Category: Musings

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How Storytelling will Save the World.

Once I was walking along a road and I had a long way to go. Billboards, advertising various fast food restaurants, new car dealerships and a brand of shampoo of which I had never heard, lined both sides of the road. I was thirsty and had no umbrella. The clouds began to gather and soon enough a light drizzle fell out of the sky. My shoes begun to make soft squishing noises as I walked. While I was walking, three riding carts came by.

A beautiful stallion with a gold harness pulled a finely painted, wooden cart. A proud older man, sitting in the driver’s seat, did not look at me. He dressed lavishly in a silk vest and jacket. I watched him go by without stopping.

A long haired llama pulled a cart, sleek and low. It was a racing cart. A bearded man, wearing a top hat and silk pajamas, drove the cart. He stopped for a moment and offered me a pair of diving fins. I said, politely, no thank-you and continued on.

An older woman in a cloak with a face full of wrinkles and smiles drove the third cart. Her covered cart was pulled by an old donkey and was enveloped with all manner of stuff. Piles of pots and pans hung on the outside of the cart. Most of the pots were filled with various living plants and dried medicines. The inside of the cart was filled with books. She stopped her cart and looked at me like I was a wet puppy.

Then she reached back into her cart pulled out an umbrella. I thanked her and inquired if she was going the same direction. Turned out she was, and I got a lift for the afternoon. First note that this story is not about fast food or billboards. This is a story about stories and why some stories have legs and others die a peaceful quiet death. The first cart was driven by greed and self-importance and did not really interest me. The second cart was driven for its own sake. Both these carts were interesting and entertaining, but not really useful to my experience in the world at that moment.

The wrinkled old women asked me if I wanted to be included and offered me something I could use as proof of her sincerity. I, being the wet and suffering traveler, was thrilled at the chance of aid and real camaraderie. Such is the role of storytellers in the ancient and modern worlds. A thing that I need and value in my journey and an offer of aid to follow, these are the gifts of storytelling that we, as storytellers,
must bring to each telling. She sat next to me on the bench in the shelter of the umbrella I now held for both of us. We sat for a time in silence on the cart and I watched the world go by.

Two thousand years ago there were no degrees, no telephones, no computers or faxes. People communicated by word of mouth or not at all. Storytelling was the primary form of popular entertainment and politics. Wars were fought – not just in the physical realm; but also in the minds and cultures of the participants through the conflicting mythologies and religious dogmas. The mythologies explained to people how their world was ordered and created. All of these conflicts were expressed, won or lost by storytellers. The losers’ mythologies disappeared beneath an ocean of culture and time.

This process continues today. Today, this process is used in modern advertising to get individuals to purchase things or ideas. Asindividuals, we seek to find the mythological world view that will define us as we travel into the 21st century. We seek stories that will make acceptable what we find difficult, explain complex realities, or help us forget our sorrows and troubles.

As I sat with this wrinkled old woman on a cart full of mysteries, I was amazed to see that all of the billboards and stores that we had been passing were playing out this old story of mythological struggle. Each billboard or store front represented a different story. Here is the way to freedom! Never feel dirty again! Get the easy life! And Heaven awaits at Ed’s Outlet stores! They all seem to shout at once. I saw people entering these stores seeking to complete the stories they had begun by seeing the advertisements. Some were satisfied and some disappointed. All of the customers shared a common belief that they were not in a story, but their cravings and feelings in their lives were random and accidental.

In this way, we are like our ancestors 10,000 years ago. We yearn for a world that is simple and easily explained without modern ideologies that are too oblique or complex. We yearn to return to a simpler time where nature was eden, cleaner, purer and abundant. We yearn to find our way by identifying ourselves in stories as the people we want to be as opposed to the people we are. We deny that we, who are so clearly influenced, are influenced at all by stories or mythologies.

Storytelling and stories define, expand or limit our world as we see fit. They have for thousands of years.

My wrinkled benefactor, who had sheltered me from this world of conflict and strife, began a conversation with me about life and the weather. Slowly we moved into deeper territory and I found myself listening as often as I spoke. I heard how this smiling lady had moved through the world decades before I was born. Slowly the world dropped out of focus and this newly found flower sprang into life.

