There’s no doubt that every classroom is a little world unto itself, as well as part of the greater community of the school. One way of creating a sense of belonging and a culture of mutual care and interest is to tell stories together. Folktales, especially when told more than once, become a shared language. Personal stories, inspired by the themes of folktales, allow children to learn about each other.
The beginning of the school year (even three weeks later) is a good time to establish a weekly tradition of telling stories in the classroom. Choose a time of day, like right after recess, or following a gym period, when the children have just been moving about. I suggest beginning with “A Drum,” a folktale from India. The story can be found in many collections and there may be some versions online. My favourite version is in A. K. Ramanujan’s Folktales from India: A Selection of Oral Tales from Twenty-two Languages, reprinted in my book Seeds of Generosity: Storytelling in the Classroom.
A poor woman asks her son, “What can I bring you from the market?” He says, “A drum, Mother! Bring me a drum.” She knows she won’t have enough money to buy him a drum, but still she wants to give him something. On her way back from the market she sees a nice stick of wood on the roadside. She picks it up and brings it home. When she gives it to her son he doesn’t know what to do with it, but he takes it with him anyway when he goes out to play.
I love this story because it’s about wanting something very specific and being given something else. It’s also about the circle of giving. Once we experience an act of generosity, especially if we’re surprised by it, we soon discover that giving is fun. In fact, it’s contagious. Being able to receive what is offered, even if it’s not what we wanted, is what keeps the gift in motion, but how do we receive what is offered with a generous heart?
Here are some suggestions for ways of working with the story:
Begin by leading the children in some playful body percussion. Different parts of the body resonate differently and it’s fun to discover how to work with the hard parts (hips, for example) and the soft parts, like thighs or buttocks. The belly will resonate and so will the chest because they are like drums, being hollow inside. Lightly tapping up and down the legs in a rhythm, tapping the belly, the hips, the buttocks, not only warms up the body, but also connects to main theme of the story, the rhythm of giving and receiving.
When everyone is settled and ready for the story, ask the children a question to get them thinking about generosity.
“What was the strangest gift you ever received?” “What did you do with it?”
Ask them to share their ideas with a partner, so that everyone gets a chance to speak.
Now tell the story.
With younger children it can be fun to mimic the gesture of giving with each of the objects in the story. How do we hold a stick of wood, for example, as compared to a piece of warm bread?
As we repeat the gesture of extending the hands to give something, as well as the gesture of opening the hands to receive, we’re creating a body memory, an association of this pleasant experience of hearing a story with the experience of giving and receiving.
We might include some reflective questions at different points in the story, encouraging the children to imagine the boy’s experience from the inside.
With each object that is given, we can ask questions about the sensory experience of holding it. What do a stick, a piece of bread, a large clay pot, a coat, or the reins of a horse feel like in the hands:
“What do you think?
Was it heavy? Was it light?
Was it smooth? Was it rough?
Was it warm? Was it cold?”
These are quick questions, and won’t interrupt the flow of the storytelling. Later on, you can talk about how everyone hears the story differently. For some children, the imagined stick is long and smooth, like the branch of an arbutus tree, or a piece of driftwood, washed by the sea. For others, it might be stubby and rough.
After the story, you can also ask children to consider the boy’s emotional response:
“Which of those gifts might you have wanted to keep? Why do you think he kept giving them away?”
The story leads naturally to writing activities, especially for older children. Their assignment might be to write a similar story in which a series of gifts are given. I think it's important to emphasize that these are gifts and not exchanges. The boy in the story perceives a need and offers what he has. He isn't waiting to be given anything, and it's only when he meets the wedding party that he is asked what he would like to have.
The story could also be a way of introducing ideas of civic responsibility. As participants in any community, large or small, we have many opportunities to collaborate and help each other. When we see a need, how can we respond creatively?
For more ideas, Download Activities for A Drum.