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February 2, 2009


Everyone has a story to tell –

If only someone would listen,

If only someone would ask.

— William Zimmerman

Today, stories are everywhere in our society and culture. They are found in our music, books, movies, news media, religion, painting, architecture and urban legends (the modern equivalent of myths). They influence us in many ways, but often the most easily forgotten stories in today’s fast paced lives are the stories of our heritage, our families, our lives.

Anyone who has spent time with young children know that their questions and observations are like none posed by  seasoned reporters.  Children possess the innate desire to figure out their world on their own terms often by touching, doing, and asking “why?”.  They also love a good story – it’s what they seek in entertainment, play and relationships.  Even the most active, kinetic, and wiggly children have been know to freeze in the presence of a fantastic story teller.  Imagine the impact of a great story told by one’s own father, grandmother or aunt about life “back in the day.”  My own children went through a phase where “tell me the story of my birth” was a frequent chant that satisfied their imaginations far better than PBS or Disney.   Young children’s rapidly developing oral and receptive language skills make them ripe for learning about their own families through family story telling and can lay the ground work for family rituals and traditions.  It can tie the present to your family’s heritage and spur conversations, build connections, and illustrate what values your family holds dear.

Over the past several weeks, our first graders have been researching families.  Broadly speaking we looked at family composition, what traits and characters are common among families, how unique differences set us apart and what it means to be a part of a family.  Once this was established, we dug deeper to understand our own families with interviews of a family member more than one generation ahead of us.  I say “us” because this was a group thing – each of us asking questions and seeking answers from and about our own family members.  I interviewed my 89 year old grandmother and learned things I didn’t know after 40-some years that helped me see this remarkable woman in a new light.  I know from talking to my first graders and reading their journals, that they, too, learned much about their own family through sharing family stories.

Initially, many children reported they didn’t know any stories from their grandparents or relatives.  We shared a wonderful, but forgotten tale, The Lucky Stone,  in which a young girl learns about the magic in a lucky stone as it was passed down through multiple generations by listening to stories her “Great Gran” told her.   Slowly and surely, in our classroom, we  began to hear the stories of each child’s family – no lucky stones appeared in those, but there was some magic.  We learned of ancestors traveling and moving here, grandparents who walked to school and didn’t have video games, stories of inventors and ministers, children doing chores on a farm and living through the depression.   Each child also worked with his/her family to collect artifacts that showed the unique, historic and special features of their own family which were then featured in our Family Museum.   We viewed an amazing collection – antiques trains and pasta makers, photos, maps, souvenirs, passports, cookbooks, sports memorabilia.  You name it, and someone had it in our museum,  all of which came with a story and an  audience to listen and ask questions.    While our afternoon buzzed with excitement and wonder, I got the sense that it was just the beginning – a scratch on the surface of the varied and deep stories each family has to share.  I hope they continue in each family for years to come.

As a working parent myself, I know it’s easy to overlook the obvious stories – where is your family from? what traditions do we share? what stories of your childhood (or your parents or grandparents) could your children learn  from?  Listening to the stories of my students and their families provided remarkable insights into the individuals and their families.  It also reminded me that storytelling is an ongoing process in each family.  When you hear children speak with amazement, pride and curiosity about their family, it gives you reason to pause. We all have a story to tell and most all of us would love to listen.  If only someone would listen, if only someone would ask.

To that end, here are a few resources you might consider when you can make the time to ask and listen.

How to Tape Instant Oral Biographies by Bill Zimmerman (see also his site,

StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit project whose mission is to honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening.  By recording the stories of our lives with the people we care about, we experience our history, hopes, and humanity. Since 2003, tens of thousands of everyday people have interviewed family and friends through StoryCorps. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to take home and share, and is archived for generations to come at the Library of Congress. Millions listen to our award-winning broadcasts on public radio and the Internet. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, creating a growing portrait of who we really are as American

Classroom Interviews: A World of Learning by Paula Rogovin – reveals how family interviews play an integral part of learning in one of New York City’s most progressive and diverse elementary schools.

Of course,  the low-tech/high touch way to tap your family’s story is good old fashion conversation.  Take some time to ask questions and listen to  your family’s story around the dinner table, as you push a swing, take a walk or cuddle at bed time.  I bet  you’ll have someone to listen and lots of questions being asked!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2009 4:31 pm

    Hi Lisa,
    Thanks for writing your inspiring storytelling project and linking to StoryCorps as a resource. I wanted to point you to our DIY site, which has resources for do-it-yourself interviews, including a Teachers’ Toolkit:
    It’s great that you’re sharing the importance of storytelling with younger generations!


  2. Debra Bird permalink
    February 2, 2009 6:25 pm

    Another great place to record family history is the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. The LOC website has all the info, plus a do-it-yourself kit on how to conduct an interview and send it in to LOC for their archives. I interviewed my dad (a WWII vet); it was a pretty amazing experience.

  3. Karen Morgan permalink
    February 3, 2009 7:27 pm

    Lisa: What an inspiring column capturing the tremendous import of two dieing art forms — journaling/writing and storytelling. As you so eloquently articulate, these stories of our past define who we are and who our children will be. You have pushed me off my procrastination perch to more agressively record the moments big and small which define us as a family. You are brilliant!


  1. The Joy of Listening « wonder of children blog

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