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

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Classroom Talk

I’m Paula Davidoff and I have a school story to tell.

Every Thursday evening, I co-direct a troupe of teenage girls who tell their own stories through writing and performance. The troupe is called Girls Surviving, a named coined by one of our first troupe members as a comment on the one-day-at-a-time nature of a girl’s journey into womanhood. In our weekly workshops, the girls listen to traditional stories, read poems and plays, and talk about their own life experiences as a prerequisite to writing an original, multi-genre performance piece which they present to a community audience.

We always begin each session with a ‘check in’ – a time for each person to catch the rest of the troupe up on what’s happened to her since our last meeting. This week, one of girls, I’ll call her Tanya, told a story about her ongoing persecution by a teacher. Before she could finish, two of the other girls who were in the same class interrupted her.

“You should just keep your mouth shut in that class, girl!” said one.

“I don’t know why you talk to Ms. (teacher) like that,” added the other.

As the girls began to discuss the incident, it seemed clear that Tanya’s perception of what was happening with the teacher was in conflict with the perceptions of her classmates. When we completed the check-in, my co-director, Carolyn Hunt, who is a skilled director of Playback Theater, suggested that the girls act out the scene between Tanya and the teacher. In accordance with Playback protocol, she asked Tanya to select actresses to represent herself, the teacher, and some other students in the class. Then, with Tanya’s help, Carolyn set up the scene and directed the actresses. As the scene played out, it became clear to the adults in the room that the real-life teacher had very little control of the class, that rather than being a model for how she wanted students to act, her behavior was a reaction to the way the students behaved. It seemed equally clear that the girls, those who had actually witnessed the events and those who had not, weren’t aware of this. The idea that an adult, especially one in a position of authority, might feel fragile or uncertain seemed alien to them. Tanya’s defensive and, frankly, obnoxious behavior toward the teacher was based on the assumption that the teacher was scheming to humiliate her when it seemed to us that the teacher was just trying to survive a class of bored and unruly students.

At this point, anyone reading this entry might comment extensively on what’s wrong with this classroom dynamic, including problems with the child’s home, the teacher’s training, and the school administration’s approach to discipline, but that’s not what I want to address. I want to think about communication, specifically communication in the classroom.

In many, if not most, of the communities in this country, our school populations have become more socially, ethnically, and economically diverse. This diversity is overlaid on the cultural differences we expect to find from one household to another, regardless of socio-economic status or ethnicity. These unique differences in our students, as well as the differences between students and teachers, create obstacles to communication. The obstacles may range from the obvious problems of the student who has the immense task of trying to communicate in a new language, to the hidden problems of the child who is trying to unravel the subtle differences between the expectations of his mother and his teacher. Students and teachers come to the classroom with widely different and disconnected bases of prior knowledge, as well as prejudices, fears, and misconceptions about each other that can make teaching and learning impossible. In order to engage in meaningful educational discourse, we need to find a non-threatening common ground for making the gaps in knowledge transparent, and for acknowledging and discussing fears and misconceptions. Storytelling can create this common ground, this “third space” to accommodate the culture of school and the diverse cultures of our homes and neighborhoods.

Storytelling offers an approach to text that is different from the more conventional classroom reading practices of silent reading, group reading, and teacher read-alouds. Like a read-aloud, storytelling is social, but because the teller is always in eye-contact with the audience, the interaction between the audience and the text is more immediate and intimate. Audience members respond to the teller’s facial expressions and gestures as well as to her words as she embodies characters, represents landscape, indicates the boundaries of the settings, and provides a visual association for the voice of the narrator. The audience reads the teller’s visual presentation as an integral part of the story’s meaning. These non-verbal indicators help to clarify meaning for students who may not know the meaning of a word or understand its connotation. They also add emotional resonance that aids comprehension.

