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Storytelling and Environmental Education for Teachers and School Media Librarians by Dr. Brian W. Sturm

A teacher workshop given at the Environmental Education Institute, Salter Path, NC, August, 2005 and 2006

Keywords: elementary school, middle school


What is storytelling?

Storytelling is an emotionally charged form of oral communication in which an “audience” agrees to listen to a “teller.”   While there can be many levels of audience participation in storytelling, there remains a tacit understanding that the one sharing the story “has the floor.”  The storyteller, then, has the obligation to present her story compellingly so that the listeners experience the story as vividly as possible.  Storytelling, then, is a way of seeing.  The teller visualizes the story unfolding in her head, and if she describes what she is seeing effectively, the audience, too, is able to envision the action and the characters.  In order to visualize the setting and characters clearly, the tellers must know them intimately, and this requires another kind of seeing: the ability to capture in words the essence of a place, a creature, or a person.  To describe a squirrel requires an intimate knowledge of what it looks like, where it lives, what it eats, how it acts and reacts, how it moves, and how it communicates with others; in short, the tellers must see all the facets of the squirrel to render it accurately in the unfolding story.  Storytelling, then, forces us to see the world clearly and deeply.

Storytelling is also a way of being because, for a teller to communicate effectively, he must become emotionally vulnerable to his audience.  Storytellers cannot share the emotions of story characters without feeling them first and knowing on several levels how that emotion must be expressed.  First the emotion must resonate with the storyteller (how do I, as teller, express this emotion in normal life?); second, it must resonate with the character (how would my character express this emotion?); and third, it must resonate with the audience (how would this particular audience in this particular location express this emotion?).  For example, if I were to tell a story of an angry bear to a group of three-year-olds, I would need to know: 1) how I express anger; 2) how a bear shows anger; and 3) how 3-year-olds understand and express anger.  The final performance of this anger would require a merging of these three levels of emotion so that all are satisfied and understand the emotion I wish to depict.  There are other levels that might factor in as well (such as culturally defined expressions of emotion), but there is evidence that facial expressions are at least somewhat identifiable across cultures.

Storytelling requires listeners to participate in a visualization process of their own imaginative making.  The dragon described by the teller is rarely the precise dragon visualized by the listeners, since they bring to the story their own prior experience with pictures of dragons, and they superimpose those images onto the unfolding story.  If there are problems with their understanding, they often express these nonverbally to the teller (quizzical looks, furrowed brow, or loss of interest if the problem is sufficiently distracting), and he then alters the telling of the tale to clarify the listeners’ understanding.  Storytelling, in this way, is improvisational and different each time because the teller adapts the unfolding story to “fit” each new audience and maximize their experience.  It is also communal because both telling and listening to a story require people to engage with each other to build an understanding of the unfolding tale; the experience is co-created as teller and audience interact with each other to bring the story to life.

This interaction is deeply engaging, as it requires both parties to be fully present and focused, and to contribute to the story experience, and engagement is precisely what teachers want from their students.  While the body is quiescent, the listeners’ minds are fully engaged in the process of creating their own story from the words of the teller, and if those words have a scientific basis, or more particularly an environmental message, the students will help create it in the process of listening to the story.  This is, perhaps, the most effective form of active learning.  By embedding the information that teachers want their students to learn in the framework of a story, they help students learn without the obvious didacticism of the typical classroom, and school media librarians, who are often steeped in literature and story and have a thorough knowledge of children and adolescents, are the ideal performers once their skills are developed.  Let me tell you a story adapted from a Jewish folktale:

Once upon a time, Truth and Parable lived in a small house on the outskirts of a village.  Both were exceedingly beautiful women, and they would argue endlessly about who attracted the most attention.  Finally, to end their argument, they agreed to a contest: they would each walk through the village and see which one of them got the most attention.  Truth went first.  As she walked through the village, people began to return to their houses, close their gates, and shutter themselves inside.  By the time Truth reached the end of the village, there were very few people left outside.  Determined to win the contest, she disrobed and paraded back through the village naked, figuring that would get their attention, but the few people left outside scurried away, leaving the village deserted.  Truth returned to where Parable was standing, utterly humiliated.

Parable, then walked into the village, and the people opened their doors, gathered around Her and began to chat with Her as she walked through the village.  By the time she returned to where Truth was standing, the entire village had flowed into the streets behind her and were laughing and shouting and making merry.

“How did you do that?” asked Truth dejectedly. “Why did everyone hide from me?”  Parable replied, “No one likes the naked truth; if you want to be accepted you must clothe yourself with story.”  And Parable held out her beautiful multicolored robe of Story and wrapped it around the shoulders of Truth, and the whole village smiled on her and welcomed her in.

