Gateway to the Classics: How To Tell Stories to Children by Sara Cone Bryant
 
How To Tell Stories to Children by  Sara Cone Bryant

The Purpose of Story-Telling in School

Let us first consider together the primary matter of the aim in educational story-telling. On our conception of this must depend very largely all decisions as to choice and method; and nothing in the whole field of discussion is more vital than a just and sensible notion of this first point. What shall we attempt to accomplish by stories in the schoolroom? What can we reasonably expect to accomplish? And what, of this, is best accomplished by this means and no other?

These are questions which become the more interesting and practical because the recent access of enthusiasm for stories in education has led many people to claim very wide and very vaguely outlined territory for their possession, and often to lay heaviest stress on their least essential functions. The most important instance of this is the fervour with which many compilers of stories for school use have directed their efforts solely toward illustration of natural phenomena. Geology, zoology, botany, and even physics are taught by means of more or less happily constructed narratives based on the simpler facts of these sciences. Kindergarten teachers are familiar with such narratives: the little stories of chrysalis-breaking, flower-growth, and the like. Now this is a perfectly proper and practicable aim, but it is not a primary one. Others, to which at best this is but secondary, should have first place and receive greatest attention.

What is a story, essentially? Is it a text-book of science, an appendix to the geography, an introduction to the primer of history? Of course it is not. A story is essentially and primarily a work of art, and its chief function must be sought in the line of the uses of art. Just as the drama is capable of secondary uses, yet fails abjectly to realise its purpose when those are substituted for its real significance as a work of art, so does the story lend itself to subsidiary purposes, but claims first and most strongly to be recognised in its real significance as a work of art. Since the drama deals with life in all its parts, it can exemplify sociological theory, it can illustrate economic principle, it can even picture politics; but the drama which does these things only, has no breath of its real life in its being, and dies when the wind of popular tendency veers from its direction. So, you can teach a child interesting facts about bees and butterflies by telling him certain stories, and you can open his eyes to colours and processes in nature by telling certain others; but unless you do something more than that and before that, you are as one who should use the Venus of Milo for a demonstration in anatomy.

The message of the story is the message of beauty, as effective as that message in marble or paint. Its part in the economy of life is to give joy. And the purpose and working of the joy is found in that quickening of the spirit which answers every perception of the truly beautiful in the arts of man. To give joy; in and through the joy to stir and feed the life of the spirit: is not this the legitimate function of the story in education?

Because I believe it to be such, not because I ignore the value of other uses, I venture to push aside all aims which seem secondary to this for later mention under specific heads. Here in the beginning of our consideration I wish to emphasise this element alone. A story is a work of art. Its greatest use to the child is in the everlasting appeal of beauty by which the soul of man is constantly pricked to new hungers, quickened to new perceptions, and so given desire to grow.

The obvious practical bearing of this is that story-telling is first of all an art of entertainment; like the stage, its immediate purpose is the pleasure of the hearer,—his pleasure, not his instruction, first.

Now the story-teller who has given the listening children such pleasure as I mean may or may not have added a fact to the content of their minds; she has inevitably added something to the vital powers of their souls. She has given a wholesome exercise to the emotional muscles of the spirit, has opened up new windows to the imagination, and added some line or colour to the ideal of life and art which is always taking form in the heart of a child. She has, in short, accomplished the one greatest aim of story-telling,—to enlarge and enrich the child's spiritual experience, and stimulate healthy reaction upon it.

Of course this result cannot be seen and proved as easily and early as can the apprehension of a fact. The most one can hope to recognise is its promise, and this is found in the tokens of that genuine pleasure which is itself the means of accomplishment. It is, then, the signs of right pleasure which the story-teller must look to for her guide, and which it must be her immediate aim to evoke. As for the recognition of the signs,—no one who has ever seen the delight of a real child over a real story can fail to know the signals when given, or flatter himself into belief in them when absent.