The multi-modal aspect of storytelling bridges gaps in student knowledge as it sets parameters for acceptable verbal and non-verbal communication. The teller’s dynamic interaction with the audience lets her know immediately whether or not students are comprehending the text. When she sees a puzzled look, she can clarify for the listener on the spot, with a movement or reiteration. Because she is watching the students’ faces, she can also assess and monitor student engagement throughout the telling. The teacher-as-storyteller makes herself more accessible to students by stepping out of her teacher persona and embodying other, familiar characters: siblings, fools, and bullies; moms, queens, and witches; dads, kings, and giants. Children recognize the characters and events in stories and connect them to their own life experiences. In this way the stories provide the classroom community with common metaphors for the real conflicts and celebrations children experience, both in and out of school.

Stories lead to the kinds of conversations that engender learning because they give us glimpses into the inner and outer lives of people we, otherwise, see only in the context of the classroom. Stories lead to discussion by posing questions that leave children wondering. They also lead to other stories, the stories of the teacher’s and her students’ experiences. The information and insight we gain from these conversations reveal to us gaps in knowledge, make us aware of fears, and help us understand misconceptions, with respect to ourselves and our students.

It seems na├»ve to think that Tanya’s teacher could solve her classroom control problems by telling stories. After all, she has curriculum to cover, and she is, in fact, dealing with problems caused by ineffectual parenting, her own poor preparation, and unsupportive administration. However, she is also trying to teach a child whom she hasn’t made an effort to know. Tanya has been a strong, cooperative member of the Girls Surviving troupe for two years. She’s a risk taker, a problem solver, and a good collaborator. I doubt her teacher has ever seen that side of her. She probably has the same kind of misguided opinion about Tanya that Tanya has about her.

I think that sometimes we, as teachers, are so focused on covering curriculum that we spend our time in the classroom talking to students rather than with them. The irony, of course, is that it doesn’t matter how many pages we cover if students aren’t learning, and if students don’t find a reason to become engaged, can’t find some connection to the material or the presenter, they’re not learning. I think that finding time for telling and sharing stories, both personal and traditional, is an investment in student engagement. Stories can humanize the teacher in the eyes of his or her students. And, when we listen to our students’ stories, we began to learn what they know and how they see the world, a element crucial to our ability to teach them.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Teaching Moments

In a folktale, when the son sets off on an adventure, his mother asks him, “Will you take a half loaf with my blessing, or a whole loaf with no blessing?” We, the reader or listener, know the right answer to this question, and if the son asks for the whole loaf, we know it means he has the wrong priorities, that he’s doomed to fail in his quest and, perhaps, come to some dreadful end. However, we may ask (and children often do ask), Why can’t he have both the blessing and the whole loaf? Or, why not simply bless him, hand him the half loaf, and send him on his way? Why does the mother make her son choose?

Folktales are full of such moments, those incidents that can stop our suspension of disbelief and make us wonder, why? or how? We accept without question the existence of magic rings and glass mountains, but our imaginations bulk at matter-of-fact questions like, Why can’t Snow White just take the dwarves’ advice? or, Why does Ashenputtel’s father allow his new wife to treat her so badly? I think that these moments in a story, the incidents we stop to question, are the story’s way of saying, There is something important here. When the story ends, come back and examine this place. You’ll learn something true here, something about yourself.

In recent days, we have been exposed to one of real life’s unfathomable moments, the suicide of a bright and talented young man; a death ostensibly caused by the sort of mean act we expect from the older brothers and evil stepsisters of fairytales, but that we find inexplicable when it is perpetrated by real life brothers and sisters. In the days following Tyler Clementi’s tragic death, I have heard people speculate on the social phenomena that may have encouraged the actions of his tormentors: social networking and the ease with which modern technology allows the spread of images and information; the religious and cultural roots of homophobia; the aura of unreality that Reality T.V. has lent to life’s most serious and intimate interactions. Some or all of these things, no doubt, were instrumental in forming the thought processes that resulted in the heinous acts of the two seemingly unexceptional teenagers who set off the string of events that ended in Tyler’s suicide, but they don’t really explain how these two children came to hurt a third child so deeply. The explanations also do not give us a hint about how we can protect our children from being the instigators or becoming the victims of thoughtless brutality.

