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Let Me Tell You a Story

When librarians Mary Ogilvie and Lee McLain sit kindergartners and first and second graders down to hear a story, they aren't just there to pass the time. Lab's storytelling program is a carefully developed curriculum designed to aid the development of the students' minds—and entertain them as well.

Storytelling has a long history at Lab. The University's first president, William Rainey Harper, recruited folktale collector Gudrun Thorne-Thomsen to tell stories at the University. For the current Lab curriculum, the librarians have records of stories told every week at Lab since 1954. The storytelling centers on tales from the oral tradition, rather than literary tales, in part because the oral stories have been perfected over time.

"The psychological underpinnings, the beauty and rhythm of the language, the structure of story—all these things have been honed over generations and generations of people retelling these oral traditions," says librarian Irene Fahrenwald, who told stories for many years at Blaine Library and continues to tell stories to Lower Schoolers at the Knes Family Library. "You get these beautiful, gem-like stories."

Says McLain, a librarian at the Lim Family Library which serves grades N–2, "Although children are sitting quietly when they listen to stories it is not passive—their brains are very busy! Without illustrations, they are creating pictures in their minds, 'seeing' the story as it happens. They're also acquiring new knowledge through different pathways; in the context of the story they absorb the rhythms of language and the meaning of previously unfamiliar words, and they hear endless variations of plots, themes, and patterns, which helps them to understand narrative structure."

McLain explains the story-tellers' joy, as well: "Our favorite moments are when we can actually see children experiencing stories. The expressions on their faces will mirror the emotions of the characters or express their own emotions about what is happening. After a tense moment, we can see them physically relax as the story resolves into a satisfying or funny ending."

She also explains that children of different ages experience the same story in very different ways. "To kindergartners, everything is a surprise, but as children get older they begin to be able to predict what will happen, and their excitement as they look to a friend or a teacher to share the moment is a wonderful thing to see."

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