One of my favorite topics in library school involved storytelling. It was well before the advent of PowerPoint or digital storytelling and actually involved memorizing and telling stories to a live audience. I remember performing for my peers the classic Casey at the Bat, sharing the rhythmic Possum Come A-Knocking, and acting out a Jack Tale costumed in faded overalls, an old straw hat, and chewing on a piece of straw. Inwardly, I could picture myself one day captivating students in my school library with my storytelling repertoire.
As far back as I can remember, I loved stories. I liked the ones that were read to me but more than anything I loved being baited, carried along, reeled in, and then gently released by a skilled storyteller. More often than not, the best storyteller was someone I could relate to; someone who may have talked like me, perhaps sounded like me, and described experiences that were often familiar to me.
As a student of American history, I was most compelled by the stories of unpretentious, unassuming, everyday people who, in diaries and letters, documented their stories of adversity and hardship against incredibly challenging backdrops of war, famine, poverty, or disease.
With technology, the prominence and art of storytelling from my library school days went the way of card catalogs, floppy disks and dot matrix printers. And, really, I thought, as I incorporated less and less storytelling with my classes, and in my urgency to demonstrate accountability, how would I measure or provide quantitative evidence of success through lessons involving storytelling? (That’s for another post.) I already had an assistant principal who had informed me that essentially all my daily efforts to produce a student-run morning news program were superfluous. I could only imagine what he might think about my value to students if he were to observe me “only” storytelling?
Nonetheless, thinking back on my teaching, I still naturally, usually unconsciously, incorporated storytelling techniques into my work with students. Second and third graders told their stories through the exciting new medium of PowerPoint. Kindergarteners used collages to share author stories with their classmates. Fourth graders dressed as and recorded stories of themselves as historical figures. Fifth graders told news and human interest stories on our morning news program. And I continued to tell stories to my students through booktalks, through introductions to folklore and fairytales, and through any and every reader advisory occasion. Although not realizing that what I was doing at the time would today be considered storytelling, I also told my stories at professional development sessions and conferences about integrating technology, about planning and co-teaching, and especially about the success of flexible access in an elementary school library.
Today, I find it absolutely fascinating that storytelling is being promoted not for literacy or cultural value but rather as a hot topic, success strategy for sales and marketing. Books, webinars, YouTube videos, and leadership gurus by the dozen now pitch storytelling to the business world as an exciting, revolutionary new marketing strategy. “Story is the new marketing,” says author Jeff Goins (2015), while Bruna Martinuzzi (2014), a leadership and presentation trainer, calls storytelling, “One of the most powerful tools in your business communication toolkit…” She refers to Get Storied, a storytelling training company that was started by Michael Margolis because he considered story as the reason people ‘buy your message, or buy your product, or even hire you to do a job.’ Annette Simmons (2006), author of Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling, says storytelling is the oldest “tool of influence in human history” (p. xix) and asserts that great leaders have always understood how to use storytelling to drive, manipulate, or influence others.
When Simmons (2006) describes the connection between the listener and her story – I know what she means. I have seen students so enthralled by a story they forget briefly where they are. At conferences, I have seen the understanding nods from people in the audience and the way certain people look when they totally buy into what I am saying. I am conscious of their “ah ha” moments, and, like Simmons, I know at that point I have made a connection with my story. For all my love of storytelling (the old fashioned kind), however, it had never occurred to me to use my storytelling skills to market my library. I was forgetting to tell the most important story of all.
Telling our stories could be huge for school librarians! Jean Donham (2013) believes that school librarians can best lead through influence. As school librarians, we are already familiar with storytelling, but probably not as it is now being promoted in business as a leadership tool, as a way to influence others, and as a way to make connections with people you want to work with. For school librarians, quite simply, storytelling could be a powerful, new advocacy tool to use with our teachers, our principals, and our community.
One of the repeat questions I have fielded across my career as a school librarian is, “What exactly do you do?” Maybe if I were to frame my answer as a story, I might finally be able to help others understand and, more importantly, connect with me. Simmons (2006) writes, “A good story simplifies our world into something that we feel like we can understand” (p. 30). Perhaps this is the place to start our advocacy using storytelling – by telling the simple story of who we are and what we can do to support students and teachers.
Donham, J. (2013). Enhancing teaching and learning: A leadership guide for school librarians. Chicago: Neal-Shulman.
Goins, J. ( 2015). 3 Reasons why you must become an expert at telling your own story [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://goinswriter.com/tell-your-story/
Martinuzzi, B. (2014, Aug. 7). 11 Powerful ways to tell your story [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/articles/11-powerful-ways-to-tell-your-story/
Simmons, A. (2006). Story factor: Inspiration, influence, and persuasion through the art of storytelling. NY: Basic Books.
Author: Anne Akers
Clinical assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Studies at the University of NC at Greensboro working with school library candidates. Former elementary, middle, and high school librarian in Virginia, Mississippi, and North Carolina.