In this month's Something to Talk About… blog post Emily Machado writes about the power of storytelling and the possibilities for including families’ voices in our classroom talk.
Outside the windows of the community center, we could see that the sun had just set on an October evening in the Pacific Northwest. With our chairs pulled into a small circle, toddlers seated on laps, and artwork in hand, the families in our storytelling workshop began to share their stories. One mother used Spanish as she shared stories from her childhood growing up in Guerrero, Mexico. A child held up a sheet of black construction paper covered in cotton balls, narrating a fictionalized scary story about a ghost. Two preteens proudly showcased the 3D “nightmare clowns” they had created with cotton balls, paint, and construction paper, narrating the clowns’ origin stories.
Children’s homes and communities are sites of powerful and deeply meaningful talk and learning. At home, children may speak and listen across multiple languages, and may play and learn in community with older adults and younger siblings and cousins. This learning is multilingual, intergenerational, and multimodal—and often at odds with the sort of talk that’s privileged in our schools. What might be possible if we invited families’ ways with language into our classrooms? How might learning with and from those families help us to know our students more deeply?
What might be possible if
we invited families’ ways with
language into our classrooms?
While these are big questions with even bigger possible answers, a first step towards reimagining talk in our classrooms might be to invite families—and all their ways with language—into our classrooms. In the fall of 2019, in partnership with university researchers and public librarians, I worked on a project called Family Storytelling—a series of workshops for families to share their stories through multilingual talk, writing, art, and making. We designed this initiative with a focus on creating a welcoming and fluid stance towards language, a broadened understanding of what “counts” as writing and storytelling, and a commitment to creating spaces for intergenerational learning. While we piloted this work in a community center, many of its activities could be brought into classrooms for family literacy nights or other community engagement initiatives. Below, I outline some of our Family Storytelling activities, in the hopes that they might be a starting point for reimagining talk in classrooms.
Inspire Stories with Stories
Each of our Family Storytelling workshops opened with informal welcomes, time for chatting, and—importantly—snacks. While families settled in, they browsed Spanish, English, and multilingual picture books focused on the day’s theme—a topic that we had decided upon together during our previous sessions. Then we offered families an invitation to compose by reading aloud a picture book and using it to generate ideas for stories. For instance, during our first workshop, I read aloud a vignette in English and Spanish from Carmen Lomas Garza’s Family Pictures/Cuadros de Familia. After reading, I asked families to turn and talk about their own family memories, and if they were comfortable, to share some ideas for storytelling. Ideas began to float through the air, with families sharing memories of making enchiladas together, trips to amusement parks, and holiday celebrations. Across the workshops, we found that sharing these stories was powerful for settling into the space and generating ideas. Sharing stories often sparked new avenues for conversation, and new approaches for composition.
Ideas began to float through the air,
with families sharing memories of making
enchiladas together, trips to amusement parks,
and holiday celebrations.
Rethink Talk and Writing as Composition
Although our workshop was called “Family Storytelling,” telling stories was just the beginning. We invited families to compose—using any combination of languages and modalities they chose. The materials we brought to each workshop mattered—and included beads, paints, cotton balls, felt, markers, musical instruments, digital tablets, and more. While most participants chose to both create something and share orally, some chose only to create, and let their artifacts speak for themselves. A broadened stance towards composition opened space for families to create and share stories in any way of their choosing—an opportunity that’s all too rare in schools.
Share through Talk and More
At the end of each workshop, we gathered in a circle to share our stories. Families were encouraged to share in any way and to whatever extent they were comfortable, with some choosing to read compositions aloud, present art pieces, or orally tell their stories in the languages of their choosing. They used their artifacts to anchor their work and asked each other questions both about the content of their stories and their compositional and artistic moves. Through composing, families also began to see and be seen in new ways; children were surprised by their parents’ creativity as many of them shared cultural stories from their home communities and childhoods. Children also surprised their parents, teaching them about social happenings at school and about memes, music, and other aspects of digital cultures.
Opening Up our Classrooms through Storytelling
Family Storytelling is just one example of ways that we can begin to open up our classrooms to children and families’ ways of being, knowing, and talking. Broadening our understandings of talk, stories, and composition through intergenerational and multilingual storytelling offers opportunities for us to begin to know our students and their families in deeper ways—including their lives and histories beyond school.
About the Author
Emily Machado is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A former first grade teacher, she is deeply interested in making early literacy learning spaces more equitable, inclusive, and humanizing for all young children. Follow her on Twitter @emilynmachado.