I was a Waldorf classroom teacher for many years, starting out as a kindergarten assistant, then a subject teacher, and finally taking on four different grades classes, with whom I journeyed for varying lengths of time. The part of the day I loved best was story time. A hush would fall over the students, and together, we would travel on waves of words, through mysterious forests, over sparkling seas, and under the earth, sometimes passing through towns and schools that looked a lot like our own.
It was similar when my own son was small, and he wanted a story about Boy and Cat and their adventures together each night. We’d sit in the candlelit darkness of his room, and I’d struggle to stay awake as Boy and his talking Cat went on adventures.
Some of the adventures were magical, some as ordinary as a trip to the grocery store, but all were met with equal joy.
Waldorf education relies heavily on storytelling. From the nursery to the high school, narrative retellings of all kinds of stories lie at the heart of the lesson. Even in middle school science lessons, we retell the story of the experiment or observation. This week, I want to focus on why storytelling is so important. Next time, I’ll get into how you might get started with storytelling for the children in your life.
So, why? Why can’t we just open a book, or show a movie, or let the children read or observe or tell their own stories. The answer is, “WE CAN!” All of those things are good and worthy ways to learn and to share learning. There is nothing wrong with books, or movies, or going out into the world to see it for yourself. So why the focus on storytelling?
First off, when I say “storytelling,” I specifically mean oral storytelling without a book. Sometimes, it feels like I might as well say, “without a net.” To tell a story from the heart, without words on the page or an image on the screen to fall back on, is to be vulnerable. That vulnerability is an invitation to our listeners to be in relationship with us. The teller needs the listener. My stories about Annika and Her Dresses when I was 8 were fun, but they became even more so when I had a friend who would listen!
The Waldorf curriculum is rich in story, from nature stories and fairy tales, through great myths and legends, to biographies and historical stories. These aren’t the only stories we can tell, though, nor should they be! Sharing stories from our own experience, family memories, and stories we create right in the moment for our children are amazing ways for our children to connect to their own place in the world. As they listen, they are building a treasure trove of stories to pass on to their own children one day, and they are learning to tell their own stories.
Telling stories allows us to make the lesson content into something that is alive. Words on paper are dead; they will not grow or change. They are fixed as they are. This is not me tearing down reading, or being anti-books, but it’s a fact; that’s part of what I love about my favorite books: they are always the same, even when I am changing, and I can meet them in new ways. A story, told aloud, from one person to another or to a group of people, is alive. It can change to meet the needs of the listener. It can be dramatic or calm. The storyteller can draw out the parts of a biography, for instance, that paint the clearest picture of a time in history, or which are the best example of a figure’s character or personality.
With a story, we can make the most daunting material feel approachable, if not familiar and friendly. We might be worried about teaching long division, or medieval law, or the American Civil War, because it feels hard or strange, or overwhelming in scale. By telling a story about dragons sharing pancakes, or a young page who must help his king in a difficult matter, or a family making decisions about whether or not to fight, we can add a drop of humanity, and sometimes even a little levity, to subjects that threaten to feel heavy.
Storytelling demands that we be absolutely present to the story. In this, it is a present, a gift to our listeners. We bring our whole selves into that moment, and together, teller and listeners weave a tapestry of experience. It is a beautiful way for us to connect with our children.
So, again, why should we tell stories? In short, my deepest answer, the one I get when I stop dancing around the academic benefits and Steiner’s recommendations and so on, is this: Because it is their birthright. Humans tell stories. We tell stories about ourselves, about our homes, about our countries, about our Gods, about our heroes, and about our deepest fears. Children deserve to have access to that magic, to that history, and to themselves. We can offer it to them word by living word, drop by delectable drop. We can offer it to them in the car, cuddled up in bed, on a beach, on a subway platform, over dinner, in a hospital, at the zoo, on an airplane, on a mountain, waiting in line at the grocery store — there is nowhere we cannot share a story, so it is available and accessible. It is their inheritance as story-telling creatures. We owe it to them. We, as adults, owe children not only pre-written, pre-illustrated, pre-digested stories, but new stories, old stories, stories burning like fire on our tongues, and stories flowing like water between us. And if we tell them our stories, we may be lucky enough that they will tell us theirs.