Human minds are language based. Stories are a way of remembering and passing down information from one generation to the next – information that is self contained, useful and entertaining. For thousands of years, human beings have been naturally selected to pass on their genes that are good at social interaction, working with groups and listening to stories.

In traditional culture, storytelling was a stable way of passing down information between generations. Poisonous berries, snakes, spiders and a pharmaceutical collection of knowledge are based upon traditional culture using storytelling. Any person who failed to take in the good advice offered by the traditional storyteller keeper usually suffered a shorter life span.

So I found myself learning lessons of yonder years. Loves lost and gained. Families torn and friends destroyed by an unkind word. Journeys taken formercy, or just curiosity. All too quickly, I found myself back at my door.

In the information age, we are swimming
in a sea of information that threatens to overwhelm and drown us. Everyday we seek to manage this information and to structure the information overload so that we can successfully navigate the storm. In this chaotic environment, most individuals have no quiet place to rest their minds except during sleep.\Storytelling and stories become a familiar safe harbor where we can retreat to an ordered, self-contained world of imagination and useful
information.

We are hard wired to listen and grasp stories. The same genes that lean towards successful social cooperation also lead us to successful storytelling interactions. Good stories are useful, humbling and entertaining as are good storytellers. Storytelling is the most successful, long running, honest and satisfying form of sharing knowledge, written or verbal, available to humans.

Slowly I dismounted from the cart. I was happy to have arrived, but sad somehow to part company. My host waved goodbye and continued on her way without me., each of us better for the journey. Perhaps that is the best result of a good story, that life becomes sweeter and deeper by the telling.

Teaching Storytelling


sitesforteachers.com

A Position Statement from the Committee on Storytelling in 1992.

Once upon a time, oral storytelling ruled. It was the medium through which people learned their history, settled their arguments, and came to make sense of the phenomena of their world. Then along came the written word with its mysterious symbols. For a while, only the rich and privileged had access to its wonders. But in time, books, signs, pamphlets, memos, cereal boxes, constitutions’ countless kinds of writing appeared everywhere people turned. The ability to read and write now ruled many lands. Oral storytelling, like the simpleminded youngest brother in the olden tales, was foolishly cast aside. Oh, in casual ways people continued to tell each other stories at bedtime, across dinner tables, and around campfires, but the respect for storytelling as a tool of learning was almost forgotten.

Luckily, a few wise librarians, camp counselors, folklorists, and traditional tellers from cultures which still highly valued the oral tale kept storytelling alive. Schoolchildren at the feet of a storyteller sat mesmerized and remembered the stories till the teller came again. Teachers discovered that children could easily recall whatever historical or scientific facts they learned through story. Children realized they made pictures in their minds as they heard stories told, and they kept making pictures even as they read silently to themselves. Just hearing stories made children want to tell and write their own tales. Parents who wanted their children to have a sense of history found eager ears for the kind of story that begins, “When I was little ….” Stories, told simply from mouth to ear, once again traveled the land.

What Is Storytelling?

Storytelling is relating a tale to one or more listeners through voice and gesture. It is not the same as reading a story aloud or reciting a piece from memory or acting out a drama, though it shares common characteristics with these arts. The storyteller looks into the eyes of the audience and together they compose the tale. The storyteller begins to see and re-create, through voice and gesture, a series of mental images; the audience, from the first moment of listening, squints, stares, smiles, leans forward or falls asleep, letting the teller know whether to slow down, speed up, elaborate, or just finish. Each listener, as well as each teller, actually composes a unique set of story images derived from meanings associated with words, gestures, and sounds. The experience can be profound, exercising the thinking and touching the emotions of both teller and listener.

Why Include Storytelling in School?

Everyone who can speak can tell stories. We tell them informally as we relate the mishaps and wonders of our day-to-day lives. We gesture, exaggerate our voices, pause for effect. Listeners lean in and compose the scene of our tale in their minds. Often they are likely to be reminded of a similar tale from their own lives. These naturally learned oral skills can be used and built on in our classrooms in many ways.

