RPCS Preschool Students Learn Early Literacy Through Storytelling and Story Acting

RPCS Preschool afternoon teacher Debbie Meyers first discovered storytelling and story acting at a lecture by Vivian Gussin Paley, author of Fantasy Play: A Child’s Work. Mrs. Meyers was intrigued by Vivian’s attempts to understand young children’s spontaneous play and its influences on intellectual and moral development.
Friendship and fantasy are integrally linked in young children’s minds, and storytelling and story acting allow children to “practice” friendship. Through storytelling and story acting, the children begin to connect at a more profound level with the other children in the classroom.
The Reggio-inspired, play-based curriculum that frames our RPCS Preschool classrooms is the perfect setting for these methods. Some stories are original ideas, and others are reflections on what the child has just been doing or a book that they have just been read. Some stories are silly, some are profound, and some show a fascination with a certain topic. All stories are dictated to Mrs. Meyers complete with noises, dialogue and stage directions. With the support of Preschool 4's afternoon teacher Megan Ferguson - who also helps to display the finished stories on hallway bulletin boards - Mrs. Meyers is able to give her full attention to the storytellers.
Following an observational session of the Preschool 3’s class in 2016, former Upper School teacher Kelsey Twist Schroeder shared a written reflection on what is happening every day in our RPCS Preschool titled “Our Preschool Cosmopolitan Intellectuals.” Here are a few excerpts:
These three-year-old children…were acting with the authority of authors and directors, teachers and scholars. Not only were they approached by their teachers as capable and literate individuals, they saw themselves and one another in these powerful roles. As I heard phrases like, “I am the author,” or “It’s my/your story,” I realized the children were connecting literacy with their identity. Watching them take on these literary qualities with such pleasure, confidence, and authority is something I strive to nurture in my Upper School students.
Storytelling takes place at a small classroom table. Mrs. Meyers sits beside “the author” and among the other children. She is equipped with three yellow legal pads and a small pile of ballpoint pens. I initially wondered why she had so many pads and pens since she was the only person who could write, but I reminded myself that I was there to observe and not to interject, so I noted my question and continued to quietly observe.
As the first author took her seat, Mrs. Meyer’s asked, “What’s it going to be about today?” The little girl began, “Once upon a rabbit.”
“Once upon a rabbit?”
“Yes, once upon a rabbit,” she giggled.
“Ok. What’s next?”
“And then came Elsa.”
“And…then…came…Elsa…” Mrs. Meyers repeated as she wrote down each word.
As the girl continued with her story, Mrs. Meyers would encourage her with small affirmations, nodding and asking clarifying questions. Two other children seated at the table listened with intensity, their small bodies leaning in toward the action. Two additional children came in and out of the activity, alternating between listening and playing with trucks or dress up.  
After a few minutes another girl began to get impatient and asked, “Can I go now?” Mrs. Meyers reminded her that another classmate was next, but that everyone who wanted a turn would get one. She handed her a pad of paper and a pen and said she could start her story on her own while she waited. As she picked up the pen the boy beside her asked, “What’s your story going to be about?” She said it would be about a witch and began to draw on the pad. I sat amazed. They are only three years old, but they didn’t seem to need Mrs. Meyers at all.

In subsequent stories I heard the children integrating plots from children’s books and movies into their own stories. The second story was a modification of the three little pigs but with six pigs and a prominently featured firetruck. When Mrs. Meyers would ask a clarifying question, sometimes other children at the table would answer and the author would either accept or reject the suggestion. The storyteller often incorporated other children from the classroom and members of their family into the story. It began both an individual and group experience.    
During the break I had a chance to speak with Mrs. Meyers about how she began storytelling and what attracted her to it as a teacher. She told me,
“Everyone’s got a story. Sometimes the kids start out shy, but then they participate more. I like it because you can teach anything. You can teach math, science, compassion, anything. I also like it because it builds community. They borrow things from each other and they put each other in their stories. It’s what they do. It’s their language, their conflicts and negotiations. It comes right off the playground. It’s them. That’s why I love it.”
There is both joy and pride in her voice. She has successfully established a culture where toddlers can engage in primary and secondary discourses, connecting their knowledge of the world to their ideas, opinions, and imagination. She has opened her mind, the children’s minds, the parents’ minds, and the larger school community to a wider understanding of literacy - an understanding that allows a child’s unadulterated language to be celebrated and worthy of display. She has created an environment where these children who cannot yet ‘read’ or ‘write’ can identify as highly literate authors.
After outdoor play, the children returned to the classroom, unbundled, and found a seat in one of the small chairs arranged in a U-shape. It was time to act out the stories. The activity began with the author standing beside Mrs. Meyers as she read the story aloud to the group.
The author then chose a volunteer to play each character. The children acted out the story one sentence at a time, with Mrs. Meyers asking questions that would guide the acting. “I wonder how the piggies would feel when the big bad wolf was coming towards their house.” The children became almost giddy with excitement as they took on the role of their character.  
As I left [at the end of the day], my mind returned to that phrase “cosmopolitan intellectuals.” It is how Mrs. Meyers sees and understands her students, with a level of respect and admiration that serves as an example to all teachers. By engaging with the children’s stories, Mrs. Meyers delights in their humor, empathizes with their pain, and honors their language, setting a strong foundation of literacy as a critical social practice for these very young children.

To learn more about the RPCS Preschool, please contact Lower School Admissions at 410-323-5500 x3080 or AdmissionsDL@rpcs.org.