Intimately connected with the enjoyment given are two very practically beneficial results which the story-teller may hope to obtain, and at least one of which will be a kind of reward to herself. The first is a relaxation of the tense schoolroom atmosphere, valuable for its refreshing recreative power. The second result, or aim, is not so obvious, but is even more desirable; it is this: story-telling is at once one of the simplest and quickest ways of establishing a happy relation between teacher and children, and one of the most effective methods of forming the habit of fixed attention in the latter.

If you have never seen an indifferent child aroused or a hostile one conquered to affection by a beguiling tale, you can hardly appreciate the truth of the first statement; but nothing is more familiar in the story-teller's experience. An amusing, but—to me—touching experience recently reaffirmed in my mind this power of the story to establish friendly relations.

My three-year-old niece, who had not seen me since her babyhood, being told that Aunt Sara was coming to visit her, somehow confused the expected guest with a more familiar aunt, my sister. At sight of me, her rush of welcome relapsed into a puzzled and hurt withdrawal, which yielded to no explanations or proffers of affection. All the first day she followed me about at a wistful distance, watching me as if I might at any moment turn into the well-known and beloved relative I ought to have been. Even by undressing time I had not progressed far enough to be allowed intimate approach to small sacred nightgowns and diminutive shirts. The next morning, when I opened the door of the nursery where her maid was brushing her hair, the same dignity radiated from the little round figure perched on its high chair, the same almost hostile shyness gazed at me from the great expressive eyes. Obviously, it was time for something to be done.

Disregarding my lack of invitation, I drew up a stool, and seating myself opposite the small unbending person, began in a conversational murmur: "M—m, I guess those are tingly-tanglies up there in that curl Lottie's combing; did you ever hear about the tingly-tanglies? They live in little girls' hair, and they aren't any bigger than that, and when anybody tries to comb the hair they curl both weeny legs round, so, and hold on tight with both weeny hands, so, and won't let go!" As I paused, my niece made a queer little sound indicative of query battling with reserve. I pursued the subject: "They like best to live right over a little girl's ear, or down in her neck, because it is easier to hang on, there; tingly-tanglies are very smart, indeed."

"What's ti-ly-ta-lies?" asked a curious, guttural little voice.

I explained the nature and genesis of tingly-tanglies, as revealed to me some decades before by my inventive mother, and proceeded to develop their simple adventures. When next I paused the small guttural voice demanded, "Say more," and I joyously obeyed.

When the curls were all curled and the last little button buttoned, my baby niece climbed hastily down from her chair, and deliberately up into my lap. With a caress rare to her habit she spoke my name, slowly and tentatively, "An-ty Sai-ry?" Then, in an assured tone, "Anty Sairy, I love you so much I don't know what to do!" And, presently, tucking a confiding hand in mine to lead me to breakfast, she explained sweetly, "I didn' know you when you comed las' night, but now I know you all th' time!"

"Oh, blessed tale," thought I, "so easy a passport to a confidence so desired, so complete!" Never had the witchery of the story to the ear of a child come more closely home to me. But the fact of the witchery was no new experience. The surrender of the natural child to the story-teller is as absolute and invariable as that of a devotee to the priest of his own sect.

This power is especially valuable in the case of children whose natural shyness has been augmented by rough environment or by the strangeness of foreign habit. And with such children even more than with others it is also true that the story is a simple and effective means of forming the habit of concentration, of fixed attention; any teacher who deals with this class of children knows the difficulty of doing this fundamental and indispensable thing, and the value of any practical aid in doing it.

More than one instance of the power of story-telling to develop attentiveness comes to my mind, but the most prominent in memory is a rather recent incident, in which the actors were boys and girls far past the child-stage of docility.