[This story can be found in: Baltuck, Naomi.  Apples from Heaven: Multicultural Folk Tales about Stories and Storytellers.  Linnet Books, 1995, pp. 69-70; and Forest, Heather. Wisdom tales from Around the World. August House, 1996, p. 1.]

Storytelling, then, is a way to: 1) see the world more clearly, 2) experience it more deeply, 3) communicate ideas more clearly, 4) engage students in content more effectively, 5) share emotions, and 6) create an environment in which students experience together and build a communal understanding of their world.

What is science?

Science, too, is a way of “seeing” and “being.”  It is both an experience and an attitude toward the world.  When students see the world through the lens of science, it appears in a very particular way and with a very particular focus, and when they practice science, the world unfolds within a pre-determined, logical structure.  Fundamentally, science is the process of questioning and answering (hypothesis and hypothesis-testing) with an emphasis on such questions as “Why?” and “What if?”  Why is the sky blue during the day (physics)?  What if I mix these two chemicals together (chemistry)?  Why does my body sweat (biology)?  What if this species goes extinct (ecology)?  Why do we act that way (psychology)? What if the sun grows bigger as it ages (astronomy)?  Why is my body sick (medicine)? 

Science gives us a structure for examining our world more deeply, communicating those ideas more clearly, and building a communal understanding of the world in which we live.  Does this not sound familiar?  Folktales and stories accomplish the same goal, though they use slightly different methods and allow different factors to play.  Indeed, science is just one of the ongoing stories (the predominant one at the moment in Western culture) we tell ourselves in an attempt to understand our world.  Myth, folklore, and religion are also stories that help in this regard.  It is vital that we don’t mistake story for fiction here.  Saying science is a “story” does not make it fictional or wrong; it does, however, make it transitory.  As our understanding grows, the science “story” changes, our proposed “facts” are contradicted with new discoveries, and the science unfolds.

Why Storytelling in Environmental Education?

Storytelling is an invaluable tool for environmental education since it requires of students (as listeners and tellers) a detailed examination of the world around them.  While it may be important to know the facts about squirrels, how much more useful it would be to set the squirrel in its environmental context, to understand how squirrels interact with other species, and to develop a sense for how squirrels form part of the environmental “story.”  These are the kinds of empathic connections that story enables, and it also makes them very personal, since the students must imagine it all for themselves.  As the students form these connections, they reinforce the information contained in the story and thereby remember it more completely and for a longer time.  When I taught outdoor education in California to 5th grade students, I found that children lost interest in the natural world as soon as they had names for things.  If I answered, “What’s that?” with “a tanbark acorn cup,” the students were satisfied with the label and quickly forgot what it was.  Instead, I answered with this story adapted from a Native American (Karuk) story about the Acorn Maidens:

Once, when the earth was young and before people had been created, there lived three beautiful maidens in the spirit world.  One day the Creator told them that humans had been raised on the earth, and that these women would be sent to the earth to nourish and strengthen these new beings.  Gold Acorn Maiden was excited and decided to weave herself a beautiful hat for the journey, which she quickly did.  Tanbark Acorn Maiden and Black Acorn Maiden complained about not having the right materials for weaving hats, so when the Creator sent them to the earth, their hats were not finished.  The straw ends stuck out all over Tanbark Acorn Maiden’s hat, and Black Acorn Maiden had barely started her hat, so she picked up a big bowl basket instead to use for a hat. As they left for the earth, Gold Acorn Maiden asked the Creator, “How will we give strength to these humans?”  The Creator replied, “You will be the fruit of the mighty oak trees, and the people will gather you for food.” 

Terrified, the maidens all turned their faces into their hats to hide, but Tanbark Acorn Maiden made one last request. “Creator Spirit,” she called, “people will think me ugly with this hat. If I must be eaten, may my soup taste the best so that I will not be the least favored of all?”  As they fell to the earth, the Creator heard her pleas and granted her wish, and so to this day, the acorns of the tanbark oak are the best tasting even though their cups looks like unfinished straw hats, and these three acorns have little “faces” on the bottom of the nut hidden inside their cups.

[This story can be found in: “Karuk Indian Myths.” Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 107 (1932), p. 6, and Native Ways: California Indian Culture and History, Including Ongoing Cultural Revival. Heyday Books, 1995, p. 92-93.]

When I chanced to see some of these students several years later on the streets of their hometown, they remembered that story and could identify the tanbark oak because of it.  These “pourquoi” tales (from the French word for “why”) explain how things came to be as they are, and they make wonderful memory tools and comparisons for today’s science. Many cultures have different stories for why the world looks like it does, and students can develop their understanding of other cultures (and their own) by comparing these stories.  Thus the science lesson merges into the social studies lesson adding further context for increased retention.  The more students can connect their past experiences with the new information they are studying, the better they will remember it.  Storytelling calls forth these memories and forges links between seemingly disparate information.

