Why Telling Stories Matters
My father is a story teller. As a tiny child I fell asleep to his voice telling stories: of Hannibal moving his elephants through the high Alps and taking Italy by surprise, of the mythology in the stars above us on a sandy beach by campfire light, of his journeys before my birth through South America and Africa. I met Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and was whisked downstream on the “Mighty Mississip’” on a mosquito-filled night in the tropics. Dad told stories all night to help us keep our minds off of the torment of the insects.
My history teachers droned on about dates and battles, faded black and white photos of unsmiling men stared out from dry as dust books. My dad painted the Battle of the Bulge in technicolor through is words. He walked us through the highlights of The Conquest of Mexico, by Bernald Diaz, when we were children of 6 and 8 taking our first walk between the ruins of Teotihuacan.
He still tells stories. In fact, he never stops. Walking with my children through the sandstone walls of El Jem’s colosseum, in Tunisia (much better than the one in Rome, incidentally) I couldn’t help but smile as I listened to Gramps, walking ahead with his boys and speaking softly, “Listen closely boys, the ghost of young Gramps is here... when your Grammy and I were very young we were in this place... no, your mom wasn’t born yet... right over there Grammy rode her first camel and we climbed through these ruins. Do you know how they got here? Well, it was like this, There were two great empires, Rome, and Carthage....” The rest of the afternoon was spent sitting by my old Dad in the stands, cheering for the reenactments of gladiatorial combat the children were playing in the arena. There was some scuffle over who got to be the lion.
Books are one way to teach things, and I do love books. But I don’t think they’re the only way, or even the best way. It seems that the best use of books is when the “real experience” can’t be had, for one reason or another, or to dig deeper once a fire of interest has been lit. Books can transport us places we could never go, and there is magic in that...but for centuries, before we could all afford books aplenty, history, geography, culture, literature, science and more were passed hand to hand, mouth to ear, through the telling of stories. We’ve lost something of that in the modern era, and I think we should work to get it back.
Long before a child could wade through the heavy, nuanced poetry of Shakespeare’s plays he can roll on the floor laughing at the ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A four year old I know played “chariot race” with his lego for months while listening to the story of Ben Hur over countless dinners of an evening, told little by little. There are old stories to tell, but there are new ones as well.
Stories are the essence of an education: shared human experience. It’s easy to turn a cold heart to atrocities committed in places you can’t imagine, less easy when the story of one man, woman or child is told in context. It’s easy to wrap far away conflicts in political platitudes and tie them up neatly with a bow from afar, less so when you ask two fighter pilots on what you consider to be the “wrong side” of a conflict to sit at your table and tell their stories. We can teach a child the facts and figures, they can memorize the dates and places, the “winners” and the “losers,” identify the “good guys” and the “bad guys” but we shouldn’t mistake those rote acquisitions as education. The education is in the stories.
Why do the stories matter so much? Because individual stories humanize “our enemies” and the people groups so dangerously referred to by “us” as “them.” Stories are the antidote to propaganda. They are the “why” we give our children behind our instructions to live with kindness and love for their fellow man. They are the impetus for change in big and small ways. No adult who’s heard the story and seen first hand from his Mayan friend the plight of the exploited coffee farmers will ever buy a four dollar a pound bag of coffee in good conscience again. That three dollar t-shirt at Walmart will translate directly to the slavery and exploitation that it is, on the other end of the consumer chain, if you’ve shared the right stories.
There’s a temptation, in educating children, to cram them full of the facts and figures, check a “topic” off of a curriculum plan list and declare it “done.” May I encourage you to step back from that approach? Spend some time going deeper, instead of wider in your child’s education. Forgo a few statistics in favour of telling some stories, both stories of the past, full of richness and meaning for the future, and contemporary stories from around the world, things happening right now.
Some suggestions for doing this:
Blogs. Bloggers are often great story tellers, follow some people who live very different lives and tell very different stories to your children.
Documentaries. Movies are powerful story tellers, and of course will give you the opportunity to discuss perspective and propaganda as well!
Read aloud. Some of the best stories are found in books, but don’t just hand the kid a book and expect a book report later. Read it aloud together as a family, laugh and cry together, talk through it and learn.
Talk to strangers. I don’t care where or how you live, there are people all around you with amazing stories. Find these people. I’ve been known to stop people in stores and on the street at bus stops explaining that I’m looking for people to help me teach my kids and ask them to dinner in trade for them telling their stories. Sounds weird to you? Maybe, but we’ve heard some great stories.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of scaring your kids, or of introducing the “wrong” ideas to them, or of someone sharing something you don’t agree with. Every story holds a teachable moment, sometimes it’s a powerful life lesson in how to do it right; sometimes it’s an eyes wide open lesson in the consequences of bad choices. Your kids are smart. Bringing the real, messy, dirty world to your dinner table is the very best way to equip them to change the world when their time comes.
Jenn Miller is the Uncommon Childhood Editor for Wandering Educators. She was raised in log cabins on the shores of lakes and in the back of a van across continents. She's the lucky child of nomadic parents and has grown into a gypsy mama herself. She is a teacher by trade, homeschooling mother of four, and a freelance writer for the alternative education and travel markets, having spent over ten years as an educational consultant and curriculum designer. She does a lot of things, but her real passion is found in helping people live their dreams. She and her family are in their fifth year of full-time travel that has taken them across four continents by virtually every means possible, from bicycles to ocean ferries. They're currently exploring Southeast Asia with backpacks - you can follow along at Edventure Project. Her one great desire for her children, and all people, is for them to develop vision and create lives built out of big dreams. She's a believer in hard work, hard play and giving back to the world through pursuing our passions.
Feature photo: colosseum at El Jem
All photos courtesy and copyright Jenn Miller