Storypath: Powerful Social Studies Instruction in the Primary Grades

Betsy Rupp Fulwiler

When we look at the primary grades, we are concerned about what is taught during social studies. Teachers feel tremendous pressure to teach reading, writing, and mathematics, leaving little or no room for social studies. Social studies curriculum for the most part does not help the situation. While elementary textbooks and other materials abound with cursory lessons "all about me," community helpers, friends, families, and neighborhoods, students do not find these topics particularly challenging or interesting when explored superficially.

Generally, say Brophy and Alleman, K-3 textbooks are needlessly redundant, superfluous, text-inappropriate, sanitized, biased, and aimless.1 No wonder social studies takes a back seat to other subjects in the primary grades. The case for social studies, however, is clear. As the National Council for the Social Studies Task Force on Early Childhood/Elementary Social Studies asserts: "If young people of this nation are to become effective participants in a democratic society, then social studies must be an essential part of the curriculum in the early childhood/ elementary years. In a world that demands independent and cooperative problem solving to address complex social, economic, ethical, and personal concerns, the social studies are as basic as reading, writing, and computing."2

To fulfill the need for meaningful social studies instruction while recognizing that primary teachers will continue to place a high priority on reading, writing, and math, we must use other approaches for teaching social studies. The current response to this situation is to integrate the curriculum. However, simply taking the topic of friends, for example, and reading or writing stories and engaging in superficial activities about that topic, does not necessarily ensure that students develop their conceptual understanding of this important idea. Explicit plans need to be in place to deepen students' conceptual understanding of friendship, connect that understanding to other important ideas, and foster skills that help students develop and maintain friendships.

The Storypath Approach
One approach to teaching social studies that offers the opportunity to develop deep and powerful social studies learning as well as skills in reading and writing is Storypath. The Storypath approach3, which originated in Scotland over 25 years ago, provides both a structure for organizing the curriculum and an instructional strategy for teaching. Its pedagogical foundations are grounded in constructivist learning and the story form. Eagan makes a strong argument for the value of story as a learning tool. He maintains:

Telling a story is a way of establishing meaning. Fictional stories tend to be concerned very largely with affective meaning, whereas in education our concern is more comprehensive. We want "cognitive" and "affective" meaning together. Because the dominant model has tended to emphasize the cognitive at the expense of the affective, drawing on some aspects of the story form for planning teaching can enable us to achieve a better balance. The result in practice of such abstract matters is clearer access to material for children and greater engagement with it.4

The Storypath approach offers both cognitive and affective learning opportunities through the use of the story form. Setting, characters, and plot combine to create meaningful and memorable learning experiences. The teacher outlines the storyline and then uses key questions to establish and carry the story forward. Using a questioning process to guide the storyline is a critical attribute of the approach. The questioning fully engages students in the development of the story, builds ownership for the learning, sets up problems to be solved, and allows students to bring what they know to the Storypath.

In constructivist terms, this means that students are making sense and constructing meaning in relation to the events of the Storypath. They are making connections between new information and what they already know, and then using that information to tackle problems presented through the storyline. "Clearly, the Storypath strategy is best suited to the teacher who values a democratic classroom and who avoids a lock-step approach to learning. For many teachers, the challenging aspect of this strategy is giving up the traditional transmission model of teaching and allowing students to direct their own learning. Spontaneity, flexibility, and belief in students' ability to solve problems creatively is vital to the successful use of the strategy."5

A Storypath in Action
A Storypath in Betsy Rupp Fulwiler's kindergarten class explains this approach in more detail. The Storypath began as the teacher read a description of a neighborhood setting, then asked the class to add their own ideas about the setting. They worked together to create a mural as their visual representation of it. These activities established a place for the story and-because students elaborated on the place with their own ideas and then made the setting-children had ownership and personal attachment to the place.

There were other social benefits, as children working in pairs negotiated the design and color of houses, their placement, and other aspects of the setting. Social skills are embedded throughout the Storypath experience, which emphasizes having children work in pairs, small groups, and as a class to create the setting, develop the characters, and solve the problems presented through the story plot. The value of these conversations and other social interactions are vital to the learning process6 and to the development of prosocial behaviors necessary for a democratic society.

The Storypath leads naturally into language activities that connect vocabulary to describing a place, and into writing and reading activities that cause students to think more deeply about the place they have created. A class writing activity, including dictation and inventive writing, demonstrates how young children expanded and consolidated their understanding of neighborhood and related concepts.

Our neighborhood is a really nice place to live. The houses and flowers make it colorful and pretty. Lots of families live here.

Our neighborhood is in a city and is about 75 years old. It is located on a flat street where, a long time age, someone planted large, deciduous trees all along it. Our neighborhood has both old and newer houses in many different styles and colors.

At one end of the street, one of the big old homes has been made into a duplex-one family can live upstairs and another one can live downstairs. At the other end of the street is a small apartment building with three apartments. One apartment is vacant.

It is summer now. Some families like to weed their gardens and pick their garden food. Many of the kids like to climb the old trees and build treehouses. They also like to play ball and hopscotch, and run through sprinklers when it gets hot.

We have lots of kids in our neighborhood. Older people would like it here if they like kids.

This neighborhood presents a far richer description than any found in a primary textbook. The writing represents the collective work of the students as guided by their teacher, and reflects their knowledge, understanding, and ownership of this place. The ideas contributed to the writing activity also provide the teacher with insight about students' understanding of neighborhoods, and serve as a springboard for follow-up activities.

Once students in this kindergarten had established the place, they were asked to imagine who might live in this neighborhood. They now worked in pairs to create families for the homes. Students dictated family biographies and made visual representations of family members. These families were shared so that all the students would know the characters of the Storypath.

