It is autumn and I have a three week stint of work at a Rudolf Steiner kindergarten, where stories are often told and retold over a period of weeks. And of course some people find that weird and even though I used to work in a Steiner school, it certainly felt like a challenge. And this is the story of how I rose to the challenge and my observations about how it nourished or did not nourish the children, and my part in that.
So, it is autumn and I need a story and I discover that they have never heard the story of the little red house with no windows and no doors, but with a star inside. I have read a few versions of it, and parts I liked and parts I did not, and I decided to change the gender. I mostly do , simply because there is a severe imbalance in heroes and heroines and the use of he, rather than she, for a random number of animals to boot. I also made Molly the youngest in her family, with three sisters and three brothers, who barely figure but it does make her mother a very busy woman.
Here is a link to a written version, adapted by an0ther woman, that had bits I liked and here is a link to a video where a man tells this story in a living farm context and I was greatly inspired by his telling. He had no props but his telling engaged and held me. Oral storytelling is a very organic process. There is no ‘right’ version.
My first step was to read the story again, and then watch and listen to the video a few times. Then I ran through the whole thing in my head, or out loud in the bath, or when I told my daughter the plot. And adjusted and changed the story to suit me and my temperament and the context.
One of my beliefs is that when teachers use oral storytelling , they greatly support the children’s oral literacy and my experience of the children’s play afterwards and their almost word perfect replay made me wish I had focused more on various details, such as the verbs used to describe the playful dance of the wind with the leaf, for example.
The children regurgitated every verb and interesting word into their play, and I realised I had not paid enough attention to remembering them all, and replaying them.
It was almost time to tell the story but the visual landscape in my head was a mess so I drew it, story boarded it, a process recommended by Sue Hollingsworth and Ashley Ramundsen in their book . I sat with the children while they were drawing and without saying what i was doing, I simply drew it over two sides of one page, and I discovered/ created a world wherein the girl could travel and meet the characters and finally the wind but also find herself close to home by the end.
I told it, and the children were completely absorbed. I was quite pleased with myself. I could ‘see’ the landscape in my head and gesture with my arms with confidence even though I was not looking at anything in particular.
I wanted to incorporate the idea of being bored and the mother’s response.
“I’m bored, Mum. Come and play with me”.
“I have too many jobs to do, and it’s ok to be bored. That’s when one gets the good ideas’. And the girl goes off and finds a good idea (Room to embellish here with something creative or playful one has seen these actual children doing. Like turning the apple crates into a stage and singing to the ducks, springs to mind! )
Days two and three progressed without incident but on day four, when I said (for the fourth time) that Granny was very wise and knew a lot of things, (and here I had to improvise because I had not worked on it enough). In a mainstream interactive, collaborative and more ‘awake’ context, I might have asked the children what they thought she might know and be good at. But, off the top of my head, I said she knew how to make toffee apples and popcorn. ( In retrospect, I could have said that she could shear a sheep, clean and card the wool, dye it, spin it and then knit it into gorgeous jerseys for Molly and Jack. Given that I ended up doing some wet felting and making hats for their dolls with them, with carded wool..this would have been a much better skill with which to have endowed Granny…..one that had nothing to do with stereotyped grannies and a focus on sugar!)
And on day four, someone was feeling obstreperous and was disturbed somehow and he could not resist muttering resentfully that making popcorn was easy ( and I have to agree with him)!
All this time I was thinking about the two other processes I had not undertaken and which I always teach as being important steps in preparing for a story. Tut tut me! Both concepts are well described in the “The Storyteller’s Way” and relate to the four temperaments and the five senses. The temperaments idea is described in this post about Olga. If you consciously ensure that your story has some aspect that will appeal to each of the four temperaments, you will be likely to present something for all the chidlren and temperaments. And in this story, the playful cheeky wind definitely appeals to the choleric (and sanguine). I could see out of the corner of my eye, that one boy really looked forward to this part with joyful anticipation and smiled broadly in appreciation while I described the actions of the wind when it repeatedly danced and whisked the leaf out of Molly’s reach.
Shouting to the wind from the top of the hill would also appeal to the choleric temperament, along with Jack’s feisty and dismissive rejection of the likelihood of a house without a door! The melancholic child might be moved to sympathy for the bored child who can’t get her mother’s attention (?) and the phlegmatic temperament might be nourished by the easy going Granny who sits and knits and doesn’t get fussed and makes great food. And so on.
