Storytelling at Work
July 15, 2019
Helping Children Truly Understand the Moral of a Story

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As a so-called "thought leader"in the field of storytelling and an author of two books on the topic, Storytelling at Work and Storytelling for the Revolution, I tend to think that I am quite knowledgeable about the matter. And while this may true in some ways, a few months ago I had a chance to experience how little I really understand.

My epiphany was not sparked by newly released research or attending a storytelling conference or reading someone else's book on the subject. No. My epiphany was sparked by a most unusual suspect or should I say suspects -- 26 second grade students attending Al Siraat College, an Australian K-12 school, in the Islamic tradition, just outside of Melbourne.

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As part of my series of one-month residencies at Al Siraat, I had been invited by one of the school's most progressive teachers, the delightful Ms. Najma, to teach her second grade class how to write and tell stories.

Ms. Najma's invitation had come as quite a surprise to me, especially since I had never taught a second grade class before, my usual students being upwardly mobile movers and shakers from a wide variety of corporations. Not a single student in Ms. Najma's class has a corner office, reserved parking space, or high blood pressure. What they did have, however, was a noticeable twinkle in their eye and a whole lot of curiosity about what it took to become a writer and teller of memorable tales.

Up for the challenge, I spent the night before immersed in the process of figuring out what a three-week storytelling curriculum for 8-year olds might look like. I googled. I noodled. I made some lists. But in the end, it was clear to me that this was going to be an organic process and that all I really needed to come up with, in the moment, was a game plan for Class #1. The rest of the eight classes I had been asked to teach would take care of themselves.

Class #1 was a gas. Apparently, my quirky sense of humor, non-traditional approach to teaching, and willingness to begin the class with a juggling demonstration was more than enough to win the kids over. In just a few minutes I had them in the palm of my hand, or, if not the palm, then at least somewhere near my elbow -- close enough to maintain their attention for the duration or the class. They loved it. I loved it. And the aforementioned Ms. Najma loved it.

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Not wanting to overload them, I kept things as simple as possible, asking them to tell me why stories mattered, why stories were so popular, and what their favorite fairy tales were. Then I gave them a brief tutorial about the five elements of a story (i.e. protagonist, setting, plot, obstacle, and resolution) and a lively conversation followed. Boom! Victory! They got it!

A bow, a wave of the hand, and a promise to see them on Wednesday and I was out the door, quite a buzz behind me -- a roomful of 8-year olds psyched to be diving into the cool pond of storytelling.

Class #2 was not only gas. It was also a hoot. I read one of my own stories and after it was told, we deconstructed it together -- teaching, you might say, from the "inside out". Indeed, now that Ms Najma's second graders had listened to and observed a story being told, it was easy for them to respond to my questions -- and so they did, many hands going up and being waved in my face.

"Mr. Mitch, Mr Mitch... call on me. Call on me!"

Inspired as they were, I gave each of them a post-it pad and one instruction -- to think of a story they wanted to write and, as soon as they thought of it, to write the title of their story on a sticky note. Which they were all happy to do (even if this particular sentence is technically a sentence fragment and a teacher, somewhere, at this precise moment in time, is probably gearing up to correct me.)

Somehow, for an 8-year old, having a title for their story is extremely beneficial. Like having a handle for a cup, it provides leverage and a sense of power -- something all of us can use just a little more of these days.

Titles written, I asked each student to read their title to the rest of us -- which they did in a heartbeat. Wow! 26 stories were starting to take shape, 26 products of their imagination that would soon be written and read!

Class #3 was the day of my unexpected epiphany -- a lesson I will never forget. Not in this life and not in the next, if there is a next. Technically speaking, I was the teacher. But in reality, I was the student and the students were the teachers -- even if they had no idea that what I was just about to experience would be a life changing moment for me, as a teacher, writer, father, and storyteller.

For most second graders and, indeed, for most of the rest of humanity, stories are a kind of entertainment, a pleasant way to pass the time or be distracted from the "real world" -- especially since most of the stories we read or listen to are fiction. The real purpose of storytelling, however is not to distract, but to communicate a meaningful, memorable, message -- a timeless piece of wisdom that will evoke, in the reader or listener, increased awareness -- what most of us have come to know as "the moral of the story."

The seed. The teaching. The takeaway.

This is the topic I wanted to introduce to Ms. Najma's class of second graders -- how to increase the odds of the stories they wrote having some kind of meaningful message at it's core -- that what they were about to write had the potential to impact their readers in a positive way, and that even, as an 8-year old, they had the power to communicate something of great value to others.

At first, upon bringing up the topic, the students just looked at me blankly, like I was introducing them to geometry. Taking my cue from their obvious confusion, I floated out the titles of a few fairy tales and asked what they thought the morals or messages embedded in those tales might be. Bingo! They got it. The concept clicked. Game on! So I gave each of them another post-it pad (invented, by accident, by the way, in 1968) and asked them to write down the key message of their story.

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Two minutes. That's all the time it took them. Only 90 seconds longer than it takes for a kid to eat a cookie.

"Fantastic! That's great! Good job! Now, please stand up, come to the front of the room, and post the morals of your stories on the board."

Twenty-six students stood. 26 students found their way to the front of the room. 26 students posted, thrilled that their story's message was now, somehow, official. Then, at my instruction, they sat down on the floor, so I could, one by one, read each of the their morals aloud for everyone to hear.

It felt a bit like Christmas morning, 26 presents just about to be opened.

