This summer I’ve been asking myself how oral storytelling works in the classroom setting. Why is it important that children hear stories, not just from their parents and grandparents, but in a context where they are listening with their classmates? From my reading and reflection, I believe the experience offers:
1) Immediacy, intimacy, vulnerability. As a group, the children witness the spontaneity and authenticity of the teller. This captures the children’s interest on many levels. The storyteller makes direct eye contact with her listeners. She isn’t holding a book. She doesn’t need to turn a page. Also, she isn’t relying on any text to tell her story. She is remembering and therefore “re-living” the story as she tells it. This gives children evidence that stories live in people, not just in texts, and therefore, they too can be storytellers.
2) Co-creation. The storyteller involves the listening audience. Together they co-create the event. Unlike the experience of watching a video, every storytelling session is unique. The teller may pause and make a comment about the weather or the environment or she may refer to some current event. Also, if she is familiar with the children’s lives, she may include her knowledge of a particular child’s situation (For example, if the story involves death, she might say, “This story makes me think of Sylvie because her grandfather died last month). Gestures, chants, repeated phrases, and whole body movements involve the listening child and allow her to “enter” the story herself, so that the story is remembered in the body as well as in the mind and heart.
3) Community building. The children, having heard a story together, now have a shared experience and a shared language. In the discussion that follows the storytelling, the children can build on each other’s ideas and find out what aspect of the story was meaningful to their classmates.
4) Learning other world views. Stories come out of specific cultural contexts, and the elements of stories therefore suggest a variety of ways of viewing experience. By hearing the story in a group, the children have an opportunity to share with their classmates their knowledge of the culture or customs reflected in the story.
One book I’ve been reading is Life Lessons through Storytelling: Children’s Exploration of Ethics by Donna Eder with Regina Holyan.1 The authors designed their study as a way to show how storytelling can serve an important role in children’s social and ethical education. They write:
Oral stories entail a set of powerful and effective mental strategies to fix patterns of meaning in the memory. These stories carry a charge of emotion that greatly enhances the likelihood of retaining the meanings, since memorable events tend to be those associated with strong emotions. Thus, whatever messages children choose to receive will likely stay with them longer than if the messages were received through written stories.2
An unexpected discovery was how stories offer children ways to think about their lives. One group of children heard a Swahili story about the trickster Hare. Hare receives permission from the Sultan to leave his cow with the Sultan’s bull, but then the Sultan claims ownership of the calf that results from the union of the bull and the cow, saying that the calf came from the bull. Hare shows how ridiculous it is to think that male animals can give birth and the Sultan is forced to let him take both the cow and the calf. When Donna asked the children, “Who would you be in the story?” two of the children chose the calf, which is only mentioned and has no agency in the narrative. However, the children, placing themselves in the story, assigned agency to the calf and said that they would decide which parent they wanted to stay with. By asking, “Who would you be?” Donna gave the children a way of imagining other outcomes to their own life circumstances, one in which children have the right to choose which parent they will live with after a divorce.
This is a beautiful example of how meaning is constructed out of each individual’s own story and how folk tales, especially when there is space for discussion and reflection in a small group, offer children real tools to think about their own lives.
1. Donna Eder is a professor of Sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington. Regina Holyan is a senior staff attorney with the Navajo Nation Department of Justice and a former Assistant Professor in the School of Education at the same university.
2. Eder, Donna with Regina Holyan, Life Lessons through Storytelling: Children’s Exploration of Ethics (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2010), p. 16.