The Story Workshop® Approach
In a classroom in Chicago, a group of fourth and fifth graders are entering the dream world of the fiction story, "The Bucket Rider," by Franz Kafka. Story Workshop teacher Devon Polderman guides students through the oral reading. Students are seated in a semicircle and take turns reading short passages. At times, the teacher asks them to act out the dramatic moments without leaving their chairs -- using their hands to make gestures. Students laugh but take on the roles of characters and, later, remember the story more clearly.
The next Story Workshop activity is Recall. Polderman asks the students to give recall, or to tell what they remember most.
"See it," he says, "then tell it!"
(View the video clip of this class to observe the Recall activity.)
Polderman coaches students to use gestures to enhance their recall. One student uses both hands to show how Kafka's bucket rider grips the handle of the bucket.
Coaching one shy boy, Polderman says, "How does he ride it? Show us. Tell everybody here -- listen to your voice while you do."
"Like, holding on to it like a horse," says the boy, moving his body, dipping and rising as if galloping.
A blond fifth-grade girl sitting in the middle of the semicircle recalls the ending scene of the story. At first, she delivers more summary than dramatic action. She initially shows little pleasure in the telling, as if she's treating it as a test question. The teacher coaches her, she holds her hands in front of her body, and suddenly the space between her hands becomes a little theater.
With a smile, she sets one hand down by her knee and shows that the hand will be the voices of the coal dealer and his wife. In the story, the coal dealer and his wife are in their crowded basement office, a space so hot that they leave the door open to the frigid air, and the bucket rider is asking for something to keep his apartment warm. Raising her other hand above her head, the girl shows that this hand will be the voice of the bucket rider. She opens and closes her hand as he pleads, "I want a shovel of coal." Beaming at her hand puppets, she does an active recall of the scene verbally and through gestures, giving voice to the coal dealer, his wife, and the bucket rider.
The audience in the semicircle bursts into laughter. The girl is excited about reaching her audience of peers and teacher. "Keep going!" encourages Polderman. "It helps me to see the remaining show."
She acts out how the coal dealer's mean wife comes up the stairway and sees the bucket rider hovering in the air on his bucket, hoping to carry away coal to heat his house. She declares to her husband that there is no one here and, looking directly at the bucket rider, waves her apron up and down. The bucket rider's steed cannot resist the woman's apron and is wafted away to the ice mountains forever.
During the Recall activity, many students wave their hands up and down to show the gesture of the coal dealer's wife waving her apron up and down to send the bucket rider to the ice mountains. They give gestures for the bucket rider holding on to his bucket and rising as high as the fourth-floor windows. One girl concludes, "She's waving her apron at him and she keeps on doing it faster and faster so then he blows away and he gets lost."
The recall has taken a few minutes, with virtually every student participating in some way. In a vivid and engaging manner, the students and teacher have reviewed important principles of image, sequence, dramatic relationships, and more that goes into the telling of a story.
Through the Story Workshop activity, students are learning about what makes a story, the process of reading, the connection between speaking voice and written language, and how to write effectively. Gesture shows the dramatic relationships and helps the students become more conscious of important moments in the story that must be expressed through writing techniques such as metaphor, verb choice, and so on. The teacher talks about the importance of using inventive language and imagery to bring the dramatic elements into their writing.
In the next activity, Oral Telling, In-class Writing and Readback, the students write stories about their dreams. Finally, students go through the process of rewriting and perfecting their stories. (To hear Devon Polderman describe rewriting strategies, view the video clip.)
Students in this class stretched their voices by reading aloud to an audience. They developed a heightened understanding of the story by acting out different roles and listening to and building upon their classmates' performances and observations. Finally, they improved their own writing skills through writing, rewriting, and reading their pieces aloud.
With the Story Workshop's integration of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking relationships, both reading comprehension and writing skills improve. After a 10-week Story Workshop program, one fourth-grade public school teacher reflected, "Reading and writing are taught equally in this course. . . Reading became easier, more enjoyable, and writing was given a voice with power. . . [Both] improved so dramatically, scores in other subjects soared."