Wednesday, January 30, 2013

5 things kids don't learn without stories

I have been working with children for a while, as a storyteller.
(I know, what else is new, right?!)
Recently I have been thinking a lot about the things I experience with my elementary school audiences. These are in no way official results of some research; it is just what I see during my everyday job as a storyteller. As many of the kids hear less and less live storytelling, their perception of story is changing. Here are a few things I have been experiencing over and over again that I am pretty sure are related to the loss of storytelling.
(Side note: I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not blaming TV for all of this. I watch TV all the time. I think the issue is much more complicated, and TV by itself could not possibly be responsible for all the changes.)

1. "Read us a story!"
I have encountered this one with adults too, and surprisingly often. People seem to have forgotten the concept of 'telling' vs 'reading'.  Even if there is no book in my hand, or even in the room; even if I have been telling them stories for weeks now; even if I look them in the eye during the story; even if I explain to them that I am telling and not reading... they will still use the wrong verb. They call me a "story reading lady" more often than a storyteller, and they repeatedly ask me to "read another!"

2. And the record keeps on turning
Another sign that children are not used to a live person telling them a live story is that they don't look at me. They are so used to presentations where someone (or something - TV, audiobook, etc.) is talking at them that they feel free to crawl around, pick up coloring books, skip out for a snack, or just sit down with their backs to me (I have also seen this with adults). They just assume that the storyteller is no different from any other media; that I will keep talking as an uninterrupted background noise even if they are doing something else. I have to work hard to train my audiences that this is an interactive process; I make them answer, repeat, mimic, just to hold their attention until they learn better. Parents all over the world try to teach their kids the principle of "look at me when I am talking to you!", but it does not seem to be too effective.

3. Short attention span
Or, in some cases, virtually none. There have been smarter people writing a lot about this one, so I am not going to go into details. Enough to say that storytellers of old would never get away with three princesses with the kids of today.

4. Is this story true?
On a more closely story-related note, there seem to be some deficit in telling truth and story apart. Kids don't seem to grasp the idea of a "fairy tale" (and I am talking all the way up to middle school here). After every dragon, fairy or trickster they demand to know if it is true, and where it happened, and how I can prove that I am not lying to them. They are not at all willing to suspend disbelief. The story is either true or it did not happen. And they are way too young to understand the values of stories, even if I tried to explain.
On the flip side of the coin, this proves that they can't tell truth and fantasy apart. If I tell them I did fight a dragon, they will believe me. There has to be something in there about not listening to stories enough, but once again, this is just a hunch.

5. What happened to the dwarfs?
This is fairly on the nose, but kids know less and less of the classic tales. I have had an entire American elementary school class that had never heard of Jack and the Beanstalk, and most adult audiences can still be shocked with the tale of Bluebeard. Lately, I had a room full of 6-12 year olds who did not know what dwarfs are. I repeated the word a number of times, thinking it was my accent; finally the teacher intervened, saying "you know, little people!" and the kids' eyes lit up: "oh, you mean midgets!"


  1. Wow, Csenge. I could write a whole blog post in response. In fact, I think I will.

    It'll be up at before tomorrow morning. If it's all right with you, I'd like to link to this post.

  2. Even with my 6th and 7th graders, who get a story every week as a part of their PSHE lesson (classroom guidance, really), I still hear, "is that true? Did that really happen?" And these are all traditional stories. And when I tell a real story, a true story, I clarify that at the beginning.
    You are dead on with this one. They are tuning in without having to do anything else. Some of them still doodle and draw when I tell, but they are in the story.