This article appeared in the Summer 2012 of the Erikson on Children newsletter, under the headline “Taking the story out of the book.” More from this issue

Take a moment and reflect on the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”

Papa, Mama, and Baby Bear go for a walk to let their porridge cool. While they’re out, a young Goldilocks sneaks into their home to sample their food and try out their furniture until she finds the ones she thinks are “just right.”

Now, what questions or ideas come to mind? You might wonder where Goldilocks’s parents were or how a family of bears had a furnished home. You might wonder how three bowls of porridge, presumably prepared in the same pot and served at the same time, could achieve such variations in temperature.

Image: Cover of Don't Leave the Story in the Book

Exploring that sense of wonder makes the difference between a forgettable fairytale and a cherished favorite that illuminates something about ourselves and the world, says Mary Hynes-Berry, senior instructor at Erikson.

Teaching educators to cultivate and build upon that wonder has been her life’s work and was the driving force behind her new book Don’t Leave the Story in the Book: Using Literature to Guide Inquiry in Early Childhood Classrooms (Teachers College Press).

Using literature to guide learning

A master storyteller herself, Hynes-Berry finds that the teaching potential of a story is virtually inexhaustible when children are allowed to explore its themes and characters through conversation. But too often, she says, teachers don’t use literature to open conversations and instead ask their students to recall basic facts.

“They ask superficial questions like ‘How many bears were there?’ But what’s the point of that? They’re basically saying ‘Give me my answer.’”

Teachers often use that approach to prepare children for the kinds of questions they’ll encounter on standardized tests. Instead, Hynes-Berry insists, teachers should encourage real, dynamic conversations, the kind that inspire children to embrace critical thinking and develop a love of learning.

“Look at the etymology of ‘converse,’” says Hynes-Berry. “Its Latin roots are ‘con,’ meaning ‘with,’ and ‘verso,’ meaning ‘to turn.’ So, the word really means ‘turn together.’ So, I take in what you say and then offer something back.”

In this way, teachers and students share knowledge with one another to create new and greater understandings.

“If we let good teachers be good teachers and not force them to drill students for tests,” Hynes-Berry continues, “conversations would happen all the time.”

Serious play

In her work as an instructor, Hynes-Berry is an advocate for “serious play,” which she equates with quality learning. She uses the acronym SIP to describe a worthwhile activity. It must be:

  • Satisfying: Whether called learning or play, it must be meaningful in a
    pleasurable way. When something is boring or unpleasant, we stop playing — and learning.
  • Intentional: Teachers must think strategically about how to deeply engage
    students in meeting specific learning goals.
  • Problem-Solving: Authentic problem solving requires students to draw on prior knowledge and experience to strategize, experiment, and then evaluate their results.

“What I’m teaching are carefully, thoughtfully structured lessons that are going to invite higher-order thinking — and they are virtually indistinguishable from play in the most profound sense,” says Hynes-Berry.

Lessons that encourage thinking

Image: Mary Hynes-Berry

Mary Hynes-Berry

In one professional development session with StoryBus, a program launched by the Dolores Kohl Education Foundation that helps teachers develop richer literacy experiences for their students, Hynes-Berry demonstrated SIP activities related to “The Little Red Hen.”

Separating the teachers into groups, she gave one group beans, glue, and construction paper and told them to create a picture related to the story. Another group was given pots and pans and medicine bottles covered with contact paper and told to perform a song. A third group had to act out the story using only nonsense words.

The teachers looked at the hodgepodge of materials on their tables, then each other.

“They were like, ‘What is she thinking? She can’t be serious!’” Hynes-Berry laughs, remembering their faces. To the teachers, the activity itself may have looked like a somewhat ridiculous arts-and-crafts activity, but time and again, Hynes-Berry has seen how carefully constructed activities inspire the participants to think deeply and creatively.

“They’re given odd challenges and very limited resources, but they do absolutely astonishing, delightful things.”

One teacher had never attended a professional development session where she was invited to come up with her own solution. “I can’t believe you told us to make music but didn’t tell us how,” she told Hynes-Berry. Afterward, she expressed the satisfaction of meeting the challenge.

Hynes-Berry hopes to inspire even more teachers with her book. From her perspective, the consequences of not bringing wonder, conversation, and serious play into the classroom are high.

“There will not be any creative or innovative thinking as long as problem-solving is not at the center of our schools, and we will be a nation
at-risk.”

Learn more

About Hynes-Berry’s book »