Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Moral Play

Hello, I am Julie Della Torre, Master Storyteller with Storytelling Arts, Inc. I have been working as a Professional Storyteller since 1985 and have 9 years of elementary school teaching experience along with the study of child development and curriculum. More information about our work in storytelling and education can be found on the Storytelling Arts website

The best book about storytelling and playing with ideas that I’ve read this year is Big Ideas For Little Kids by Thomas Wartenberg. The subtitle is Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature, and he runs a wonderful website I’m rereading the book right now in preparation for the upcoming school year.

I read about the book in the NY Times and received it as a gift for Mother’s Day. I devoured it that very day and put it into practice the very next day. The book is all about holding deep discussion with children after sharing picture books with them. Storytelling offers an even more immediate and intense philosophical experience. The old folktales and fairy tales and myths are full of inherent moral and ethical problems. The reason for their existence is to help us figure out life and to teach us ways of being in the world.

I was ready for this book. I have read widely and deeply on this issue of holding deep conversations with children. Vivian Paley is an inspiration. She truly listens to children and tries to figure out what they are really saying. As I reported last week, her many books have been invaluable. Robert Coles and his The Spiritual Life of Children and his The Moral Intelligence of Children helped me realize that very young children are dealing with very big issues. Children are trying to make sense of the world.

Back to Wartenberg. The first discussion Wartenberg reports is on wondering about bravery after reading a Frog and Toad story. (‘Dragons and Giants’ by Arnold Lobel) The day after I read this chapter I went into a third grade class to tell stories. I told the same stories I had planned to tell, but used the concept of bravery in the follow-up discussion. I told the story of Baba Yaga’s Black Geese (many versions exist), in the story a little girl is left in charge of her baby brother. Inadvertently she leaves the boy alone and Baba Yaga’s geese kidnap him. The little girl has to go and save the baby boy. She does so with the help of three animals.

Before the story I asked the students what they thought about bravery, how they might define it, what they thought it meant to be brave, and had they ever been brave. In the free wheeling discussion many points were made.

  • Being brave is when you’re never afraid.
  • No, being brave is when you are afraid but you do it anyway.
  • Being brave is when you don’t even think about it. You do something scary without even thinking about it. Like when a fireman saves someone. You just do it.
  • You have to do something for someone else.
  • Being brave is when everyone else can do something and you’re scared, but you do it anyway. A girl was uncomfortable with this and came back with the thought that maybe if the ‘others’ were doing something bad, then maybe it would be more brave NOT to do what everyone else was doing.

After I told the story we talked about bravery again. All the third graders thought the Little Girl was brave according to our definitions. It was very scary to go to Baba Yaga’s hut to save her brother, but she did it. However, new issues surrounding bravery came up because of the story.

  • During the discussion before the story, the students didn’t think you could be brave if someone helped you. After the story many changed their minds. But, there was a condition. “You have to listen to the help and follow what they say.” Well now, that’s interesting.
  • One girl said, “The girl was lucky that Baba Yaga was asleep.” This led to a discussion of whether luck has anything to do with being brave.
  • And then there is the whole problem of the little girl. She left her brother alone. That wasn’t very responsible. It was her fault the boy was taken. In part, she was trying to save her own skin. Is that considered being brave?

The ideas in this book resonate now with stories I learn. I just learned a delightful story of the Hodja and the Moon in the Well. I did not learn this story as an example of bravery, but now I see two more questions of bravery arise

  • Can you be brave if you do something you think is brave, but no one else thinks is brave?
  • Can you be brave if no one is there to witness it?

The New Jersey Storytelling Festival is being held this Sunday, September 12th at The Grounds For Sculpture. (Find information at New Jersey Storytelling Network . Or go directly to the Grounds For Sculpture website at I will be telling a whole program of stories about being brave. Maybe I’ll see you there.

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