I had been asked to tell stories to about sixty boys and girls of a club; the president warned me in her invitation that the children were exceptionally undisciplined, but my previous experiences with similar gatherings led me to interpret her words with a moderation which left me totally unready for the reality. When I faced my audience, I saw a squirming jumble of faces, backs of heads, and the various members of many small bodies,—not a person in the room was paying the slightest attention to me; the president's introduction could scarcely be said to succeed in interrupting the interchange of social amenities which was in progress, and which looked delusively like a free fight. I came as near stage fright in the first minutes of that occasion as it is comfortable to be, and if it had not been impossible to run away I think I should not have remained. But I began, with as funny a tale as I knew, following the safe plan of not speaking very loudly, and aiming my effort at the nearest children. As I went on, a very few faces held intelligently to mine; the majority answered only fitfully; and not a few of my hearers conversed with their neighbours as if I were non-existent. The sense of bafflement, the futile effort, forced the perspiration to my hands and face—yet something in the faces before me told me that it was no ill-will that fought against me; it was the apathy of minds without the power or habit of concentration, unable to follow a sequence of ideas any distance, and rendered more restless by bodies which were probably uncomfortable, certainly undisciplined.

The first story took ten minutes. When I began a second, a very short one, the initial work had to be done all over again, for the slight comparative quiet I had won had been totally lost in the resulting manifestation of approval.

At the end of the second story, the room was really orderly to the superficial view, but where I stood I could see the small boy who deliberately made a hideous face at me each time my eyes met his, the two girls who talked with their backs turned, the squirms of a figure here and there. It seemed so disheartening a record of failure that I hesitated much to yield to the uproarious request for a third story, but finally I did begin again, on a very long story which for its own sake I wanted them to hear.

This time the little audience settled to attention almost at the opening words. After about five minutes I was suddenly conscious of a sense of ease and relief, a familiar restful feeling in the atmosphere; and then, at last, I knew that my audience was "with me," that they and I were interacting without obstruction. Absolutely quiet, entirely unconscious of themselves, the boys and girls were responding to every turn of the narrative as easily and readily as any group of story-bred kindergarten children. From then on we had a good time together.

The process which took place in that small audience was a condensed example of what one may expect in habitual story-telling to a group of children. Once having had the attention chained by crude force of interest, the children begin to expect something interesting from the teacher, and to wait for it. And having been led step by step from one grade of a logical sequence to another, their minds—at first beguiled by the fascination of the steps—glide into the habit of following any logical sequence. My club formed its habit, as far as I was concerned, all in one session; the ordinary demands of school procedure lengthen the process, but the result is equally sure. By the end of a week in which the children have listened happily to a story every day, the habit of listening and deducing has been formed, and the expectation of pleasantness is connected with the opening of the teacher's lips.

These two benefits are well worth the trouble they cost, and for these two, at least, any teacher who tells a story well may confidently look—the quick gaining of a confidential relation with the children, and the gradual development of concentration and interested attention in them.

These are direct and somewhat clearly discernible results, comfortably placed in a near future. There are other aims, reaching on into the far, slow modes of psychological growth, which must equally determine the choice of the story-teller's material and inform the spirit of her work. These other, less immediately attainable ends, I wish now to consider in relation to the different types of story by which they are severally best served.

First, unbidden claimant of attention, comes

The Fairy Story

No one can think of a child and a story, without thinking of the fairy tale. Is this, as some would have us believe, a bad habit of an ignorant old world? Or can the Fairy Tale justify her popularity with truly edifying and educational results? Is she a proper person to introduce here, and what are her titles to merit?

Oh dear, yes! Dame Fairy Tale comes bearing a magic wand in her wrinkled old fingers, with one wave of which she summons up that very spirit of joy which it is our chief effort to invoke. She raps smartly on the door, and open sesames echo to every imagination. Her red-heeled shoes twinkle down an endless lane of adventures, and every real child's footsteps quicken after. She is the natural, own great-grandmother of every child in the world, and her pocketfuls of treasures are his by right of inheritance. Shut her out, and you truly rob the children of something which is theirs; something marking their constant kinship with the race-children of the past, and adapted to their needs as it was to those of the generation of long ago! If there were no other criterion at all, it would be enough that the children love the fairy tale; we give them fairy stories, first, because they like them. But that by no means lessens the importance of the fact that fairy tales are also good for them.

