Heart to Heart Storytelling

Storytelling sits at the heart of Total Education. Whether it is thinking about cooperation, intrinsic motivation, nurturing the spirit of the children, valuing stillness or teaching positive values, storytelling is one of the best ways to communicate with children.

There are three main aspects of children’s growth: academic, physical and character development. The last of these, character development, is the integrating factor in Total Education — it connects everything else together. A central element of character development is children’s experience of love and care from their teachers and parents. This experience leads to a sense of security, which in turn leads to a feeling of confidence. If children feel confident in the adults around them, they will develop a sense of trust and this will enable them to act in cooperation with others. Working in cooperation rather than in competition leads to peace. In this kind of environment, children can be themselves and their creativity emerges and is able to be expressed.

The question is, “How do children learn these things?” In my experience, these qualities come from people rather than structures — and schools are “people places”. People’s behaviour is what brings these qualities to life. Qualities such as cooperation, trust and security come from example and modelling rather than precept. Precept, or what we say, may be at variance with what the children experience from our behaviour, so actions speak louder than words.

These elements of character are all expressions of peace rather than power. They are learned in the experience of living relationships rather than technology. They make sense because we feel that they are intuitively right, not because they are necessarily logically correct. Because of this, these qualities and values are more effectively learned through illustration and metaphor rather than argument, and metaphor is at the heart of storytelling.

Stories seem to reach a deeper level of children’s awareness. The values that good stories have as their basis — such as courage, forgiveness, kindness, patience and love — represent the human spirit, because they are about the best we can be as people. Stories about these values are universal and can be found in every culture, from the beginning of human history, and even prehistory (before we started writing things down), when the whole culture of a people was passed down orally, through its stories.

In my experience, reading stories is wonderful, but telling stories is the best way to communicate these positive values to children. Somehow, when you’re telling a story, you are putting yourself into the story, heart and soul, and your heart reaches out and touches the hearts of the children who are listening to the story. There is something magical about that.

The ways in which storytelling is delivered must necessarily be different for various age groups. At The School of Total Education, primary children have a couple of sessions a week of what we call Quiet Time, in which stories are told. In Quiet Time, the Principal or one of the primary teachers tells a story to the children which contains some kind of moral value. Children from Grade 1 to Grade 7 sit together for this as a shared experience first thing in the morning, before classes start. At the conclusion of the story, several things might happen. We may have a short discussion on the meaning behind the story or what the story means for us as individuals or as a school. Following the story, the children are led to an experience of quietness. This usually involves asking the children to close their eyes and either visualize something from the story, or to listen to some settling music or to some of the ambient sounds in the environment. If using music, Bach or Mozart seem to be best for this. When the children head back to their classes they are usually in a very settled frame of mind. For some children this is the highlight of their week.

At secondary level, the approach to storytelling needs to be different. Emergence of personal identity, the need to question the adult world and the sorting out of their own values, means there need to be other sources for the stories. There needs to be a focus on life experience and students will be open to stories about the lives of inspirational people who they know about, for example, through the media. Literature and film and drama are wonderful sources of inspirational stories about characters struggling with the human condition, just like they are. These characters might be fictional such as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, or they might be real people such as Ian Thorpe with his unsuccessful struggle for Olympic selection, or Barrack Obama in his quest to become the first African-American president of the USA, or Julia Gillard, our first female Prime Minister, as she struggles with moral dilemmas, vested interests and a relentless Opposition.

The other rich source of material for input on character development is the lives of students themselves and the lives of their teachers, or as one teacher put it during our discussions, “a really close friend of mine”. If the students are the source of the story, the right kind of trusting environment needs to be secured as a prerequisite so that the sharing of personal information is respected. If the teacher is the source, there need to be boundaries, in terms of appropriateness, for personal material to be shared. The same goes for parents. However, children love to hear about the reality of the lives of their adult role models and to understand the trials and tribulations that shaped their lives.

My advice for good storytelling is that you need to find a story that appeals to you and that makes sense to you. If it doesn’t, it probably won’t appeal to the children either. It is good if the story involves a problem to be solved or some tension between the characters that needs to be resolved, rather than just a series of events that occur. It helps to galvanize the attention of the audience if the story contains something a little bit scary, while something funny definitely adds to the enjoyment. Also, if you can include a little bit of descriptive detail, it helps bring a story to life. Lastly, it is good if the story is relevant in some way to the children and their current life experience.

In preparing for Quiet Time each week over the last 30 years or so, I found I needed to read about five stories to find the one I really wanted to use. There are a great many sources out there, including folktales, indigenous stories, stories from the great religions, stories from history and my great standby, Aesop’s Fables. There are the parables of Jesus, the Jakarta Tales from Buddhist tradition, the Panchatantra from the Hindu tradition, the stories of the Sufis and Nasrudin from the Islamic tradition and of course the stories from the Jewish tradition including the Old Testament.

Storytelling is a very important part of the process of character development at The School of Total Education. A good story is something that appeals to all age groups, because we recognize the truth of experience that good stories reveal.

About the Author

Richard Waters served in the role of Principal at the School of Total Education for over 30 years. He taught at both primary and secondary levels. He has a particular interest in parent education and the training of teachers, and after retiring from the School at the end of 2011, took up the role of Director of the Institute of Total Education.

This article is based on a talk given at a Teachers’ Seminar at The School of Total Education on Friday 13th April 2012. (Published on web site: August 2012)