A few days ago I was in a Grade One French Immersion classroom. For most of the day, I communicated with the children in French and they did their best to make requests and speak in French as well. For these five- and six-year olds, however, French is not yet a tool for genuine communication. They don't have the language or the wealth of associations that are available to them in their first language. Speaking French involves the production of previously acquired stock phrases, selected and presented according to the needs of the moment (thirst, having to go to the bathroom, wanting to know what's happening next).
This was made evident to me when Mrs. Evans, the music teacher, came to collect the children after lunch. Several of them began to tell her about their missing teeth: "Guess what, Mrs. Evans? I lost a tooth last week. Look what the tooth fairy left me..."
Children are natural storytellers. Having a receptive and friendly audience in the music teacher, whom they know only in the context of speaking English, they easily and naturally began telling her stories.
At the end of the day, we took off our "chapeaux français" (French hats) and put on our "chapeaux anglais" (English hats). We talked about owls. Many of them had seen an owl, or heard one. One girl described her encounter: "I was walking with my mother and my brother and we heard an owl. It got louder as we got closer, but we never saw it." In her very short narrative, this young storyteller sets the scene, introduces the characters and provides a sense of dramatic tension, as well as resolution. The bird's presence was intriguing and there was a desire to see it as well as hear it, but even though the sound got louder as they approached, they never saw the owl.
I followed this discussion with a mindful listening excercise using a chime. We also listened to sounds in the room and beyond the room, sharing what we heard. We talked about listening to sounds at the end of the day when going to sleep.
Next I told a story, in English, with sounds and names for the children to repeat and some movements for them to do as well. They listened carefully and appeared totally engaged with the unfolding of the narrative. The story was about friendship and three animals helping each other escape from a dangerous situation.
When the story was over, I asked the children to tell of a time when they helped someone. Several had a story to tell, mostly of helping a friend on the playground, either because the friend was hurt, or because he or she was being bullied in some way. While my invitation was fairly general -- to describe a time when they helped someone -- the children reflected the experience of danger and distress in the story I had told when selecting their own stories.
Reflecting on this now, I see how it is a perfect example of how stories call to stories. While listening to a story, a child experiences all the emotions that are present: whether it is fear, determination, courage, kindness, or gratitude. In this case, the central emotion was courage in the face of danger, therefore it isn't surprising that the stories the children chose to tell also picked up on this theme.
Usually, storytelling is the domain of the adult -- the teacher, librarian, or parent. Making space for children to tell their own stories acknowledges the value of their experience, while also reinforcing their sense of themselves as able to care for others. Mindfulness sets the stage for this kind of reciprocal sharing, in which the positive values of friendship are powerfully reinforced, first through the images of the folktale, and then through the children's association of their own life experience with the events of the story they've just heard.
Ideally, this would be followed up with an art activity and some opportunity to continue reflecting on the nature of friendship. Unfortunately, the day was almost over. All we had time for was a short review of the day's activities. The storytelling received positive reviews from several children, including one who said: "It was entirely amazing. Gorgeous. I loved that story!"