How good? In various ways. First, perhaps, in their supreme power of presenting truth through the guise of images. This is the way the race-child took toward wisdom, and it is the way each child's individual instinct takes, after him. Elemental truths of moral law and general types of human experience are presented in the fairy tale, in the poetry of their images, and although the child is aware only of the image at the time, the truth enters with it and becomes a part of his individual experience, to be recognised in its relations at a later stage. Every truth and type so given broadens and deepens the capacity of the child's inner life, and adds an element to the store from which he draws his moral inferences.

The most familiar instance of a moral truth conveyed under a fairy-story image is probably the story of the pure-hearted and loving girl whose lips were touched with the wonderful power of dropping jewels with every spoken word, while her stepsister, whose heart was infested with malice and evil desires, let ugly toads fall from her mouth whenever she spoke. I mention the old tale because there is probably no one of my readers who has not heard it in childhood, and because there are undoubtedly many to whose mind it has often recurred in later life as a sadly perfect presentment of the fact that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh." That story has entered into the forming consciousness of many of us, with its implications of the inevitable result of visible evil from evil in the heart, and its revelation of the loathsomeness of evil itself.

And no less truly than this story has served to many as an embodiment of moral law has another household tale stood for a type of common experience. How much the poorer should we be, mentally, without our early prophecy of the "ugly ducklings" we are to meet later in life!—those awkward offspring of our little human duckyard who are mostly well kicked and buffeted about, for that very length of limb and breadth of back which needs must be, to support swan's wings. The story of the ugly duckling is much truer than many a bald statement of fact. The English-speaking world bears witness to its verity in constant use of the title as an identifying phrase: "It is the old story of the ugly duckling," we say, or "He has turned out a real ugly duckling." And we know that our hearers understand the whole situation.

The consideration of such familiar types and expressions as that of the ugly duckling suggests immediately another good reason for giving the child his due of fairy lore. The reason is that to omit it is to deprive him of one important element in the full appreciation of mature literature. If one thinks of it, one sees that nearly all adult literature is made by people who, in their beginnings, were bred on the wonder tale. Whether he will or no, the grown-up author must incorporate into his work the tendencies, memories, kinds of feeling which were his in childhood. The literature of maturity is, naturally, permeated by the influence of the literature of childhood. Sometimes it is apparent merely in the use of a name, as suggestive of certain kinds of experience; such are the recurrences of reference to the Cinderella story. Sometimes it is an allusion which has its strength in long association of certain qualities with certain characters in fairydom—like the slyness of Brother Fox, and the cruelty of Brother Wolf. Sometimes the association of ideas lies below the surface, drawing from the hidden wells of poetic illusion which are sunk in childhood. The man or woman whose infancy was nourished exclusively on tales adapted from science-made-easy, or from biographies of good men and great, must remain blind to these beauties of literature. He may look up the allusion, or identify the reference, but when that is done he is but richer by a fact or two; there is no remembered thrill in it for him, no savour in his memory, no suggestion to his imagination; and these are precisely the things which really count. Leaving out the fairy element is a loss to literary culture much as would be the omission of the Bible or of Shakespeare. Just as all adult literature is permeated by the influence of these, familiar in youth, so in less degree is it transfused with the subtle reminiscences of childhood's commerce with the wonder world.

To turn now from the inner to the outer aspects of the old-time tale is to meet another cause of its value to children. This is the value of its style. Simplicity, directness, and virility characterise the classic fairy tales and the most memorable relics of folklore. And these are three of the very qualities which are most seriously lacking in much of the new writing for children, and which are always necessary elements in the culture of taste. Fairy stories are not all well told, but the best fairy stories are supremely well told. And most folk-tales have a movement, a sweep, and an unaffectedness which make them splendid foundations for taste in style.

For this, and for poetic presentation of truths in easily assimilated form, and because it gives joyous stimulus to the imagination, and is necessary to full appreciation of adult literature, we may freely use the wonder tale.

