Teaching Stories: Empowering children to think and imagine
I arrived in the kindergarten classroom ready to fill in for another educator who was leaving for the day. The educator handed me a children’s book. “We’re going to be focusing on fairy tales over the next few weeks” she said. “You can start by reading this Hansel and Gretel fairy tale to the children. Feel free to edit out any parts that seem too scary.”
On my break I read through the book I had been given to read aloud. My eyes lingered on the image of a small, fearful boy trapped inside a cage waiting to be eaten, a sneering woman wielding a sharp butcher knife beside the cage. As a supply teacher I had no idea if any children in this class had experienced abuse or abandonment in their young lives, and how this story might resonate with their lived experiences. I might be able to revise the printed words as I shared the story. I couldn’t alter the images.
Einstein himself, I’m told, encouraged parents to share fairy tales with their children – not because the stories captivated children with big emotions, nor because they imparted an important moral lesson; but rather because he recognized how fairy tales situated story characters in never-before-imagined circumstances. Fairy tales, he argued, prompted children to seek out novel ways of solving problems.
Still, I hesitated. I couldn’t anticipate how these children would relate to this version of Hansel and Gretel. In the end I told an oral story that invited the children to imagine a kingdom of their creation and a singular thing they would find deep inside their kingdom.
Are fairy tales teaching stories?
Fairy tales have been around for centuries. The oldest version of Cinderella, Yeh Shen, is believed to be from China and told in the T’ang Dynasty which was 618-907 A.D. Yet most North American children today know the story of Cinderella as a Disney movie or book. The story of Yeh-Shen, published in North America as a children’s book a few decades ago, reveals how much the current Disney version has changed from the original telling of Yeh Shen. Disney’s version of the story conveys judgement and a rigid understanding of right and wrong. It reinforces a specific perspective on gender, wealth, blended families, and happiness. No longer does the Cinderella story offer mystery or space for the reader or listener to find their own meaning and wisdom through questioning and reflection.
What are teaching stories?
Like Yeh Shen, Hoopoe Books such as The Lion Who Saw Himself in the Water, and The Silly Chicken teach children to wonder and think for themselves. The stories invite agency within the child (or reader of any age) to learn what they are curious to understand, when they are ready. Teaching stories similarly give adults space to listen carefully for children’s wonderings, and to help them explore the big ideas they have about themselves and the world. Together with children, teaching stories enable storytellers and story hearers to talk about and develop important beliefs and ideas that will shape our present and future world.
We construct our world through the stories we hear and tell.
– Learning that Lasts, Hoopoe Books, 2019
Where do Hoopoe’s teaching stories come from?
Teaching stories published by Hoopoe Books originate from oral stories indigenous to Afghanistan that have been captured and retold by author Idries Shah. As Susan Josephs describes in our video conversation, these teaching stories are ‘intact’. They have not been over-emotionalized, do not convey a specific ‘moral of the story’; nor are they linked to marketing or commercial purposes to promote or sell toys or products.
Why are teaching stories are important?
Most parents and educators are motivated to share books with children. But perhaps we need to ask ourselves why we believe sharing stories with children is important? Are we wanting to improve children’s literacy skills, their knowledge about books, their reading comprehension? Do we want to make keep children busy, or create a routine for sleep? There is compelling research and evidence that children need exposure to many books, and book sharing experiences to develop their vocabulary, reading comprehension, and other specific literacy skills. Research also links children’s frequent and positive early book sharing experiences with choosing to read for pleasure when they learn to read independently. Many children’s books also teach societal expectations of how to get along with one another.
Yet we live in a complicated world. Stories that offer children an opportunity to think diversely and more complexly are relatively rare, especially for children who are very young. Teaching stories do just that.
Children are in continual search of making sense of the world. And in the mix of books that we share with them, children need stories that give them opportunities to think for themselves. They need to know from the adults in their lives that stories can be places that give them space to question, theorize, revise ideas, and develop wisdom.
Check out the next article in this series about how to use Hoopoe Books to support inclusion in programs and empathy among children.