As the students’ repertoire of stories grows, they begin to see other connections among them, and soon they have an entire web of stories to bind their facts into a cohesive whole.  Once they see how interconnected stories are, they will understand how connected the people who created them are as well, and, with a little extra push, they may find the inspiration to become “idea” ecologists, constantly seeking the interrelatedness of all things.  Is this not the foundation of education and lifelong learning: excited, inquiring minds that seek to understand the bigger picture?  What better training for environmental awareness exists?

Finally, the process of science is similar to the process of story listening.  The following table demonstrates this comparison:

Process of Science

Process of Understanding a Story

Gather facts

Gather story “facts”: plot, character, etc.

Develop hypothesis

Develop potential story endings

Test hypothesis against facts

Test story facts against endings and revise

Suggest conclusions

Reach conclusion

Explore meaning

Explore meaning

Develop new questions

Search for new, similar, or contrasting stories


As children listen to stories and make meaning of them, they are following steps similar to the scientific process of hypothesis testing.  In short, “doing” stories is much like doing science.

Finding, Preparing, and Presenting Stories:

Finding a good story is one of the most difficult steps in sharing stories with children.  The best stories to tell are ones that the storyteller loves, that excite her, and that conjure vivid mental images for her.  Stories that are short and linear or cumulative (repeated actions that build to a climax) are best for little children who often find it difficult to follow the longer and more episodic tales.  Tellers also need to know children well, so that the stories they share will be appropriate for the developmental abilities (cognitive and emotional) of their listeners.  The advice to novice tellers in this regard is to read, read, and read more.  The more stories one encounters, the better judge of a tale’s “tellability” one becomes.  Having a broad knowledge of stories also enables the teller/teacher/librarian to form some of the connections they wish to foster in their students.  The bibliography at the end of this article can serve as a springboard into this literature, and there are several reference books that are useful as well.

In particular, the Storyteller’s Sourcebook provides access to folktales in picture books and collections for children.  This multi-part index allows storytellers to trace stories by subject keyword, story title, and geo-ethnic category.  More importantly, it breaks folktales down into smaller units called motifs (i.e., “fleeing the ball” in Cinderella or “pushing the witch into the oven” in Hansel and Gretel) and indexes them, facilitating cross-cultural comparisons of folktales with similar parts.  There is, for example, a Chilean story in which the ogre’s wife/daughter is killed in her own oven, which might provide some interesting comparisons to the well-known Grimm tale.  In the motif index, similar stories from different lands are indexed together, so the German, Caribbean, Chinese, French, English, Egyptian, Native American, Italian, African-American, Korean, Polynesian, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Iraqi variants of Cinderella appear in the same place with short summaries and citations to the originating collection or picture book.

Once the storyteller finds a good story, she must learn it.  There are as many ways to learn a story as there are storytellers, but one successful method is to follow the “7-P’s” method: pleasure, plot, pictures, power, phrases, precision/polish, and pleasure.  Having decided on a story to learn, read it through just for the pleasure of the tale.  Why do you enjoy it? Next, learn the barebones plot of the story without embellishment; this is essentially a distilled outline of the events.  You need to distill it first so that the embellishments are in your words, not those of the text from which you are working. Then put the text aside and visualize the story.  Picture the setting and the characters in your mind and turn the entire story into no more than 5-6 scenes.  Hansel and Gretel, for example, could be turned into these scenes: 1) children in unhappy home; 2) taken to forest twice, stone then breadcrumb trail; 3) alone in forest, they find witch’s house; 4) captured, Hansel imprisoned (bone trick) and Gretel enslaved; 5) Gretel tricks witch into oven; 6) return home with witch’s treasure.  Learned this way, the teller has only 6 images to visualize while telling the entire story.

The next stage is to analyze the story for its emotional power.  What emotions do the characters feel?  What emotions do you wish your listeners to feel?  How do you evoke those emotions in your listeners?  This is the crux of storytelling; without the emotional expression, a story is merely a series of events. Figure out the emotional power of the story, its peaks and troughs, and then design the story to foreground these moments.  Each story will have several of these emotionally charged moments (laughter, despair, anger, etc.) and the story and performance must be crafted to achieve them.

Then reread the original text for any special phrases, dialects, or refrains that need to remain in the performed story and memorize those.  Telling Jack and the Beanstalk without the “fee fi fo fum” chant of the giant might reduce the power of the performance.  These refrains help listeners feel more comfortable with a story (since they know what to expect) and, especially with smaller children, allow participation and build anticipation.  Precision/polish refers to the practice of the story so that the teller’s visualized images translate quickly and smoothly into words.  This does not mean the story becomes memorized or “canned,” but it does mean that the teller has refined the story fully and knows it completely, to the point that it feels like a lived experience for the teller.  As the storyteller performs the tale, he can see it “happening” around him; he is “there.”

