Local storyteller engages students to promote literacy, imagination, character, and community

Created date

August 23rd, 2018
Dee O’Donnell sits surrounded by some of her kid-friendly “props” she uses when telling stories to local schoolchildren.

Dee O’Donnell sits surrounded by some of her kid-friendly “props” she uses when telling stories to local schoolchildren.

“Turn on your imagination. Open your ears. Zip your mouth, lock it with a key, and put the key in your pocket.”

That’s how Dee O’Donnell starts every storytelling session in which she spins a cunning tale with words and interaction, but never books, to children in preschool through second grade.

“I become a different person when I tell stories. I very much act out dramatically and use some props for the little ones,” says Dee, who lives at Wind Crest in Highlands Ranch, Colo. “As Spellbinders, we tell the story in a way that kids can use their imagination to increase literacy, imagination, character, and community.”

Spellbinders, a nonprofit organization throughout Colorado and several other states, is “dedicated to restoring the art of oral storytelling to connect elders to youth, weaving together the wisdom of diverse cultures throughout time,” according to their website (spellbinders.org).

As an 18-year veteran Spellbinder of the Littleton, Colo., chapter, Dee visits 11 classes a month during the school year at three different local schools. She began doing it to fulfill the void she felt after retiring from teaching in secondary school after 25 years, and each year she says will be her last.

But it never is.

Truly spellbound

“I just love it…when those little kids run up to you and gather around your legs, it does more for me than it does for them. Being around kids helps you to stay young,” she says. “It makes me feel good to be able to engage the kids. They sit there, and they are actually spellbound.”

Some of her favorite oral stories include “The Lion and the Mouse” and ‘The Blind Man and the Hunter,” but you probably won’t hear her tell “Cinderella” or “Beauty and the Beast.”

“I usually don’t do traditional stories,” she says.   

Just as Dee teaches kids how to use their imaginations, she says the students teach her as well.

“You learn a lot from the kids. It’s always so interesting to see what’s going on in the classrooms today with the use of computers, and kids are learning things at such a younger age. They are very sharp,” she says.

Dee finds her stories from fairytales, Aesop’s Fables, library books, the Internet, or a fellow storyteller. Her favorite authors include Mary Margaret MacDonald and Pleasant DeSpain.

The common theme being “It has to touch your heart,” Dee says. “It has to be something you really like, and almost all have some sort of moral value—whether it’s anti-bullying, caring, or generosity.”

Sharing stories

Dee doesn’t only spin tales for children; she leads a summer story time series at Wind Crest. She recruits neighbors to tell their stories in the Fireside Lounge, whether it’s a personal story, an oral history, travel stories, or a discussion or demonstration of an artistic talent.

“The summer story time series is a great way for neighbors to meet and get to know each other in a casual setting,” says Community Resources Manager Craig Ellsworth, “especially as more and more people move in as Wind Crest expands once again to add a new residence building, Prospect Crossing, in an all-new neighborhood.”

For her part, Dee moved to Wind Crest, an Erickson Living community, in January 2015—back when she was visiting 17 classrooms a month. Since then, she’s cut back on spellbinding (just a bit) to join in some of Wind Crest’s 100-plus clubs and groups.

“There are a lot of activities, so you have lots of choices. You can be as busy as you want or not,” says Dee, who stays quite busy.

Aside from the summer story time series, Dee also hosts a show on Wind Crest’s in-house television channel, where she interviews neighbors about their lives or staff about upcoming events in the surrounding community.

She’s on the entertainment committee, plays bridge twice a week, joins in game night once a week, enjoys viewing movies in the Arts and Enrichment Center, plays bingo, and does line dancing and various exercise classes.

“My philosophy is that you have to stay busy in order to stay young at heart,” says Dee. “I’m glad I made the move.”

To learn more about becoming a trained Spellbinder like Dee and volunteering in classrooms, or to donate, visit spellbinders.org.

How does oral storytelling promote literacy?

The core skills of listening and speaking cross all content areas.

Oral storytelling requires children to visualize and imagine. These skills support reading comprehension and evoke critical thinking skills, which are essential to all higher learning.

Tales from around the world expand a child’s world view.

Fables and folktales evoke grit, resiliency, and perseverance as they show dragons can indeed be slain and that heroes and heroines can come from the most unlikely places.

Efforts that bring community members into the school increase hope and engagement in students, which is linked to academic achievement.

Kids love it, making it a stealth literacy-building tool.

Source: Spellbinders.org/for-teachers

5 storytelling tips from a pro

Enhance story time with your grandchildren

1. Tell a story or read a book that you’re passionate about, that you can become a part of.

2. Make the child believe that the character is really there talking to them—use different voices for each character.

3. Get the child or children involved in the story; when you’re reading, actively tell the story.

4. Don’t always show them the pictures. Close the book and ask them what they’re imagining in their mind.

5. Use props to bring the story to life.

Source: Dee O’Donnell