Why stories are told

Margaret Read MacDonald

Throughout the ages storytelling has been a basic tool for families and communities to pass on morals and information to their children. There is no surer way to make certain that information is remembered than to wrap it in a story. The story format fits the human mind perfectly. It engages us. It is memorable. So here is a perfect tool for teachers! Find a story that promotes the qualities you want to instill in your students and tell it. The lesson will go right in.

The teachers I work with like to use several stories in the first week of school which can set the tone for the coming year. Here is one of their favorites:

*Grandfather bear is hungry, (Eiven tale from Siberia)
Grandfather Bear woke up. It was spring!
“I am SO hungry!” said Grandfather Bear. “I am SO hungry!”
Grandfather Bear went to find berries.
He looked and looked. No berries.
“I am SO hungry!” said Grandfather Bear. “I am SO hungry!”

Grandfather Bear went to the river to find fish.
He looked and looked. No fish.
“I am SO hungry!” said Grandfather Bear. “I am SO hungry!”

Grandfather Bear went to find bugs in the old log.
Grandfather Bear began to shake that log.
That was the home of Little Chipmunk!

“Grandfather Bear! Grandfather Bear! What are you DOING!”

“I am SO hungry!” said Grandfather Bear. “I am SO hungry!”

“Grandfather Bear, don’t shake my house! I have nuts. I will SHARE with you.”

Chipmunk ran down in his hole. He filled his cheeks with nuts.
He ran back to the top. “Here Grandfather Bear!”

“Thank you Little Chipmunk. But I am STILL hungry!”

“Wait, Grandfather Bear.” Chipmunk ran down. He filled his cheeks and ran up again.
“Here Grandfather Bear!”

“Thank you Little Chipmunk. But I am STILL hungry!”

“Wait, Grandfather Bear.” All day Chipmunk ran.
Down and up. Down and up. Down and up.

At last Grandfather Bear was FULL. “Thank you Little Chipmunk!
I want to give you a reward. Stand very still.”

Grandfather Bear pulled his heavy claw SO gently…right down Chipmunk’s back.

He left five black stripes!
“Now when anyone sees you, they will remember…
How kind you were to share with Grandfather Bear.”

termite One teacher shares this the first week of school and then, for the rest of the year, whenever she sees a child sharing, she just walks up and quietly gives them five black stripes down their back with her hand. This one simple story can set the tone for a year of kindness.

In my work with traditional storytellers I have been fascinated by their own reasons for telling stories. Some, such as the Native American Elder, Vi Hilbert, tells stories specifically to keep their culture alive. She says she was nervous when she first started telling stories to large groups, “And so, as I stood there, wondering how I was going to present my culture in the best way, each of those storytellers who had originally told their stories came to my rescue. And they came forward and told their stories. And I didn’t have to worry about it.” Vi just let her elders speak through her. Vi wants everyone to tell her culture’s stories and spread them throughout the world.

On the other hand, Native American teller Curtis DuPuis tells stories solely within his own family. He feels that the stories are family property and should be passed on within the familial group. He tells to keep his family traditions alive.

The Afro-Brazilian teller Roberto Carlos Ramos tells stories to ENGAGE his students. Frustrated in his teaching of high school boys in an orphanage in Bello Horizonte, one day Roberto Carlos started telling a folktale he had heard as a child. The reaction of the students was amazing. He began to tell stories every day. “And then something completely different began to happen. I used to start the class with 14 students and end up with 2. Everything changed. After the break… 15 more students would come to the class! So I realized that I could use stories to try to make what I wanted to do.”

The Liberian teller Won-Ldy Paye tells stories solely for the joy of it. “When I tell a story…I am there. I am playing by myself. I am having fun.” In his Dan culture a storyteller is called a “play person.”

Thai Buddhist monk, Pra Inta Kaweewong, uses stories in his sermons to pass on morals to his people. “Local folktales have morals to remind people to think of ancestors from the old times. The listeners now, if they have intelligence and wisdom, can gain morals, pleasure, and enjoyment when listening.”

And the Hawaiian teller, Makia Malo, tells stories of his own life as a child sent to the leper colony of Kalaupapa. He tells so others can be inspired by his own challenges. Makia is blind and disfigured by the disease. But he tells with great joy. Of his student listeners he says, “They read the message…the other message…that it’s not the stories I’m telling. It’s the fact that I’m standing in front of them. Sharing the stories.”

In the classroom we can tell personal tales to inspire our students. We can share folktales to pass on morals. We should use tales from our own cultures to preserve our heritages. And we should always tell just for the joy of it! When you look into the eyes of your students and share a story from your heart, something remarkable happens. They feel connected to you. And they remember that moment. Give them the gift of story.

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*Grandfather Bear is Hungry is reprinted from Teaching with Story: Classroom Connections to Storytelling by Margaret Read MacDonald, Jennifer MacDonald Whitman, and Nathaniel Forest Whitman (August House Publishers).

You can read more about the traditional tellers mentioned here in Ten Traditional Tellers by Margaret Read MacDonald (University of Illinois Press).

The author is a former children’s librarian, a Ph.D. in folklore, and author of over 65 books on folklore and storytelling topics. She travels widely offering her “Playing with Story” workshops. She can be reached at mrm@margaretreadmacdonald.com.