As is apparent, the Storypath served many functions at once. Children were constructing a shared understanding of family and developing language skills while they talked and listened to each other. Because the Storypath families were the children's own creation, the students were not bound to notions of accuracy based on someone else's agenda, whether it be the teacher's or a textbook's. Students could explore their own ideas about families and "try on" family roles, thereby validating their personal experiences and background knowledge. The teacher used these conversations to raise questions to deepen and elaborate on children's understanding of families and neighborhoods.

The Storypath activities naturally integrated social skills of compromise, negotiation, and collaboration; artistic skills of texture, perspective, and proportion; and emergent skills for writing, as family biographies were dictated to the teacher and parent volunteers. These activities were especially important to the many students in the class who were recent immigrants to the United States and were learning to speak English and understand the American culture.

Developing the Plot
One day children arrived at school to discover litter scattered throughout their neighborhood. This was the first of the critical incidents that make up the plot of a Storypath. The children's discussion and solution to the problem is best shared through their own writing about the event.

One day we woke up and found litter all over the place. There were newspapers, papers, cans, and rotting vegetables in our yards and on the street. It was very frustrating. Each family talked about how to solve the litter problem. Each family decided to get a garbage can for trash. We also got recycling bins for newspaper, paper, bottles, and cans. Most of us thought we would pick up the litter in the street even though we had not put it there.
We also decided to have a truck come to the neighborhood to pick up trash and recycling things. We voted to have a blue truck. Now our neighborhood is clean and beautiful again.
As the Storypath continued, another problem presented itself. Again, this event is best shared through the children's writing.

One evening, the Pizza Time delivery man was called to deliver a pizza to the Davis family. When he found the neighborhood, he had no idea where to find the Davis house. He asked some neighbors and they had a hard time explaining where the family lived.
The families began to work together to solve this new problem. We decided our neighborhood and street needed names and the houses needed numbers. We voted to name the neighborhood Wallingford and the street Ghost Town Street. We also voted to give the houses even-numbered addresses. Each family designed a number for their house. We then had maps of the neighborhood printed.
Now the families on Ghost Town Street will not have to get hungry while waiting for Pizza Time to deliver our pizzas.
The two events described above were accompanied by a series of questions asked by the teacher. Questions, such as the ones that follow, guide students down a learning path to help them elaborate on conceptual understandings and develop social, critical thinking, and problem solving skills throughout the process.

As the Storypath progressed, children created graphs about the families intheir neighborhood. When faced with a child almost being hit by a speeding car, they discussed how to make the neighborhood safer. This and other events caused children to hold neighborhood meetings, learn about the democratic process, practice listening and speaking skills, and work together to solve problems.

Concluding a Storypath
All stories must come to an end, and the Storypath is no exception. A Storypath concluding event should be logical to the children's own story, provide closure, and be a satisfying experience. In this Storypath, a classroom situation presented an ideal focus for the concluding event. A new kindergarten student arrived and, of course, had no family or home in the Storypath. The children, guided by the teacher, decided to have a moving day celebration.

While the new child made a house and a family with the help of a bilingual aide, the other children's families gathered together to decide how they would welcome the "Le Family." They determined to start the day with a party before moving the family into their new apartment. Everyone in the neighborhood would help. Children together created a sign that read "Welcome to Our Neighborhood," while each family chose some way to welcome the new family. The Ari family used their camper to help move furniture, the Lathe children took their pet parrot to play with the Le children, and so on. The brainstorming and role plays were rich as children imagined how they could welcome the new family.

Of course, another important learning was also occurring as the Storypath ended. Children were learning how to make a newcomer feel welcome, and the new child was experiencing an immediate sense of belonging as he was fully incorporated into the story. Some might call this the "hidden curriculum," since it wasn't in the lesson plan, but indeed this event may have been the most powerful learning experience that the children experienced.

The Storypath approach accommodates many situations. In fact, what is fundamental to this approach is the continuing focus on what students are bringing to the story. The structure of the story form provides a pathway for organizing the learning experiences. Children's contributions, through what they know and can imagine, provide the specifics for shaping the story and creating meaningful learning. The conversations children engage in are vital to their learning. The teacher's role is one of listening to students and asking questions to deepen and extend their understanding. The flexibility and structure of the strategy make this a powerful approach to teaching.

By the time the Storypath was over, the children had assembled a book of writing and photographs about their neighborhood, their families, and the events they had experienced. This book was sent home with the children to be shared with their families.

One parent responded by writing, "I wish I could have done this when I was a kid. Dalton explained with great excitement all the events in the 'neighborhood' as they were occurring. Then he had great satisfaction

reliving them through this book. I really appreciated the comprehensive nature of this project. What an accomplishment for all the kids, Betsy, and parent volunteers. Thank you." What better testament to the Storypath approach!

1.Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman, Powerful Social Studies for Elementary Students (New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996).
2.National Council for the Social Studies, "Social Studies for Early Children and Elementary School Children-Preparing for the 21st Century" in Social Education 53 (1989): 14-23.
3.Storypath is known as Storyline in Scotland and other countries in Europe.
4.K. Eagan, Teaching as Storytelling (London, Ontario: The University of Western Ontario, 1988), 37.
5.Margit E. McGuire, Storypath Foundations: An Innovative Approach to Social Studies (Chicago: Everyday Learning, in press), 8.
6.N.B. Wyner and E. Farquhar, "Cognitive, Emotional, and Social Development: Early Childhood Social Studies" in J.P. Shaver, ed, Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 109-120.

About the Authors
Betsy Rupp Fulwiler is a kindergarten teacher at John Rogers Elementary School in Seattle, Washington.
Margit E. McGuire is a professor at Seattle University.