Then there are the senses. And by day four I had managed to make the time and effort to consider which and where and what. I began to emphasise the baking smells and warm bread aroma in Molly’s mother’s kitchen. I emphasised the bird song and the sound of the little stream tinkling and burbling its way under the bridge. Molly also pauses under the hazel nut trees and sees the little nuts ripening in their tiny clusters of little brown nests and on Monday she found one nut, and on Tuesday she found two, and by Wednesday she had found three and left them there to pick up on her way home to give to her three brothers, (sanguines love details!)
And the other senses…. sight (hazels) smell (kitchen), sound ( birds and stream and wind whistling around the hill) touch, (the apple) and taste ( ah, I never did include that one, now I think of it). I could have included it at the beginning when mother could have given her something to eat when she set out on her journey of adventure. Maybe some ripe feijoas….plenty of room for embellishment there with getting juice down her chin and throwing away the skins for the birds who loved to peck out the last bits of feijoa flesh. Or her wondering about the best ways to eat feijoas… just daily experiences which are already part of the children’s lives and when we include these details, the children feel validated and heard. Molly’s story is THEIR story. What IS the best way to eat a feijoa. ( I had watched a girl eat a HUGE orange in such an interesting way…. I wanted to give her a hand, but she was adamant…. and it is in such little ways that children can assert their own independent stance on things. It took her forever and was a perfect job and why not? Where is the advantage of speed in eating something delicious?)
And all the time, an idea is brewing about a farmer. Molly’s Dad is a farmer and so is Jack’s Dad. And I have a rather frail antique tractor that I longed to use as a prop and so I made the farmer. When you make Steiner dolls and ones for puppet plays on the floor, it is so important to have ones that can stand freely without having to lean on trees etc. The net effect seems to be a superfluity of girl figures ( I should be thrilled) and a paucity of male figures, unless they are kings or shepherds or folk heroes who might conceivably wear long gowns. So I had to resuscitate my old Mother Earth, whose skirt had been attacked by moths, and gave her a new beautiful skirt and apron and even a felted hat!! She had become the Granny complete with knitting in process ( two toothpicks poked into a tiny ball of red wool and ‘fixed’ with a tiny dob of hot glue. ( see I already knew that she would be a sheep shearer cum knitter!)
And I had a stand for a farmer but because I was going to give him trousers and shoes!! I had to start from the feet up. I had already made his head, and by the time I had massacred my jeans (the wrong ones, in my haste!!!) and sewn up little shoes, and added his torso and arms, he looked quite odd with his big head and his lovely dancing pumps. I had to make another layer of shoe to ‘man’ him up a bit, and I made him a hat as well to cover his hair which did not quite cover his surgical operations at the back of his head… tugging on the eyes to make them slightly set back in the head, ditto the mouth and so on.
And so he was set and then I found the tractor and good heavens! He was far too big and out of proportion! Nothing lost… the tractor with the little man turned out to be the tractor of Molly’s Dad working away down on the back fields on the farm. While Jack’s Dad’s invisible tractor was broken and Dad was a bit ratty cos he was having trouble fixing it, and did not have much time to chat about a ‘little red house with no windows and no door and it has a star inside”.
Oh, yes , in the days of simply telling, my only props were some gorgeous undersized Gala apples from the Avondale market, and they had stems still, ‘Look, it’s even got a chimney!”….and Mother would reach up onto her shelf and get out her best red knife and cut the apple in two, and revealed the star inside..( scroll exactly half way down for the apple images! and activities) and this happened every day for the apple story… each day, a new apple. How lucky I had thought they were very cute and would look nice on our festival table, and then I realised they were perfect for the story. I love that sort of ‘accidental’ synchronicity. Apparently we are aware of only a tiny percentage of our brain, unaware that it is working overtime linking and connecting and imagining… and then we think we thought it up just then. See Guy Claxton’s book called ‘Hare Brain and Tortoise Mind”. Brilliant.
And so I set up for the story with props on day five… and they were utterly enchanted by the world of Molly set out on the floor with cloths for rivers and fields, and pillows and cushions forming the hills under the cloths, and a leaf for the wind to whistle around…. and the pond and the bridge and hazel nut trees that we had imagined for four days were suddenly all there to be seen.
When the children were able to retell the story after morning tea, and they had access to the props, sometimes they swiftly took roles and played the story out. ‘I’ll be Jack” and “I’m Molly” and then they interact and converse just the way they heard it…’’Don’t be daft. There is no such thing. How could you have a house without a door? How would you get in or out?”