Closely related to, sometimes identical with, the fairy tale is the old, old source of children's love and laughter,

The Nonsense Tale

Under this head I wish to include all the merely funny tales of childhood, embracing the cumulative stories like that of the old woman and the pig which would not go over the stile. They all have a specific use and benefit, and are worth the repetition children demand for them. Their value lies, of course, in the tonic and relaxing properties of humour. Nowhere is that property more welcome or needed than in the schoolroom. It does us all good to laugh, if there is no sneer nor smirch in the laugh; fun sets the blood flowing more freely in the veins, and loosens the strained cords of feeling and thought; the delicious shock of surprise at every "funny spot" is a kind of electric treatment for the nerves. But it especially does us good to laugh when we are children. Every little body is released from the conscious control school imposes on it, and huddles into restful comfort or responds gaily to the joke.

More than this, humour teaches children, as it does their grown-up brethren, some of the facts and proportions of life. What keener teacher is there than the kindly satire? What more penetrating and suggestive than the humour of exaggerated statement of familiar tendency? Is there one of us who has not laughed himself out of some absurd complexity of over-anxiety with a sudden recollection of "clever Alice" and her fate? In our household clever Alice is an old habituée, and her timely arrival has saved many a situation which was twining itself about more "ifs" than it could comfortably support. The wisdom which lies behind true humour is found in the nonsense tale of infancy as truly as in mature humour, but in its own kind and degree. "Just for fun" is the first reason for the humorous story; the wisdom in the fun is the second.

And now we come to

The Nature Story

No other type of fiction is more familiar to the teacher, and probably no other kind is the source of so much uncertainty of feeling. The nature story is much used, as I have noticed above, to illustrate or to teach the habits of animals and the laws of plant-growth; to stimulate scientific interest as well as to increase culture in scientific fact. This is an entirely legitimate object. In view of its present preponderance, it is certainly a pity, however, that so few stories are available, the accuracy of which, from this point of view, can be vouched for. The carefully prepared book of to-day is refuted and scoffed at to-morrow. The teacher who wishes to use story-telling chiefly as an element in nature study must at least limit herself to a small amount of absolutely unquestioned material, or else subject every new story to the judgment of an authority in the line dealt with. This is not easy for the teacher at a distance from the great libraries, and for those who have access to well-equipped libraries it is a matter of time and thought.

It does not so greatly trouble the teacher who uses the nature story as a story, rather than as a text-book, for she will not be so keenly attracted toward the books prepared with a didactic purpose. She will find a good gift for the child in nature stories which are stories, over and above any stimulus to his curiosity about fact. That good gift is a certain possession of all good fiction.

One of the best things good fiction does for any of us is to broaden our comprehension of other lots than our own. The average man or woman has little opportunity actually to live more than one kind of life. The chances of birth, occupation, family ties, determine for most of us a line of experience not very inclusive and but little varied; and this is a natural barrier to our complete understanding of others, whose life-line is set at a different angle. It is not possible wholly to sympathise with emotions engendered by experience which one has never had. Yet we all long to be broad in sympathy and inclusive in appreciation; we long, greatly, to know the experience of others. This yearning is probably one of the good but misconceived appetites so injudiciously fed by the gossip of the daily press. There is a hope, in the reader, of getting for the moment into the lives of people who move in wholly different sets of circumstances. But the relation of dry facts in newspapers, however tinged with journalistic colour, helps very little to enter such other life. The entrance has to be by the door of the imagination, and the journalist is rarely able to open it for us. But there is a genius who can open it. The author who can write fiction of the right sort can do it; his is the gift of seeing inner realities, and of showing them to those who cannot see them for themselves. Sharing the imaginative vision of the story-writer, we can truly follow out many other roads of life than our own. The girl on a lone country farm is made to understand how a girl in a city sweating-den feels and lives; the London exquisite realises the life of a Californian ranchman; royalty and tenement dwellers become acquainted, through the power of the imagination working on experience shown in the light of a human basis common to both. Fiction supplies an element of culture,—that of the sympathies, which is invaluable. And the beginnings of this culture, this widening and clearing of the avenues of human sympathy, are especially easily made with children in the nature story.

