As a young mother, I told my children stories – not because I was a talented or ardent story teller. It was simply a practical way to keep them occupied on car rides, treks through woods and cities, and especially while waiting for things to happen. My main purpose was to make the time pass and cut down on the complaining or roughhousing that would too easily fill those blank moments. And the bedtime routine of reading stories morphed from a pleasant way to get ready for bed into something sacrosanct, at least for my daughter, who insisted she could not fall asleep unless she’d had her daily dose of stories.
As a young teacher, I used stories daily to gather the group and focus their attention. It worked, so I did it – that was all I needed to know. In both cases, stories were the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. It wasn’t until I was much more experienced as a teacher that I became aware of the powerful effects of storytelling – far more than just icing!
In our rush to teach children how to read and write, how to calculate numbers, and the facts of history and geography, we sometimes load our classes and homework with skill acquisition and memorization. Stories are often used, if at all, as rewards for completing the “important” work. We lose sight of the fact that using stories may be by far the most effective way to introduce and digest information. It can also be a powerful tool for motivating us to tackle the more mundane tasks of learning. It is most definitely the way to discover what lies beneath the surface of cities, people, countries, both known and unknown.
COMMUNITIES CONNECT THROUGH STORIES
People have always told stories. It is as primal an activity as talking. We have always connected to others in our social group through stories, most as simple as a good gossip over the cooking fire or – in modern times – coffee with a friend. Storytelling was mainly oral before there were books and then, with the use of print, vocabularies blossomed and the art of writing was born. And yet classic authors, like Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, are at heart simply storytellers.
When I taught in an international school in Basel, Switzerland, many of my students came from other countries. I felt it was important to introduce them to their adopted, however temporary, city; to make them more aware of the community connections that we often take for granted, and to see themselves as a part of a wider world. This meant getting to know a very old city with a long history. The city was –at least on the surface – a mundane, functional European city, not much different from other such cities. So I was not surprised when I asked my students for their impressions, that most of them labeled the city as “boring.” On the surface there seemed nothing very special about it and the idea of “touring” brought forth groans. There was no convincing anyone by simply listing the historical and cultural facts that made Basel so interesting.
STORIES BRING HISTORY AND CULTURE TO LIFE
Thinking back to my days of dealing with my own bored, groaning children, I decided to dig through the old legends, finding some I thought my students might enjoy. Would walking through the city be more memorable using stories as a guide rather than simple information?
Each time we walked through the city, I introduced old legends. It was then a simple matter to slip in some historical or cultural facts as we moved from one area – or story – to another. Having the children locate items – murals, dates above doorways, portals, statues, fountains, etc., kept them moving at a good clip. More often than not, for several weeks after the city tour, I was asked to tell the legends again and again, and each time I could slip in a fact or two of information about the city. History and geography were being digested through the stories which infused Basel with its own special magic.
What truly fascinated me was that the adults accompanying us on our walks through the city were as captivated by the stories as were the children. They would enthusiastically declare that they had a far better sense and appreciation of Basel having listened to the legends.
THE MONSTER BOOK OF SWITZERLAND
Switzerland’s numerous legends have many common themes: the foils of human nature, the search for happiness, the conquering of evil and the consequences of greed. The basic values of honesty, love, duty and hard work run through many of the tales, and it is easy to imagine that people used the tales to instruct as much as to entertain.
The Monster Book of Switzerland was born, not as a comprehensive atlas of facts, but infused with the magic of storytelling. Each topic, such as how chocolate is made or how the Swiss bore through mountains to make their tunnels — even Swiss inventions, such as Velcro and plastic wrap— are told as stories.
The enthusiastic reception of the book is a reminder of the power of stories in our homes and in our classrooms to foster enthusiasm for the world around us.
TIPS FOR EVERYDAY STORYTELLING
1. Read together as often as possible.
If uncomfortable with creating spontaneous fictional stories, surround yourself and your children with story books. Read together as often as possible. Once the books are familiar, it is easier to tell the stories spontaneously. Don’t limit reading or listening to stories to young children. Stories can be appreciated at any age. Just because children can read independently does not mean there is less value in the shared experience of oral or read-aloud stories.
2. Ask open-ended questions while reading.
As you read to children, ask open-ended questions, such as “How do you think she’s feeling?” “What do you think will happen next?” “What would you do?” But be sensitive to the listener’s cues about interruptions. Some children – like some adults – sometimes just want to get to the end of the book to see what happens. You might have to save questions for another time and, if they are willing, ask them to retell a story or explain a favorite section of the story.
3. Be specific and creative in your questions about their day.
When you ask someone about their day at school or any event that they have attended, ask direct questions that allow them to tell their story. “How was school today?” barely elicits an “OK” from many children. Being more specific, such as, “When you had gym class today, what new games did the teacher show you?” or “I heard that you would be making collages today. What did you use to make yours?” Timing is also key. Some children arrive home bubbling with information. Many more finish their day tired and need to transition before they are ready to talk about their day. Think of finishing a full day of difficult meetings and being peppered with questions by your spouse the minute you walk in the door! My son rarely answered my questions about school directly. But when I tucked him in at night, if I used one of his stuffed animals to ask the questions, he responded far more enthusiastically.
4. Listen attentively to your children’s stories.
As young children learn the skill of reading, they will sometimes go through a phase where they insist on “reading” the story. Often children will retell a story referring to the black squiggles as they pretend to read. Listening intently to a child telling you a story is not only a gift of your time but a solid investment in motivating your child to read independently. What is important here is not the accuracy of sounding out words, but the enthusiastic telling of the story.
5. Tell each other stories about your day.
Tell your children stories about your day. Listen to stories about their day. Really listening can lead to questions that expand their storytelling, as well as their vocabulary and the concepts that all contribute to later independent reading. Even more importantly, by listening to our children’s stories, we affirm who they are and the value of their experiences.
To prepare our children for the future, especially those in multi-cultural settings, it is important that they develop the skill of telling their own story, of imagining stories, settings and characters, of problem-solving, or learning how to listen to others’ stories. Stories affirm who we are and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and others, real or imagined. Stories help us to make meaning of our lives.
Stories – at whatever age – are so much more than just a sweet pleasure.
About the Author: Jeanne Darling is the author of The Monster Book of Switzerland, Bergli Books, 2018 and Basel’s Hidden Stories, Bergli Books, 2017 (www.bergli.ch).
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