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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

Stories in the Classroom Setting - No IV, 5763

Stories in the Classroom Setting
No IV, 5763


Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed:
Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim.

The world depends on three things:
on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds.
- Pirkei Avot 1:2

V'shinantam is divided into three sections. Torah contains thoughts and ideas for us as teachers to help support and elevate us in our holy work. Avodah will be teaching ideas and suggestions to use in our classrooms. G'milut Chasadim contains information about a specific mitzvah and suggests opportunities to involve our students and us in the work of helping others, in and out of the classroom.


Stories enrich and extend Jewish experience in meaningful and relevant ways. Stories are journeys. On the journey we meet new characters, visit new places, and discover new ideas. Stories are exciting ways to teach and learn. Albert Einstein stated that the gift of fantasy meant more to him than his talent for absorbing positive knowledge. Stories enable your imagination to soar.

Here is a list of other reasons to answer the question of why we tell stories. This list was compiled by a group of educators attending a workshop on storytelling:

Stories are used to: settle conflict, share experiences, change mood, enrich vocabulary and language skills, entertain, teach, introduce material, interact, inspire, express and explore feelings, heal, distract, provide alternate ways to cope, create community, elicit reactions, develop and sustain listening skills, sequence and organize thoughts, stimulate inferential thinking, and help transition.

Penina Schram, master storyteller, says: "Storytelling has three key elements---the story, the teller and the listener. Storytelling is defined as an art (which means there is a creative process at work) or a craft (which means there are techniques and skills that can be learned and practiced). The word "live" is important in reference to the audience because interaction between the teller and the listener is necessary. Storytelling is a shared experience…"

The shared experience of the Jewish people is told through Torah and text that provide endless opportunities to explore our stories from a variety of perspectives. The development of a tradition of explaining the Torah text is called midrash. The early teachers of Jewish tradition divided their explanations into two categories: midrash halachah (legal interpretations) and midrash aggadah (literary/moral interpretations). Throughout the generations we continue to tell the story of our people and our relationship to our Creator and each other. Through stories we justify how the Torah might be applied to the changing circumstances of political, economic and personal life. We build the story of our people by collecting individual stories. Our stories nourish us in times of crisis and nurture us in times of celebration.

For more on the topic of midrash and midrash aggadah, see
Fields, Harvey J., A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Volume 1. New York: URJ Press, 1990. pp 3-15.

For a compilation of midrash aggadah for classroom use, see:

Sefer Ha-Aggadah: The Book of Legends for Young Readers

  • Volume 1: Bible Legends
  • Volume 2: Tales of the Sages
  • Activity Book
  • Teacher's Guide

All are available from the URJ Press.



We all have the potential to be good storytellers through our natural expressiveness and a little practice. Stories can help a teacher impart values, tradition, or information while creating a magical bond with his or her students.

The storyteller searches for the response of the audience that can help shape the telling of the story. To be an effective storyteller, one has to train the voice, the body and the imagination.

Tips for Selecting and Using Stories:

  • READ, READ and READ. You will probably need to read many stories in order to find one for your class.
  • Rehearse out loud and time your story.
  • Be age appropriate in language and subject matter.
  • Share the stories that you really like.
  • Stories should be worth the time and be told when there is enough time to tell the story and discuss it afterwards.
  • Select stories that meet and enhance the curricular objectives of your class.
  • Take notes. Keep track of the stories you read and when you think might be an appropriate time to use the story.

Three Criteria for Choosing a Good Story:

  • A good plot - one that you love and understand. The plot should make you ask, "What happens next?"
  • Interesting characters
  • A worthwhile theme or value-- Stories of conflict, courage, travel and tradition are among those that make a good story

Incorporating Stories into Your Lessons:

  • Prepare by including the story in your lesson plan. How will you introduce it? How will you continue the lesson after the story? What points do you want to make? What props will you need?
  • Use the story as a set induction or motivation to pique your students' curiosity.
  • Set a special mood for your story. Choose a comfortable environment. Remove distractions.
  • Keep students' attention by setting the stage. Before you start, give students something specific to listen for as you are telling the story (an answer to a question, a certain object).
  • Explain terms before you begin. While you are telling the story, observe the students and watch their reactions. Are they engaged? Confused? If you realize they need more information, stop and explain.
  • Stop a story and ask students what they think will happen next or what they think a certain character should do.
  • Put the students in the character's place. After the story, for example, make a list of things that made a certain character happy or that caused a dilemma for the character. Then ask, "What would make you happy? What things are challenging for you?" You may use any feeling words connected to the story you are reading.
  • Build on the story with a family discussion, role-playing, group assignment, art project, or creative writing or research assignment.
  • Think broadly about the themes and messages of the stories you use when deciding when to incorporate them. A story may not be set at Passover time, but may teach an important lesson about freedom or slavery.

Jewish Folktales are Part of Jewish Culture and Tradition
Read one or two authentic Jewish tales for The Diamond Tree: Jewish Tales from Around the World, selected and retold by Howard Schwartz and Barbara Rush, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991. Ask children to name stories they know that are like the ones read. Discuss how all cultures have folk tales; such tales are a way of passing on shared values and traditions. Talk about Jewish folktales as part of the whole picture of literature. Consider the influence of minority cultures on the larger community and vice versa. Stories help Jewish children gain a sense of pride and respect for their unique heritage.

Sources for this section include:

  • A lesson by Helen W. Rogaway, Librarian, Stephen S. Wise Temple, Los Angeles, CA
  • Using Stories in Your Classroom, JEA Merkaz, MetroWest Federation, NJ
  • The New Jewish Teachers Handbook. A.R.E. Publishing, 1994, Denver, CO. Chapters 27 and 31. (See pages 293-298 for a complete storytelling bibliography.)

Visit the CAJE Jewish Storytelling Newsletter and Bibliography of Stories.



Let us learn in order to teach;
Let us learn in order to do.
-Gates of Prayer

Stories can motivate our students to act in an ethical way or can be used in teaching mitzvot.

Stories that teach moral and ethical issues are part of the Jewish heritage. A favorite book is Something From Nothing by Phoebe Gilman. This story teaches young children the value of bal taschit, do not waste, and is a story that can be easily acted out.

It is a mitzvah on Passover for each one of us to see ourselves as if we went forth from Egypt. We fulfill this mitzvah each year by reading the story of the Haggadah. Try asking from an inanimate object's point of view: Moses' staff or sandal, a piece of matzah on an escaping slave's back.

Students can learn about their own family history by creating a cookbook. Ask students to bring in a favorite recipe from a relative or special friend. On tape, have the students tell the story about the person who gave the recipe or a time they might have cooked together. Send home the recipes along with a tape of the story, or get more hi-tech and create a computer-based version.

Create books as a class or hold a book drive and donate them to a local shelter. Take a field trip to the shelter with older children and have them read to younger children. Stories can be wonderful ways to help others feel better or more connected - use them often!

We would love to be able to share your classroom successes (credit given), questions and comments with so many other teachers across thousands of miles and in many congregations. The best way to be in touch is email: Irene Bolton, and mark the subject of your email, V'shinantam. I look forward to hearing from and speaking with many of you. Shalom!

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