An Ant on a Hill: A Lesson on Storytelling

By Bernadette Nicholas

Recently, the Oak Room was overcome with bugs! Not real ones, but thanks to the many spiders and “milkweed beetles” previously spotted around the backyard, children have shown a renewed interest in insects. To explore that interest, children were invited to create bug habitats with different mediums. On this day, a bug exploration table included various natural materials and paper on which children could create their habitats or use for drawing portraits of plastic bugs. 

Zelda began her exploration by picking out a plastic ant and drawing a picture of the ant. As she and the other children worked, we looked through a book about insects and talked about what we saw in the pictures. Zelda was fully engaged in the conversation and it became obvious that Zelda possessed much previous knowledge about insects. After the discussions died down, Zelda drew another insect, but erased it and began to color on the page. “I’m drawing an ant hill” she explained. Since she already had a strong understanding of insects and their habitats, I sought to deepen her learning by inviting her to tell a story about what she was drawing. While she was telling her story, I wrote down her words, having to stop her at several points so that I could catch up to all that she was saying.

 She continued drawing as she spoke, and I watched the interplay between her words and what she was drawing. Like her drawing, the story began simply, with an ant on the hill. But adding more details to the story prompted her to add more elements to the drawing. Initially, there was no spider on the hill with the ant. The spider was added to the drawing after it became a reoccurring character in the story. At other times, elements of the story were added to explain the drawing. While the first sentence gave us information about the ant above the area colored brown, it offered nothing about the ant in the center of the brown. This character was later explained to be the “queen ant,” who “guards the eggs.” Thus, what she had drawn led to an even richer story about the plight of the ants. As I followed her on the journey of these insects, I knew there was something exciting about what I was witnessing but I couldn’t quite describe what it was. It wasn’t until I began writing my own words, detailing what I saw, that I understood why this moment struck me. In watching Zelda that day, I saw how two languages, her words and her drawing, worked together in a sort of dance to tell her story.

As a teacher, to see Zelda’s thoughts unfold into a story was more rewarding for me than to hear her offer facts. Facts are important, but not more so than the stories they help tell. When I invited her to tell a story about her drawing, I was thinking about the power that comes from being able to use our voice to share stories. I was thinking about how storytelling has been used throughout the history of mankind to teach, to warn, to comfort, to connect. What I hadn’t considered, and what watching this moment reminded me, was that the process of storytelling is not one-dimensional. When we tell stories, we are calling upon each part of ourselves – our mind, body, and spirit – to work together to make meaning of our inner and outer world. And there are as many ways this storytelling happens as there are people telling stories.

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