Kingston city schools embark on storytelling program for fourth-graders

A class at Edson gathers with Karen Pillsworth for a photo. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

Fourth-grade students across the Kingston City School District are learning about storytelling, thanks to a residency by Karen Pillsworth, a storytelling coach and retired teacher. For one hour each day for one week, Pillsworth has visited elementary schools in the district to help kids tap into their storytelling skills.

For over 30 years, Pillsworth has brought storytelling to audiences from Newfoundland, Canada to Sydney, Australia. But as the storyteller laureate of Kingston, she’s also taught and performed much closer to home too. And with the “Stories of Three” program, Pillsworth has recently visited Robert Graves and Harry L. Edson elementary schools, and will be working with students at Crosby Elementary next. Pillsworth said fourth-graders are well suited to learn about storytelling, which can also help them grow more confident as they move into middle school.


“Their next step in the Kingston City School District is to go to middle school where they will have to be more independent and they probably will have to speak more in front of their peers,” said Pillsworth. “This would also help them with presentation skills as well.”

Students work from a familiar tale of threes — Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff — either alone or with a partner, and are given a range of options for telling their story, from puppets and masks to simply standing up and telling their narrative, without the pressure that can come from standard elementary school lessons.

“There are some who get nervous, but I think becomes freeing for them because there’s so much work in fourth grade and such a great curriculum to cover,” said Pillsworth. “So I tell them anything we do, first of all, what they’re writing things down, I’m not going to look at them. Nobody’s going to be graded. Nobody’s going to have a test, and I’m ready to be there next to them if they forget something. This is supposed to be fun.”

Students are given the flexibility to add texture to their stories as long as they stay with the basic premise of the source material. Pillsworth’s grandson provided a good example with his partner at Graves. 

“They did the Three Little Pigs, and they said, the three pigs lived in the city and they were really tired of the noise and the pollution,” said Pillsworth. “So they saw an ad in the paper to build houses in the country, and they went to the country and they built their houses and the story goes on and tells what they built it up. Unfortunately, the Big Bad Wolf also saw the ad and came to the country. So, you know, he blows all the houses down and then they decided that moving to the country wasn’t really the ideal situation. So they moved back to the city and bought noise-canceling headphones.”

Not all students are interested in adding nuance to their chosen stories, but those who do are given room to use their imaginations.

“As long as they stay with the premise of the story and they use those four characters, they can be as creative as they want to,” Pillsworth said. “And some kids are very structured and they want to tell the story as it is. And other kids, you know, ‘So the Big Bad Wolf went down the chimney and his tail got burned. He said, forget this, I’m going to go get a hamburger!’ They can be very, very creative.”

Kathleen Sickles, principal at Crosby Elementary, is looking forward to having Pillsworth come to her school early in December.

“Through learning and sharing stories, then coaching each other in a positive manner, a class develops a spirit of community and cooperation,” Sickles said. “This is especially important to our fourth graders who will transition to a new school next year. Many stories teach about compassion, courage, honesty and other important qualities in a compelling way that helps children build strong character. I am hoping that students increase their confidence and self-esteem as they work to develop a story, then receive positive attention from peers. As they read, learn, tell and listen to different types of stories, students can and will expand their appreciation of different cultures and traditions.”

Pillsworth was most recently at Edson Elementary. Fourth-grade teachers Julie McHugh, Toni Cook, Claire VanValkenburgh and Stephany Carpenter chose to respond to questions for this story collectively during Pillsworth’s visit.

“The students are very engaged and motivated,” they said. “Many of the ‘shy’ kids really came out of their comfort zone and enjoyed the experience of speaking in front of their peers…We enjoyed watching those timid students build confidence in themselves. It’s great to watch them collaborate with their peers and support each other in this learning process of storytelling.”