Waldorf School of Atlanta Grade 2 Teacher, Joshua Gartland made a presentation at WSA’s 2016 Grandparents, Family & Friends Day. His talk is enclosed below:
From the dawn of human evolution, when humanity first crept out of the shadows and into the warmth, protection and comfort of the fire, nothing has been more central to our existence than the STORY and storytelling. Outside of our basic essential needs of food and shelter, the STORY has from the very beginning been key to our survival and growth not only as individuals but as a species. It is, essentially, this ability to live into our imagination and enliven factual happenstance that separates us as human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Imagine the very first humans huddled around the first selfmade fire. The orange and golden light flickering off the primitive men, women and children dressed in animal furs……each crackle sending sparks into the air and causing the watchers to jump out of their own skins ………eyes blazing, unable to see anything other than this magical, otherworldly godlike something dance before them. I can just imagine the one who happened to strike the sparks that ignited it recounting exactly how s/he had done it while everyone else gathered around to hear for themselves. And how quickly that story must have traveled! Compared to the speed with which news travels today, it was almost literally snail mail, but for back then it was lifechanging, of course…..magical and monumental…..the story must have spread like lightning. Furthermore, the story of that fire itself was most likely retold in numerous ways: a magical gift from the gods……the work of the devil…..clever thinking and creativity…….dumb luck?! The story of what happened that night told by 20 different tellers has at least 40 different versions…..for each telling requires at least one speaker and one listener. That’s the beauty of storytelling…..it is a true sharing from one person to another.
Anthropologists know that the story and storytelling is a universally human experience, crossing all borders of time and culture. However, with the advent of the technological revolutions and pure scientific thinking over the past few hundred years, STORY has slowly given way to purely analytical and mechanistic type of thinking. Analysis has become King and the story, more infantile or trivial. Story has been relegated to the water cooler, the sitcom and bitesized tweets while analytics has become the foundation on which our entire civilization runs.
Organizations and corporations have learned to use social media and networking to transform individuals into numbers and consumers into data points to be mined like precious metals. Ironically, it is the STORY these giants use to lure the fish to their ever widening nets of commerce.
But the story has not died. It lives in the human heart and slowly and surely culture has brought the story to the forefront again. The PODCAST, for instance, has brought the art of storytelling into the 21st century with the ability to share thoughts and feelings around the globe personally with the tapping of a few key strokes. Traveling showcases like the MOTH project tour the country town by town inviting audience members onstage to share…”true stories told live.” The newspaper has essentially gone out of print and dried up, but the BLOG has given each individual his/her very own freedom of the press to spread their own opinions, personalities and insights. The story, like a weed in the sidewalk, cannot be contained. Even in silence, the story finds a way through.
Waldorf has been using the art of storytelling consistently since its inception nearly 100 years ago. You might even say storytelling is the Heart of Waldorf Education. As the children move from our Kindergartens and through the grades we teachers share fairy tales, folktales,fables, myths and legends, biographies and historical epics. These stories are gathered from around the world and shared aloud, reviewed, retold, and passed onto parents, siblings and other relatives and friends. Like ripples spreading outward from a single pebble, an effective story can impact the lives and loves of millions.
In Waldorf schools, stories are brought for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, because as teachers we are responsible for filling the landscape of their ever widening lives. It is through story that children often encounter many things for the very first time, whether it is a choo-choo train chugging down the tracks…..three great big bears going for a walk in the woods…..a wolf looking for a tasty snack all dressed in red. Stories provide children the opportunity to imagine a world of possibilities, things beyond themselves and their backyard – A world where anything is possible.
At school we are also responsible for teaching your children and that can begin by modeling. Children of a young age first learn by imitating and so it is the teacher’s duty to provide an example of fine speech. The rich stories at our disposal certainly provide exemplary material from which to draw upon.
Additionally, the elocution of such tales provide us as instructors an astonishingly keen tool for developing and enhancing a healthy and robust vocabulary. In the Kindergarten and First grades, Waldorf teachers share the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. What we do not do, however, is “dumb down” the story. Rather, we keep true to the original telling and language and any unfamiliar words are quickly learned by the children through the context of the story itself. These stories in particular are so very rich just as they are that I tend to cringe whenever I see/hear a retelling of it in a “wacky, zany” way…updated to meet our more modern culture. Firstly, our children are smarter than that and don’t need us to dumb down the story. And secondly, they deserve more than that. The stories are classics for a reason. Let’s share it with them.
Telling stories by heart is also a key to Waldorf storytelling. When a story is known so well that the teller can actively engage with their audience, look into their eyes, the sharing becomes that much more powerful. A visceral connection is made allowing the story to delve even deeper into the listener. If I were up here simple reading this, unable to connect with you the audience at all, it would have a completely different feeling. But because I am able to glance back and forth I can relate to you, a fellow human being and create a connection….a bond. This bond is real and palpable. Experiencing this bond can be a powerful experience and an especially important skill for any child as they learn how to be a healthy human being and part of a family, community and world later in life.
Another fascinating aspect to this art of storytelling has to do with something I mentioned early on and the 20 different versions of the first fire. The more specific the visual I give you, the less freedom you have in making it your own. If I read to you a picture book, even as wonderful and as charming as they can be, the pictures will be the only pictures each and every one of you will see and keep and hold onto. However, if I simply tell you the story, I allow you the gift of making, creating and imagining your own pictures. The skill of imagination is something we have begun to lose in our culture. And when creative thinking is so very important in a world with so many problems, how are we to dream up solutions when our imaginations are filled with other people’s pictures…if we do not have the ability to create our own?
Finally, I should say that here at the Waldorf School of Atlanta, we don’t just tell stories for the reasons I’ve already mentioned, nor just for the pleasure of it. Instead we understand that the STORY is the very best medium for presenting the academic material we are responsible for handing over to your children. As I mentioned the Fairy Tales in KG and First Grade are wonderfully imaginative and fantastical stories set in a very real and yet magical world where good overcomes evil. What a perfect way of introducing both numbers and letters to a child! In Grade Two we bring Legends of Saints and Good, Kind, Strong People to inspire the children. To balance this uprightness we also bring folktales and fables from around the world with clever and tricky animals…perfect for children trying to find their way in the world. In Grade Three we bring a Creation Story through the Old Testament… story that has Adam and Eve cast out of paradise and into a world where they must learn to care for themselves….much like themselves as they grow into older children and slowly move step by step away from the nurturing nest of home. In 4th grade the Norse Mythology that bookends the creation story with the story of Ragnarok and the end of the Norse world. In 5th grade we tell of myths of the ancient worlds of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. In grade 6, Rome…grade 7 the Renaissance, and in grade 8, REVOLUTION, as they come full circle back to their roots and are finally ready to move onto high school. An amazing curriculum of stories that meets each child at their own stage of development in order to prepare them for not only the academic challenges in front of them, but the trials by which they must eventually test their humanity.
In closing, I’d like to bring to you a quote from one of my favorite story characters of all time who said, “If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart, I’ll stay there forever.” Winnie certainly knew what he was talking about.