Let me Tell you a Story
Lisette Wouters and Will Stinson are mesmerized by the story telling workshops anchored by Geeta Ramanujam of Kathalaya and Spanish story tellers Enrique Páez and Beatriz Montero, founders of the International Storytelling Network, who believe that storytelling is an imaginative medium that can be seamlessly integrated into the classroom to make learning joyful and meaningful for both the teacher and the taught.
A teacher standing by the blackboard points her stick at the board. ‘Alexander the Great – ancient Greek king’, it says. With a high pitched voice she dictates: “Alexander the Great – ancient Greek king”. The children chorus: “Alexander the Great – ancient Greek king”. That’s all they learn about Alexander the Great. There are no stories, no pictures. There is no experience or empathy.
But there’s hope for the future. Geeta Ramanujam, a former history teacher from Bengaluru, wants to make a change. She introduces story telling in Indian schools. Instead of reciting the name of Alexander the Great, she tells amazing stories about him.
Teaching through Stories
“I was a teacher myself, I taught history. But I found the lessons were boring, and I noticed the children weren’t interested and motivated. There was a huge gap between the teachers and the children. So I started telling them stories. I asked the children: ‘What if you were a Greek king today? What would you do? Where would you go?’ Then I told them: ‘You know who this king was? He was Alexander the Great.’ That way, the children could empathize with the king, get to know him and become fascinated by him. That’s how I made learning fun and interesting.”
Geeta became a popular teacher, but the school management wasn’t very happy with her way of teaching. “One day I got a call from the director, he told me I had to work as a librarian from that moment on.” But she didn’t give up. “In the library, I noticed how children brought back books without even reading them. So I started to read the stories for the kids, because I loved reading myself. After a few pages, the children were really into the book, and didn’t want me to stop. But I did stop, and told the children, ‘If you want to know how the story goes, rent the book and read it.’ That’s how I started to stimulate reading.”
One day, one of the parents suggested to Geeta about the possibility of her doing storytelling workshops.
“I had been in education for 27 years then, and found this an interesting idea. With three others, I set up an organization called Kathalaya and started experimenting with storytelling. At first, schools were not interested. They were already overburdened with the curriculum and story telling didn’t figure in the exams. So I took a chance and said, “We will work for free for three months. After that, you decide if you want to take us on or not.” It was very difficult to open the teachers to a whole new way of teaching. But it’s amazing how some schools did believe in us eventually. We trained those teachers first, and they told the others about their experience.”
Currently, Geeta has trained over 50,000 teachers. But she didn’t do it alone. “Finance also played a large part. I got help from the Ashoka fellowship 2000 and the Indian Foundation for the Arts. They helped make Kathalaya possible.” Now Geeta travels around the world, to train teachers and set up academies for storytelling.
A Slice of Life
One of the schools that has supported Geeta’s storytelling vision is the Mahatma Montessori School in Madurai. Geeta has brought Kathalaya to this school in the past, but today, she is joined by Spanish story tellers Enrique Páez and Beatriz Montero, founders of the International Storytellers Network. Their collaboration with the Kathalaya Trust is enabling their shared objective of establishing storytelling as an effective educational and cultural tool in all spheres of education.
Geeta, Beatriz and Enrique found each other on the Internet. Two years ago, Enrique and Beatriz founded a storytelling network, to connect storytellers from all over the world. At this moment, the network has 920 story tellers. They are not just story tellers, but also writers, illustrators, researchers, and other allied professionals. The network also organizes festivals, to spread information and meet each other. In 2010, at a festival in Brazil, they met Geeta, who was the first story teller to come all the way from India. They clicked immediately. Enrique and Beatriz are in India for the first time, to join Geeta in her storytelling workshops.
The storytelling trio, through a series of imaginative workshops, showed teachers how to use story telling as a teaching tool to teach all subjects and thereby make it more enlivening and interesting for the children. Sitting as quietly as their students, the teachers listened attentively to Enrique Páez as he reveals the common pitfalls of creative writing. Enrique had asked the teachers to prepare a short story each, which they are invited to read aloud to their colleagues. After this, he provided feedback on how the narratives may be edited to create more coherent pieces. Creative writing, Enrique’s field of expertise, is the basis of story telling. Sometimes, a teacher may want to tell a story but does not know how to express this to students effectively. Enrique showed them how to express themselves in writing using a structure, giving them the freedom to be creative within a limited framework. This was a strong foundation for the teachers to introduce performance of the story through voice and body language.
She tells them, “Pick an imaginary apple from an imaginary tree, eat it, throw it away and stamp your feet!”
Creating and refining the written story is only the beginning of story telling. In order to instruct the teachers on how to express a story using their voices, Geeta takes the floor. Asking the teachers to stand in a circle, Geeta starts leading the group in vocal exercises. Woops, growls and screams echo around the room as Geeta requests the voices of a tiger, a mosquito, or the sound of a babbling brook. These noises are the basis of telling a story in a dynamic and engaging way. In order to excite their students in the class room, the teachers must exploit their voices creatively and without restraint. By using different voices for different characters, the teachers learn how to make sounds using the belly. This will create a richer sound that the children are more likely to respond to. Being told a story is an experience; making children laugh is the sign of an effective and engaging story teller. The sounds that fill the room slowly morph into a surprisingly harmonized and competent choir. As this beautiful sound slowly swells and fills the room, there are no longer teachers, instructors or journalists present. This harmony epitomizes the notion of story telling as freedom within limits; the only limit is the self. How loud are you willing to shout? How high can you squeak? Why not wail as if your own mother had died? It is when reality is brought to the classroom, instead of textbooks and exams, true education can begin. Geeta knows this, and this message did not need to be spoken; each teacher discovered it for themselves when they discovered their voices.
Bonding through Stories
Kathalaya is not only focused on training teachers how to tell a story as a way of education; reaching the children through story telling is just as essential. The next morning, in the same room as the teacher’s harmonic epiphany, hundreds of students gather from the younger grades to be inspired by Geeta and Beatriz Montero. Geeta tells three stories to the children, using all the skills she showed the teachers the day before. After her stunning performance, using the most incredible voices for the characters of birds, lions and spiders, Beatriz begins. As a Spaniard, Beatriz has chosen to incorporate Flamenco into her performances. This traditional Spanish dance is fiery, energetic and stimulating for both the performer and audience. Today, there is no audience; as soon as Beatriz takes to the stage, she shouts “Wa!” and demands a response of “Ah!” from the children. Singing a Spanish song, stamping her feet and clapping, Beatriz bellows, “Wa!” and a deafening roar of “Ah!” is returned. The song finishes and Beatriz begins to clap a Flamenco rhythm. The children join; Beatriz shouts “Olé!” and the children holler it straight back to her. As the rhythm continues, Beatriz gets the children on the feet. She tells them, “Pick an imaginary apple from an imaginary tree, eat it, throw it away and stamp your feet!” The children eagerly oblige as Beatriz continues to clap and stamp her feet. This is the final sphere of story telling: body language. Beatriz’ use of Flamenco engages children, and this is easily transferable to the classroom. The shouts and clapping are coordinated and controlled by Beatriz at all times. When she tells them, the children are quiet. This performance brilliantly shows Kathalaya’s alternative way of reaching children and involving them in an exciting yet controlled manner.
Currently, Kathalaya is establishing story telling academies all over the world. They aim to offer adults the opportunity to come into contact with story telling. This shows that, for Geeta and the International Storytellers Network, story telling is a way of living, not just a way of education.
Fuente: Madurai Messenger