Students who search their memories for details about an event as they are telling it orally will later find those details easier to capture in writing. Writing theorists value the rehearsal, or pre-writing, stage of composing. Sitting in a circle and swapping personal or fictional tales is one of the best ways to help writers rehearse.

Listeners encounter both familiar and new language patterns through story. They learn new words or new contexts for already familiar words. Those who regularly hear stories, subconsciously acquire familiarity with narrative patterns and begin to predict upcoming events. Both beginning and experienced readers call on their understanding of patterns as they tackle unfamiliar texts. Then they re-create those patterns in both oral and written compositions. Learners who regularly tell stories become aware of how an audience affects a telling, and they carry that awareness into their writing.

Both tellers and listeners find a reflection of themselves in stories. Through the language of symbol, children and adults can act out through a story the fears and understandings not so easily expressed in everyday talk. Story characters represent the best and worst in humans. By exploring story territory orally, we explore ourselves whether it be through ancient myths and folktales, literary short stories, modern picture books, or poems. Teachers who value a personal understanding of their students can learn much by noting what story a child chooses to tell and how that story is uniquely composed in the telling. Through this same process, teachers can learn a great deal about themselves.

Story is the best vehicle for passing on factual information. Historical figures and events linger in children’s minds when communicated by way of a narrative. The ways of other cultures, both ancient and living, acquire honor in story. The facts about how plants and animals develop, how numbers work, or how government policy influences history any topic, for that matter can be incorporated into story form and made more memorable if the listener takes the story to heart.

Children at any level of schooling who do not feel as competent as their peers in reading or writing are often masterful at storytelling. The comfort zone of the oral tale can be the path by which they reach the written one. Tellers who become very familiar with even one tale by retelling it often, learn that literature carries new meaning with each new encounter. Students working in pairs or in small storytelling groups learn to negotiate the meaning of a tale.

How Do You Include Storytelling in School?

Teachers who tell personal stories about their past or present lives model for students the way to recall sensory detail. Listeners can relate the most vivid images from the stories they have heard or tell back a memory the story evokes in them. They can be instructed to observe the natural storytelling taking place around them each day, noting how people use gesture and facial expression, body language, and variety in tone of voice to get the story across.

Stories can also be rehearsed. Again, the teacher’s modeling of a prepared telling can introduce students to the techniques of eye contact, dramatic placement of a character within a scene, use of character voices, and more. If students spend time rehearsing a story, they become comfortable using a variety of techniques. However, it is important to remember that storytelling is communication, from the teller to the audience, not just acting or performing.

Storytellers can draft a story the same way writers draft. Audiotape or videotape recordings can offer the storyteller a chance to be reflective about the process of telling. Listeners can give feedback about where the telling engaged them most. Learning logs kept throughout a storytelling unit allow both teacher and students to write about the thinking that goes into choosing a story, mapping its scenes, coming to know its characters, deciding on detail to include or exclude.

Like writers, student storytellers learn from models. Teachers who tell personal stories or go through the process of learning to tell folk or literary tales make the most credible models. Visiting storytellers or professional tellers on audiotapes or videotapes offer students a variety of styles. Often a community historian or folklorist has a repertoire of local tales. Older students both learn and teach when they take their tales to younger audiences or community agencies. Once you get storytelling going, there is no telling where it will take you.

Oral storytelling is regaining its position of respect in communities where hundreds of people of every age gather together for festivals in celebration of its power. Schools and preservice college courses are gradually giving it curriculum space as well. It is unsurpassed as a tool for learning about ourselves, about the ever-increasing information available to us, and about the thoughts and feelings of others.

The simpleminded youngest brother in olden tales, while disregarded for a while, won the treasure in the end every time. The NCTE Committee on Storytelling invites you to reach for a treasure; the riches of storytelling.

This position statement may be printed, copied, and disseminated
without permission from NCTE.

From the National Council of Teachers of English, 1111 W. Kenyon Road, Urbana, IL 61801-1096. Tel: 800-369-6283 (Toll Free). Full text at http://www.ncte.org/positions/story.html.

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