It’s the beginning of a new school year. Classroom teachers are considering the building of healthy classroom communities, a spaces that works for everyone. A number of us here at SAI have been hired to work at a school that is welcoming a whole new sixth grade student body along with a few new sixth grade teachers. Everyone is talking about forging strong communities in the school as well as the classroom.
Each storyteller will be paired with an individual teacher for three storytelling sessions. The purpose and goals of these workshops are to introduce students to the art of storytelling, the structures and components of storytelling and how stories are conveyed in a myriad of ways. We will be telling stories and demonstrating how comprehension and emotion are conveyed through such things as voice, facial expression, body movement, specific vocabulary, sentence construction, etc. At the conclusion of the workshops, the students will produce a piece of writing which the classroom teacher and the storyteller will develop collaboratively.
We have been asked to frame our workshops around the concept of community. Hmmm. Personally, I can’t wait to talk with my teacher to find out how she defines, discusses and works with ‘community’. Will she focus on community values, community rules, community support, and individual responsibilitiesin a community? There are so many ways to contemplate community.
Of course stories are the perfect vehicle to look at community. All stories have come out of community. Storytelling is a community event. I've spent the summer trying to find a way to narrow my list of stories in order to choose the perfect few ‘community’ stories I will tell.
As it happens, one of my summer reads was Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah. One theme the book explores is ways of rebuilding a community devastated and dispersed by war. One of the ways evoked is through storytelling and keeping the stories of the community. An elder woman, Mama Kadie, the community's story keeper, mentors Oumu, a young girl. “It isn’t about knowing the most stories, child, it is about carrying the ones that are most important and passing them along. I have already decided to tell you all the stories I carry.” (p35)
A powerful scene in the book occurs when the children of the village find a dead body in the river... the river where they go to bathe and get drinking water. That night all gather as Mama Kadie tells a story of the water spirits and how they behave. All listening are trying to make sense of the horror of the day.
Another book I read this summer was Heroes and Heroines by Mary Beck. This is a collection of Tinglit Haida legends. Beck writes in her Forward:
"The myths and legends were told and retold at potlatches, less formal gatherings, as family pastimes, even as bedtime stories. But their entertainment value was secondary. Here, as elsewhere, the important function of myth and legend was to pass the knowledge and traditions, morals and mores from the old to the young, maintain social cohesion and continuity, keep the culture alive and flourishing... In their parallels to the myths and legends of other cultures, they reinforce the one-world concept. Through them we see that human needs, reactions and values are essentially the same everywhere, and that human beings, wherever they live, have found similar ways of explaining life and transmitting their concepts." (Ix, x)
So, in the service of building a narrative community, which stories will I pass on? Which stories will best illustrate the benefits and difficulties of living in a community? Which stories will provoke engaged discussions around the various aspects of community?
We storytellers must keep in mind that we are NOT teaching ‘community.’ That is the role of the teachers. We are teaching the communication skills inherent in the oral art of storytelling. However, as professional storytellers we can search out and choose stories that complement, enhance and extend the work of the teachers.
Two stories come to mind right away. One is ‘Stone Soup’ and all of its variants. Here is a story that reveals the deliciousness of collaboration and working together in community. The other is Aesop’s ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’ or it’s literary cousin, Fredrick by Lionni. What are an individual’s responsibilities in society? What is equal pay for equal work? How do we handle those who may not be ideal community members?
Excellent discussions of both Stone Soup and Fredrick can be found at the site TeachingChildrenPhilosophy.org.
I would love to hear what others are thinking about ‘community’ and what stories are rolling around in their minds. Please respond.
Julie Della Torre