When you begin, "There was once a little furry rabbit," the child's curiosity is awakened by the very fact that the rabbit is not a child, but something of a different species altogether. "Now for something new and adventuresome," says his expectation, "we are starting off into a foreign world." He listens wide-eyed, while you say, "and he lived in a warm, cosy nest, down under the long grass with his mother"—how delightful, to live in a place like that; so different from little boys' homes!—"his name was Raggylug, and his mother's name was Molly Cottontail. And every morning, when Molly Cottontail went out to get their food, she said to Raggylug, 'Now, Raggylug, remember you are only a baby rabbit, and don't move from the nest. No matter what you hear, no matter what you see, don't you move!'"—all this is different still, yet it is familiar, too; it appears that rabbits are rather like folks. So the tale proceeds, and the little furry rabbit passes through experiences strange to little boys, yet very like little boys' adventures in some respects; he is frightened by a snake, comforted by his mammy, and taken to a new house, under the long grass a long way off. These are all situations to which the child has a key. There is just enough of strangeness to entice, just enough of the familiar to relieve any strain. When the child has lived through the day's happenings with Raggylug, the latter has begun to seem veritably a little brother of the grass to him. And because he has entered imaginatively into the feelings and fate of a creature different from himself, he has taken his first step out into the wide world of the lives of others.

It may be a recognition of this factor and its value which has led so many writers of nature stories into the error of over-humanising their four-footed or feathered heroes and heroines. The exaggeration is unnecessary, for there is enough community of lot suggested in the sternest scientific record to constitute a natural basis for sympathy on the part of the human animal. Without any falsity of presentation whatever, the nature story may be counted on as a help in the beginnings of culture of the sympathies. It is not, of course, a help confined to the powers of the nature story; all types of story share in some degree the powers of each. But each has some especial virtue in dominant degree, and the nature story is, on this ground, identified with the thought given.

The nature story shares its influence especially with

The Historical Story

As the one widens the circle of connection with other kinds of life, the other deepens the sense of relation to past lives; it gives the sense of background, of the close and endless connection of generation with generation. A good historical story vitalises the conception of past events and brings their characters into relation with the present. This is especially true of stories of things and persons in the history of our own race. They foster race-consciousness, the feeling of kinship and community of blood. It is this property which makes the historical story so good an agent for furthering a proper national pride in children. Genuine patriotism, neither arrogant nor melodramatic, is so generally recognised as having its roots in early training that I need not dwell on this possibility, further than to note its connection with the instinct of hero-worship which is quick in the healthy child. Let us feed that hunger for the heroic which gnaws at the imagination of every boy and of more girls than is generally admitted. There have been heroes in plenty in the world's records,—heroes of action, of endurance, of decision, of faith. Biographical history is full of them. And the deeds of these heroes are every one a story. We tell these stories, both to bring the great past into its due relation with the living present, and to arouse that generous admiration and desire for emulation which is the source of so much inspiration in childhood. When these stories are tales of the doings and happenings of our own heroes, the strong men and women whose lives are a part of our own country's history, they serve the double demands of hero-worship and patriotism. Stories of wise and honest statesmanship, of struggle with primitive conditions, of generous love and sacrifice, and—in some measure—of physical courage, form a subtle and powerful influence for pride in one's people, the intimate sense of kinship with one's own nation, and the desire to serve it in one's own time.

It is not particularly useful to tell batches of unrelated anecdote. It is much more profitable to take up the story of a period and connect it with a group of interesting persons whose lives affected it or were affected by it, telling the stories of their lives, or of the events in which they were concerned, as "true stories." These biographical stories must, usually, be adapted for use. But besides these there is a certain number of pure stories—works of art—which already exist for us, and which illuminate facts and epochs almost without need of sidelights. Such may stand by themselves, or be used with only enough explanation to give background. Probably the best story of this kind known to lovers of modern literature is Daudet's famous La Dernière Classe.

The historical story, to recapitulate, gives a sense of the reality and humanness of past events, is a valuable aid in patriotic training, and stirs the desire of emulating goodness and wisdom.


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