In no particular order, I removed the first sticky note from the white board and read it aloud.

"Don't be rude," I announced to the class. "OK," I added. "That's the first moral of someone's story: 'Don't be rude'. Now let's see what the second one is all about."

I pulled the second one off the wall.

"Don't be mean." And then I pulled a third, "Don't go outside." And a fourth, "Never talk to strangers." And a fifth, "Don't interrupt".

A definable, disturbing pattern was emerging. Every single moral was a negative one. Every message began with either "Don't" or "Never". One by one, I pulled each and every sticky note off the wall and read them to the class. And one by one, I began to understand what the 26 second graders in Ms. Najma's class really thought stories were -- cautionary tales. What not to do. What shouldn't be done. Behaviors that were either not permissable, dangerous, or bad.

Oops!

I could feel a great sadness welling up inside me. But at the same time, I could also feel a great opportunity, as I, again, read the first moral of the story aloud: "Don't be rude."

"Can anyone tell me another way the writer of this story could say the same thing -- maybe in a way that offered the reader a positive message?"

"Be kind?" one of the students offered.

"Yes. 'Be kind' is another way the moral of that story can be expressed. And do you know why delivering the message in this way is something you might want to try?"

"Because it feels better?" replied one of the kids. "Because it's not so scary?" said another.

"Exactly! You got it!" I responded. "And also because framing the moral or message of your story in a positive way gives the reader or listener something they can do -- a positive behavior they can try."

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Class over, I made a bee line to the office of Mufti Aasim, the spiritual Director of Al Siraat and the Head of Islamic studies. I wanted him to know what I had just experienced and I wanted his sage input.

His response was immediate.

He put his head in his hands, closed his eyes, and shook his head from side to side, lamenting about the phenomenon I had just described and the way in which society, schools, and parents have misused stories for far too long. Then, he asked if he could read me a few passages from the Quran which represented the essence of that holy book and how the true teachings of Islam focus on the bright side of what's possible -- what we can do, not what we can't.

If Mufti Aasim and I were going to write our own moral to the story on a sticky note at that moment in time and place it on the nearest whiteboard it would have said something like "Speak your truth with love" or "Learn from your experiences," or "Life is full of choices."

And one of those choices, which I offered Mufti Aasim on the spot, was to substitute for the substitute teacher (me) on Friday and teach Ms Najma's class himself -- an opportunity to speak about the power and meaning of storytelling in the Islamic tradition.

This he did with great love, patience, clarity, and wisdom -- reading three stories from the Quran and asking the students to identify the real message embedded in each of the stories he told. And when, they framed those messages in negative ways, as they had been accustomed to doing, Mufti Aasim gently worked with them to help them frame the messages of those stories in positive ways -- what they could do instead of what they couldn't -- choices of thought and language that helped those 8-year old students more deeply understand the timeless wisdom embedded in the Quran and how each of them could live their lives in harmony with that wisdom.

A WORD TO THE WISE: If you are a teacher, parent, grandparent, big brother, or big sister and find yourself reading or telling a story to a child, please be mindful of the way in which you frame the moral of the story. Like the second graders in Ms. Najma's class, it is all too easy to default to the cautionary tale zone -- to use story as a way to control behavior -- to warn, instill fear, or make wrong. This is not the high path. This is the low road.

The real purpose of stories is to increase the odds of the reader or listener becoming discerning, making wise choices, trusting their higher self, tuning into wisdom, and understanding what it means to be a fully conscious human being.

Using stories like a stick to control behavior is not the way to go. It's a misuse of the sacredness of story and a misuse of your opportunity to help a still-forming human being tap into their higher self. And while it is true that many stories provide a context for children to make distinctions between "good and bad", the real opportunity we have as teachers or parents is to help the young ones think for themselves and make wise choices, not just robotically follow rules, warnings, or the instructions of their elders.

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Cookie photo: unsplash-logoFischer Twins

Al Siraat College
Mitch Ditkoff
Storytelling for the Revolution
13 brief storytelling videos

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at July 15, 2019 02:16 PM

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ABOUT THE BLOG

Storytelling at Work is a blog about the power of personal storytelling – why it matters and what you can do to more effectively communicate your stories – on or off the job. Inspired by the book of the same name, the blog features "moment of truth" stories by the author, Mitch Ditkoff, plus inspired rants, quotes, and guest submissions by readers.

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Storytelling for the Revolution
Storytelling for the Revolution is Mitch Ditkoff's newly published book about the power of personal storytelling to elevate the conversation on planet Earth. Provocative. Evocative. And fun. YOU have stories to tell. This book will help you tell them.
Storytelling at Work
"The world is not made of atoms," wrote the poet, Muriel Rukeyser. "It's made of stories." Learn how to discover, honor, and unpack the stories of yours that show up "on the job" in Mitch Ditkoff's award-winning 2015 book, Storytelling at Work.
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Do you want to know more about the book before buying it? Click here for Mitch's response to frequently asked questions about Storytelling at Work – the perfect book for people who think they have no time to read.
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Storytelling is an "unconscious competency" – an ability we all have that all too often remains inaccessible to us. Enter the Storytelling at Work workshop – a simple way to activate this powerful, innate skill.
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Want to establish a culture of storytelling in your organization or community? Looking for a simple way to help people to share their meaningful, memorable stories with each other? Here's how.
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Click here to view and listen to a series of interviews with the author of this blog. Go beyond the written word. Listen. Feel. Elevate the conversation. Understand what the big deal is about personal storytelling.
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