On the following Monday I did it again, and I think by this point I had included the temperaments more consciously and the five senses more fully, and the cat began to acquire her own story line and it was just a pleasure. Tuesday was meant to be the last time because my colleague was going to do the Easter story about the Easter hare bringing the ‘good news’ to the children all round the world. Then she asked if maybe I could do an Easter story and segue it into Molly’s apple story. My colleague had read another version of a story about the Hare in a book written by the mother of an old pupil about the challenges of honouring a traditionally spring story while living in the southern hemisphere where Easter happens in the autumn.
I read the story four or five times, and I stayed up late yet again, adjusting a hare I have, but she was wearing a green bow tie and rimless spectacles… so I divested her of those and gave her arms! She was meant to be an egg cosy originally, made in Nepal and irresistible, ditto the cat.
And I worked out the sequence (which I practised briefly) then semi ad-libbed it with the children who were not short of ‘oohs and aah’ when the five eggs appeared and were hidden. We had decorated eggs and done a painting which became an Easter basket and the room became more and more festive. Numeracy and pairing also appeared as the Easter hare tried to calculate whether she had hidden enough for all five characters in Molly’s story…. too bad about Molly’s three older sisters and three older brothers!! They missed out, it seems. None one called me on it! Even though Molly’s Mum got one hidden for her. And Granny. And as soon as I could I wrote down the basic format of what I had told, so that I could repeat it.Easter story 12 4.17 pdf
I did hear two six year olds say to each other , as two characters, ‘I wonder who lives in that house?” and then’ Let’s knock and find out” which prompted the second girl to consider for a minute and then say, rather practically, “Well, you can’t really knock on someone’s door just to ask who lives there, can you?” And she is right, but I had never thought about it. But it’s true, and lovely example of ‘working theories’ being formed and the massive amount of learning of every shape and size that occurs for children every living minute of the day.
And the older ones longed to recreate and adapt the story and the younger ones naturally gravitated to hear the story told again, by an expert!
I looked up various websites for comments and thoughts about the reasons and benefits of oral storytelling, (especially over days or even weeks), as practised in Waldorf schools. Here are some quotes, some of which I had slightly adjusted…
Yes, a teacher memorizes the story, but once it is committed to memory, it allows an adult the freedom to make the story one’s own, to connect with the children during the telling, and to tell the story with joy.
Through the rich language of well told stories, children are building their vocabularies.
One should try to speak in a moderate tone, thus leaving the child’s imagination free to picture the story to be as scary or as benign as she can handle or imagine. When hearing a story, children can create their own imaginary pictures, just as the teacher has done. These pictures are not materialized or imposed upon the children. The children are free to create what is necessary for them, in their own life and development, and dream in a healthy way into the stories.
You have no doubt heard a child say, “Tell it again!” Sometimes we forget how much children love repetition. It gives them a sense of security, knowing what comes next, and allows them to take in the story more deeply. (I often think of the way we like to hear the same piece of music again and again, and imagine it is similarly satisfying to rehear a story!)
Rather than be bored by hearing the same story “over and over again,” they delight in the repetition. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, recognized the importance of repetition in learning. We hear a story, then go to sleep that night, during which time we process the story in our subconscious. When we review the story the next day, we take it in even more deeply, connecting with the content at a deeper level.
Contemporary science has proven that neural pathways are strengthened and “myelinated” when information and experiences are encountered repeatedly. There is a crucial misunderstanding about what the existence of these rapidly forming neural pathways within this age group signifies. Many people interpret it incorrectly as being a clear mandate to ram in numbers, colours and the alphabet, “while the going is good”. I quite like the metaphor of ‘cortical real estate’, with the number/colour/alphabet crew focused on building one single bungalow in great detail, whereas the long childhood of the Steiner child, as well as the oral storytelling rationale, ensures that the children are establishing the infrastructure for an entire future city, with roads, utilities, phone lines and driveways for an infinite number of future residents all quietly and inevitably falling into place. It’s not dissimilar to the fact that bilingual children already have a mental flexibility in place which makes the idea of ‘other languages and symbolic systems’ quite normal, so that music and maths and computer technology are no big surprises or stumbling blocks… simply another suburb in an already vigorously active mind, alive with neural pathways.
And so that is the end of my tale of improvisation and creativity and playfulness and I am very glad to have had this opportunity, and there is no doubt that the children greatly enjoyed it. Tomorrow I am telling a birthday story for a boy who has heard these stories about Molly’s apple and about the Easter hare hiding eggs. I plan to tell Jack and the Giant Bean stalk and his mother says I am assured of a very positive reception if that little Easter hare could make an appearance. The beauty of oral storytelling and improvisation is the fact that ! easily can!