The master and the art

geeta-ramanujam Geeta Ramanujam has established storytelling as an effective educational and communicative tool. In her opinion telling stories addresses the fundamental aspects of communication – listening and speaking, and when these two are taken care of, reading and writing fall into place on their own. The idea of using storytelling in the classroom came to her from her own teaching experience.

“Back in the nineties I was a teacher at The Valley school, Bangalore. On the long trips in the bus, to and fro from the school every day, I would regale the children with my stories. The children began to look forward to these storytelling sessions! I was a social studies teacher and used to think of ways to make history lessons more interesting for the children. So behind the Maratha warrior Shivaji would be a personal story that I would relate to them. Indus valley civilization would come alive in the minds of the children with stories that I invented, based in that time period. So education and entertainment went hand in hand, making it a wonderful experience for the children.” And thus began her journey as a storyteller and educationist.sumo suits for sale canada

Why do you think stories are an important aspect of learning?
There are many reasons. Storytelling as an educational tool promotes an interactive and interesting teaching-learning ambience. Stories help improve children’s attention span and promote better involvement and participation. They generate better interest and conceptual understanding of the topics of study. Storytelling also facilitates creativity in the teacher, breaking the monotony of daily classroom teaching. It kindles creative imagination in the children.

A walk down the annals of history will tell you that the finest educators resorted to storytelling to teach concepts. The famous Panchatantra is nothing but a collection of stories meant to give wholesome education.

How exactly do you narrate stories? What tools do you use to add that element of ‘interest’ in your storytelling session?
Before I tell a story, I prepare it in my mind thoroughly. I tell it aloud several times with action, voice, expression, timing, and sometimes the props. Then, I polish the story well, in terms of language, clarity, tone, etc. When I tell the story, I take care to keep the audience in mind – their age, energy, and background. I also see that my emotions, telling, and my eye contact are well-received by the audience. After the storytelling session, I have found that most of the audience feel emotionally touched and children concentrate with their heart and soul.inflatable water park

Having attended a number of storytelling festivals abroad, what are the differences that you see between contemporary Indian storytellers and others?
In India, storytelling as a performance art has been there for centuries. So we have numerous accessories to go with it – puppets, chitrakathas, kavads, musical instruments, and so on. Whereas, I notice that international storytellers primarily rely on themselves to narrate the stories. Some people use musical instruments to supplement their storytelling, but nothing else is involved. It is recognized as a unique art form, mainly for adults. They have separate puppet shows and usually do not mix it with storytelling. They do think that integrating storytelling into education is a novel concept and more people are trying to embrace this idea.

What are the frustrations and challenges of working in this field?
People still do not value this art form and are unable to recognize the depth of this field and its relevance and significance to learning. Even today, storytelling is considered a frivolous art form and not a serious subject like math or science. Nobody realizes that it is in fact a value addition to learning. The big challenge that we face in popularizing storytelling in education is the lack of support from the government and other educational bodies either financially or morally.

(Note: These are excerpts from various interviews that Geeta has given over the years as a storyteller educationist.)

Lessons in stories

So what can you teach through stories? Here is a peek at how Geeta does this.

Let’s take this story that has been adapted from Akbar and Birbal

Just One question
One day a scholar came to the court of Emperor Akbar and challenged Birbal to answer his questions and prove that he was as clever as people said he was. He asked Birbal, “Would you prefer to answer 100 easy questions or just a single difficult one?” Both the Emperor and Birbal had had a difficult day and were impatient to leave.

“Ask me one difficult question,” said Birbal. “Well then, tell me,” said the man. “Which came first in the world, the chicken or the egg?”

“The chicken,” replied Birbal.

“How do you know?” asked the scholar, a note of triumph in his voice.

“We agreed to ask only one question and you have already asked it,” said Birbal, and he and the Emperor walked away leaving the scholar gaping.

This is a model of my lesson plan.

Aim of the story: To teach history
Subject links: History – Mughal period
Standard/Level: Middle
Story aids: Tell the story wearing a costume or cloak.
Fact file: Great Kings had wise advisors, Koutilya in the court of Chandra Gupta Maurya, Tenali Rama of Krishna Deva Raya’s court and Birbal of Akbar’s court.
Follow-up activity: Read other Akbar Birbal, Tenali Raman stories.