I would get up and blow up Goliath with my bazooka," be prepared to explain that heavy artillery did not exist, and besides, if you were really there, you probably would be afraid too. Then continue with your story. Save discussion for afterwards.
Do not moralize: most children will figure out the message on their own. Do discuss the story briefly - not as a repeating of details, but prepare a few good why and what if questions.
Answer the children's questions about the story. Be prepared for the "Is this story true?" or "This didn't really happen, did it?" questions. This is where a bit of historical background research comes in handy, but it is also appropriate to answer with a question of your own: "What do you think?" The answers may surprise you.
About the Author:
I, like everyone else, have been telling stories ever since I could talk. I took a course in storytelling at the University of South Florida as part of my Library Science masters degree work, and have been telling more polished stories ever since. I have worked as a children's librarian for several libraries. In those positions, I shared stories with preschool and elementary aged children on a regular basis, helped two schools organize Storytelling Festivals, and taught teachers and students how to tell stories.
Since moving to Louisiana in 1999, I have told stories in schools, libraries, and churches. I am on the Louisiana Division of the Arts Artist Roster and am an Artist in Residence in the schools in the Greater Baton Rouge Area.
In my spare time I stay busy with a number of other projects, including teaching Sunday School, writing, and, most importantly, being Mommy to Sophie, age 5.
Amy is a long-time member of Rotation.org. Her drama and storytelling lesson plans are found throughout our Lesson Exchange. She is also a member of our volunteer Writing Team. Her daughter, Sophie, has now graduated from high school!
A Rotation.org volunteer has reformatted this post to improve readability and add some extra ideas. Your suggestions are welcome. Reply below!