By Linda Wilson
“Stories build bridges. When the story ends and the teller’s voice is silenced, the bridge between teller and listener remains.”– Elaine Blanchard
This week I introduced our kindergarteners to one of my favorite storytellers and authors, Patricia Polacco. I’ve treasured her powerful family stories and been lost in her mesmerizing illustrations. Several years ago, I saw her tell her stories at a local elementary school and spent a wonderful day getting to know and chat with her. Quality children’s literature read aloud is a great delight. I have noticed though that when a story is being told to a listener, a story that the teller has a deep connection to; then the listener leans in, the body language and focus are sharper. The teller and the listener form a special bond.
Throughout history, oral story telling is found in every country. Even if the story is the same, each culture will tell it a little different. In the Southwest United States, Native Americans save their stories for the winter, the belief being that rattlesnakes don’t like to hear stories and may come out and bite you. In this cultural tradition, listeners repeat the last word the teller speaks when they pause or make a soft sound to show they are paying attention. Some Western African storytellers wear a hat with carved wooden figures hanging from it showing the storyteller’s repertoire. The Hula is storytelling. The dancer (storyteller) is not dancing to a beat but to the language of the words including creation stories and traditional tales. Japanese Rakugo is a traditional monologue by a single storyteller similar to comedians, think Jon Stewart or Trevor Noah, who tell tales of daily life and re-enforce historical, political, and moral lessons.
Many European fairy tales were originally told as cautionary tales or tales that empower the weak. Lessons are shared on overcoming problems with your wits instead of your power or strength. All these shared cultures share stories for entertainment, education, cultural preservation, creation myths, lessons on the cultures’ morals. They also all deal with the importance of relationships.
So why continue to tell stories in our modern world? There are audio books, animated and life action retelling of stories and plenty of wonderful books to introduce to children. A child treated to the telling of family and generational stories, finding his/her own roots and connecting it to an extended family or cultural heritage gives an understanding of where she, he came from. The listener or encourager of a new storyteller needs to show a mix of empathy, authenticity, and humor that makes others feel comfortable enough to open up and share experiences without judgement. This will show that everyone has remarkable stories to tell.
Brain research also shows that storytelling helps children’s brain process to grow in several ways. It encourages the left brain to organize thoughts and use logical thinking and the right brain to experience emotions and read non-verbal cues. When children undergo a storytelling experience the brain cells activate (fire) and start connecting brain cells (neurons) with and thousands of connections (synapse). Children’s brains fire more rapidly and rewire their brains over and over again. Research proves that oral images allow more connections and deeper firing than just having a story read.
Hopefully, as you gather with friends and family during our winter break, you will bring some light to the table with a story of family that shares memories and makes meaning to your children and you.