Monday, 21 October 2013
Stories & Storytelling Around the World
Having had an interesting set of tweets on Twitter yesterday morning, I felt it apt to share my different experiences of storytelling in the places I have lived around the world. Of course this only my view, my perspective in the villages, towns and cities I have been privileged to put down roots in for a while, some of them extremely remote and some of them vastly different to my own culture and upbringing.
I have been extremely lucky to be born into a family where I have had the humble pleasure of knowing my parents, grandparents and great grandparents who have told me stories of living through two world wars, the Somme, prisoner of war camps in Germany, the blitz, rationing, evacuees and the enormous technical and technological changes they witnessed during these very interesting lifetimes. I stayed with my grandparents on many occasions and have wonderful vivid memories of feather beds, copper bed warmers, tin baths, cigarette cards, privies and scrumping for apples to name just a few.
As a small child I was blessed with plenty of story books but I was also blessed with storytelling by members of the family. I also became aware at a very young age that one day I would have these same stories to tell others. I too witnessed an era that also changed rapidly in my lifetime; from dial telephones, black and white tv, gramophones and vinyl’s. I also knew I wanted to remember these stories and situations in order to pass them down the family as one day there would be no one left who had lived them (or been told them); I was a secret family historian in the making in order that the family history and my own culture was not forgotten one day.
So in travelling the world, one of my roles, became not only how to teach but also how to tell and write stories about life and the world around us. I was privileged to work with many children in some very remote parts of the Middle East and Africa. In my class of 30 children in Arabia most had never had a bedtime story; these small little people actually did not know what I meant by a “bedtime story.” Children raised by nannies and governesses from India and the Philippines, who first language was not Arabic or English could not read to these children and so story books were not on the families agenda. I was amazed how this culture had risen from Bedouin camel train to Mercedes, Jaguar and Range Rover, iPhone and Blackberry in such a short space of time but their children struggled to read, write and communicate at four years old. As teachers we set up story time after school clubs and parenting courses and were inundated with the response. I am sure stories still unfold today around the dinner table in many Arabic homes, but the massive and rapid changes in cultural development in the UAE have meant priorities have changed. Development means that women do not spend as much time in the home or in harems and stories and education are carried out by other cultures. Sharing books and stories and writing classroom stories was an enviable pleasure.
In Africa I experienced similar prized chattels, everyone carried a cell phone, drove a car, had a flat screen television but the children at seven years old were illiterate. No one knew phonics; the elders never experienced schooling as we know it; English was their first language taught in all establishments but the elder’s only spoke tribal languages therefore were unable to teach, assist or support the children with their studies. The African children I worked with struggled to write, read and use the English language. They were not taught grammar or sentence structure in school, unless you could afford to attend a private school and then learning was limited and not to the standards we know. The children I worked with found reading “hard work” and read extremely slowly (if at all) as they had never been given the tools to enable positive learning skills to develop. The children were so enthusiastic to learn and participate and would flock around me and sap up all information offered and were enthralled and engaged in listening to a story from a book or imagination. It was such a pleasure to tell a story to these children; it was an honour to be their teacher, I loved every minute.
I also lived and taught in the Arizonian desert and had the humble privilege of colleagues and friends from a variety of American Indian tribes. What beauty and variety span these cultures and what great story tellers these people are and have always been? The elders still pass on their stories and are most happy if you will sit and listen. It is important to these tribes that tradition, old wives tales and culture is continued to be passed on. There is a traditional image of an elder seated with a large number of children clambering all over her listening to the “story.” Nevertheless, storytelling is dwindling due to careers and people moving to the cities for a different way of life. Younger generations do not realise the loss of these stories and in years to come no one will be able to pass on the stories to the next generations.
Stories and storytelling teach us so much in so many different ways and I don’t mean just from a book. By telling or hearing a story we learn about history and cultures, families past and present; traditions and beliefs. We learn how to listen, concentrate and take turns. We mature our personal, social and emotional skills and extend language and learn how to communicate with one another. We build trusting relationships and bonds; hugs for at least twenty seconds release oxytocin which helps us to build trusting relationships. Cuddling up together with a book or a family story creates bonds, encourages conversations, poses questions and answers and deepens our connections with our children. Touching and connecting build love and care and this we all need to develop positively. Children, who are not touched, stroked and shown love falter, do not develop and can become depressed. Books and storytelling help nurture and nourish our hearts and minds.
Seeing the written word in many forms supports and develops our understanding of marks and symbols around us and is the first stages to reading and writing and builds confidence and self-esteem. Reading helps us to make sense of the world; letters, numbers and symbols are all around us wherever we are in the world and if we cannot make sense of the world it can be very detrimental to our well-being and a scary place to be. Children get great pleasure from books, pictures and stories and they obviously extend our knowledge base. A child without a book is like a sky with no sun.
So we must encourage storytelling, stories and books for every child everywhere in the world; we should never take for granted that everyone has what we have. We must not take for granted everyone has the opportunity we have. An African boy once said to me, “you were lucky to be born where you were born; I am just a poor African boy trying to learn what you know without the tools.” There are still children today who have no books, no library and no one to read to them. There are still places in the world where girls and women are not educated because it is not seen as important. Educate a girl and you educate a family and a generation.
I hope I have left a small legacy behind in the places I been a teacher. I hope I have shared some knowledge, a story or two, some mark making skills, a phonics lesson or two, some good books, some pens, pencils and paper and how to make a good cup of tea.