Finally, once the teller begins the performance, he must forget all the practice and all of the work he has put into learning the story so that he can perform it for the sheer pleasure of sharing such a wonderful story with his listeners.  When the work he has done in preparation is evident in the performance, the power of the story is diminished; the best performances are the ones that appear effortless, as that backgrounds the storyteller and lets the story shine.  Effortlessness is achieved by two means: 1) completely knowing the story and 2) leaving one’s ego out of the performance so that all that matters is the story.  When tellers cease to worry about what they look like or whether they will forget something and concentrate, instead, on sharing the story-jewel they have unearthed, painstakingly faceted, and polished, they find that much of the stage fright that accompanies any public performance vanishes; they are too enraptured by their story to worry about the performance of it.


Storytelling is a powerful tool for engaging students in environmental messages.  “Pourquoi” tales from cultures around the globe show children the common human quest to understand the world around us.  They offer culturally specific ways of thinking that can help children build a more complete knowledge of the way things work.  Children who have the chance while they are young to identify with story characters and live into them deeply may learn empathy for others in the same process.  This understanding of other creatures, whether plant or animal, leads to a sense of belonging to a larger, interconnected community.  It is precisely this communion that forms the foundation of environmental stewardship.


Braus, Judy. Environmental Education in the Schools: Creating a Program that Works!  North American Association for Environmental Education, 1994.

Butzow, Carol M. and John Butzow. Exploring the Environment Through Children's Literature: an Integrated Approach.  Teacher Ideas Press, 1999.

Caduto, Michael J. and Joseph Bruchac. Keepers of Life: Discovering Plants through Native American Stories and Earth Activities for Children. Fulcrum, 1997. (also has accompanying Teachers’ Guide that is sold separately)

Caduto, Michael J. and Joseph Bruchac. Keepers of the Animals: Native American Stories and Wildlife Activities for Children. Fulcrum, 1997.  (also has accompanying Teachers’ Guide that is sold separately)

Caduto, Michael J. and Joseph Bruchac. Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children. Fulcrum, 1999.  (also has accompanying Teachers’ Guide that is sold separately)

Caduto, Michael J. and Joseph Bruchac. Keepers of the Night: Native American Stories and Nocturnal Activities for Children. Fulcrum, 1994.

Caduto, Michael J. Earth Tales from Around the World. Fulcrum, 1997.

Dolch, Edward W. and Margaret P. Dolch. “Why” Stories in Basic Vocabulary. Garrard Publishing Co., 1958.

Gardner, Robert. Celebrating Earth Day: a Sourcebook of Activities and Experiments. Millbrook Press, 1992.

Gates, Julie M. Consider the Earth: Environmental Activities for Grades 4-8. Teacher Ideas Press, 1989.

Hamilton, Virginia. In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World. Harcourt, 1988. 

Livo, Norma J. Celebrating the Earth: Stories, Experiences, and Activities. Teacher Ideas Press, 2000.

Lowery, Linda and Marybeth Lorbiecki. Earthwise at School: a Guide to the Care & Feeding of your Planet. Carolrhoda, 1993.

MacDonald, Margaret Read. The Storyteller’s Sourcebook: a Subject, Title, and Motif Index to Folklore Collections for Children. Neal-Schuman, 1982.

MacDonald, Margaret Read and Brian W. Sturm. The Storyteller’s Sourcebook, 1983-1999: a Subject, Title, and Motif Index to Folklore Collections for Children. Gale, 2001.

Petrash, Carol. Earthways: Simple Environmental Activities for Young Children. Gryphon House, 1992.

Schwartz, Linda. Earth Book for Kids: Activities to Help Heal the Environment. Learning Works, 1990.

Spinning Tales, Weaving Hope: Stories, Storytelling, and Activities for Peace, Justice and the Environment. Edited by Ed Brody. New Society Publishers, 2002.

Strauss, Kevin.  Tales with Tails: Storytelling the Wonders of the Natural World.  Libraries Unlimited, 2006.

Suzuki, David and Kathy Vanderlinden. Eco-fun: Great Experiments, Projects, and Games for a Greener Earth. Douglas and McIntyre, 2001.

Williamson, Ray. They Dance in the Sky: Native American Star Myths. Houghton Mifflin, 1987.


Contact Info:

Dr. Brian W. Sturm

School of Information and Library Science

CB# 3360, 100 Manning Hall

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill, NC  27599-3360


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