Once upon a time, I bounced a very distractible boy on my knee, and recited this verse.
Father and mother and Uncle John
Went to Market one by one.
Father fell off. And Mother fell off.
And Uncle John went
On and on and on and on……
For the very first time, he looked me straight in the eye, and burst into gales of laughter. This was our first real contact and our first successful dialogue.
I taught an oral language program to developmentally handicapped students for seventeen years. I am also a storyteller. During the past 30 years, storytelling has undergone a tremendous revival in Eastern Europe and North America.
I began telling stories primarily to adults. Several years later, I began to tell to special needs students. I searched for ways to make it meaningful to these students, to give them access to the wealth of language that is buried in stories. I searched for ways to bring oral language to life.
In the process, I gained an expanded idea of what a story is. In addition to more familiar story structures, I used chants, poems, knee-jogging rhymes, finger plays, and language-based movement. After all, “This little piggy went to market” is a story played out on fingers or toes with a delightfully ticklish climax.
I used traditional material: folktales, nursery rhymes or playground chants. This language is well loved and meaningful. That is why it has endured. If I love it as well, then I bring all of my energy and commitment to it. I look for ways to bring this to life; to lift it off the page; to make it a delicious part of each child’s experience.
It seems to be working. Something in the rhythms, rhymes, repetition, playfulness and meaning of the stories catches the students’ attention. Their eyes grow soft and wide. They lean forward in their seats. They behave themselves. They begin to function as a group. Students able to speak, speak. Those who can move, move. Each responds in his or her own way. And they try. They try so hard to learn these stories and involve themselves in the language of the tales. They enjoy the learning.
This ancient way of learning is a part of human nature. Every people has its stories. They have been used to entertain and instruct for millennia.
British Broadcaster and storyteller Pat Williams has called this a “Whole Cloth” method of learning. The story provides opportunities to learn many things at once. It has many dimensions; many points of entry. It can speak to each student at his or her level of understanding. For some it provides auditory stimulation and structured social interaction. For others it develops receptive and expressive oral language. For others, it puts vocabulary, syntax, and semantics in context. IT contains patterns of language, relationships and meanings that are not easily taught in any other way. It provides schema or story patterns necessary for reading and writing. It contains a constellation of cognitive structures, skills and intellectual concepts. Their many levels of meaning
The story is almost like a model of life itself. But where life whizzes by students in a barely comprehended blur, the story freezes it for a time and packages it. If it’s sufficiently appealing the students want to pull out his package again and again until it becomes familiar. With familiarity, time and experience the students have many opportunities to learn more and more from the stories. I have watched students understanding grow in this way.
Traditional folk tales provide opportunities to understand and understanding is what I have tried to teach. These stories have enough richness, depth and layers of meaning that there is something of value of every student. A child can comprehend a story at his or her own level. This has allowed me to integrate special needs and regular classrooms; to teach children with a wide range of abilities. This method is not sequential, individualized, or task-analyzed but some real learning is occurring. It is a delightful and effective compliment to methodologies.
Once upon a time I told a story. At the end, a little girl said “’I’ in the story. So is my friend.” What more can I say?