Among all the speculation about blame, the question I do not hear being asked is, how can we protect our children from the evils they are bound to meet as life leads them further and further from our side? Is there any way we can prepare them to resist the temptations presented by their social environment, or help them develop the inner strength to fight despair when they’re hurt by the actions of others? How do we help our children develop the moral compass they will need to navigate life?

As a mother and a teacher, these are questions I have been thinking about for over thirty years. They are not the kinds of questions that have simple answers. We can’t protect our children from the vicissitudes of life. We can only try to prepare them to expect that life will not be easy and that it will demand sacrifices. I believe that stories, especially folktales and myths, are one tool we can use to arm our children against the difficulties they will face in their lives. These ancient stories teach by telling about life in all its patterns and possibilities. They teach that heroes don’t succeed at every task, that sometimes they make the same mistake over and over again, that they are humiliated by their rivals, and passed over when they are most deserving. The stories also teach that, whatever the consequences, if a man wishes to be happy, he must stand by what he knows is right. Like the son in the folktale, a hero will always be asked to make a choice, and the choice will usually involve some sort of sacrifice: the whole loaf or the half.

We know that the magic in stories is not real, but sometimes we forget that it is often true. The truth in folk and fairy tales transcends the facts of life. In the real world, we can’t fly by lacing on magic sandals, escape danger with the help of a magic cloak, or travel to the underworld to bring back a lost love. These are the actions of our dreams, of the intensely private world of our unconscious, the place where we store our magical gear, our wishing rings and cloaks of invisibility, and where we keep our own personal witches, faeries, and demons. It’s the realm that may hold the secrets to our happiness and stability, if we could only decipher the things that happen there. Folktales and myths give us access to the world of the unconscious in a more orderly and systematic way than do our dreams. Our examination of the puzzling moments in story can help us learn to protect ourselves and teach us to fight the forces of evil that would overcome our psyches.

When children hear the old stories, they instinctively know that the hero is a stand-in for themselves, and I believe that when they hear something in the story that speaks directly to them, it stops them long enough to make them wonder, Why? This is the teaching moment, the place in the story that will fortify the soul if the questioner stops to examine it. Sometimes the answers are hard, but if we take the time to help our children look for them, we help them build the moral foundation that will support them as they grow, help them make good decisions, and help fortify them against despair.

It’s not easy for parents to teach these hard lessons to our children, but I think it’s essential to their well being. The nymph, Thetis, tried to give her son, Achilles, both her blessing and the whole loaf. Knowing he was fated to die young, she tried to divert his fate with charms and tricks. In his infancy, she dipped him in the River Styx, making every part of his body except the eponymous tendon by which she held his tiny leg impenetrable by weapons. As he approached manhood, she tried to make him invisible to the kings who would take him to Troy by disguising him as a girl and placing him in the women’s quarters of King Lycomedes’s palace. Finally, realizing that she could no longer keep him from his final battle, she procured for him a wondrous shield made by the armorer of the gods, Hephaestus. An Immortal, herself, Thetis didn’t understand that the mortality from which she was trying to protect her son held the key to any possibility he had of happiness or peace of mind. She couldn’t protect him from death, but perhaps she could have taught him to value life. Perhaps she could have focused less on the vulnerability of his body and thought more about how to help him develop his qualities of soul. And when we read the story of her son’s last days in Homer’s Iliad, we realize how much he could have used that help.

I think there is little we can do to prevent our children's suffering. However, I think we can try to prepare them to expect that life will sometimes be sad and frightening, and to give them strategies for surviving those times. One of the ways to accomplish this is by telling and reading them stories in which heroes make choices, suffer the consequences, and learn to overcome. This is what the folktale mother knows. This is the story teaching us.

posted by Paula Davidoff

Paula Davidoff is a writer and storyteller who has been a teaching artist since 1994. In addition to her work with Storytelling Arts, she is the director of a storytelling-based literacy program in the Morristown, NJ and co-director, with playwright Carolyn Hunt, of Girls Surviving, a troupe of teen girls who tell their own stories through writing and performance.