Storytelling Session with Dr. Jean-Elie Gilles was a Success
ChildsPlay International’s Advisory Board Member Dr. Jean-Elie Gilles recently held a CPI Storytelling Session for 15 children ages 9-12 at the Cours Privés Saint Ignace e Loyola in Jacmel, Haiti. CPI spoke with him about how the children reacted to what – for them – was a new, exciting experience. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.
Dr. Gill (DrG): The Children had NEVER experienced storytelling before. No grandmother had told them stories before this. Today in Haiti, we don’t teach children their culture — only American culture, and TikTok.”
ChildsPlay International (CPI): Is this because the parents are younger, or because technology has replaced traditional storytelling?
DrG: The parents are very young, as are the grandparents. They are in their 30s and 40s, and didn’t grow up in a time like I did when we had aunts, grandmothers, and grandfathers who told us stories. Now kids don’t have anybody to tell them anything, and they only read what they read in school. They only watch what they see on TikTok or social media. This is crazy because today was the first time that they heard storytelling. I could not believe it. Storytelling is not even available in school.
CPI: Listening is such an important counterpart to the visual. Anyone who has not learned how to listen cannot process information. They are going to miss out.
DrG: Yes, they cannot process information because they don’t have the training for it. It was very interesting what I explained to them in the story, what I told them. They were just so eager to see, to hear, to listen. The children were so attentive, and they just asked question after question!
DrG: In those stories, there were lots of warnings, and all kinds of information about people, culture, and characters. Yourself! You learned how not to get trapped in that same situation. Of course, the stories didn’t entirely prevent us from making mistakes or getting into ridiculous situations. That’s still part of life, part of growing up. We have to make our own mistakes to become ourselves. But because no one stole my childhood, I don’t regret one minute of anything that happened to me.
Morals from Storytelling
DrG: I let my daughter be and do what she wants to be and do. This is because my mother – who was ahead of her time — trusted us to do whatever we want to do, to be whoever we wanted to be. That just gave us so much free spirit, as well as the responsibility of knowing that there is someone who trusts us and whom we cannot betray. Betraying her is betraying ourselves. So, for me, that’s what the education of children is all about. With my daughter, I have learned so many things about young people. If I give her a lesson, and then something unexpected happens, she talks with me. I would explain to her: “Here is what happened. When you have such a situation, in your life, sometimes you must make compromises.” She understands.
So, it’s good to have kids become adults in their way by thinking very early.
The Storytelling Session
DrG: The storytelling session was funny because all those kids were laughing. But at the same time, they were concerned that “oh, we don’t have those times anymore.” When I asked them to tell me what happened in that story, they just went “‘talk-talk-talk-talk-talk,” and they explained to me what the story was about. But we need to give the kids a much better anchor, rooting them in their culture so they can understand that it’s not only about TikTok, social media.
CPI: You have collected some important evidence: We are not imposing this Storytelling session because we think it’s good for the children. Once children are exposed to storytelling, they craved it.
DrG: That’s right. That’s why they want it and they craved it. I like that verb. It implies interaction with real people, not social media influencers.
Coming from a Family of Storytellers
DrG: Myself, I have been telling stories all my life. I’ve been doing that as a teacher. I have always been creating all kinds of PowerPoints to showcase this. It’s interesting because I have people in my generation telling stories, because I come from a long tradition of storytelling in my family. I will send you one of my collections, “The Relation of Loneliness.” (Relatude in French).
CPI is Preserving Culture through Storytelling
CPI: When you speak of storytelling, and you have empirical evidence about how these children responded positively to Storytelling, then my brain goes: Storytelling includes everybody; illiterate, sophisticated, rich, spoiled, criminals, young old, homeless children, prep school kids, city. It is an invisible bond. If it were redeployed for digital times . . .!
DrG: That’s right. And there are lots of stories that we call horror stories that we could put into the setting of the digital age, with all kinds of pictures, etc. We have to find a way to make it happen because that will be very useful in the future as these stories are going to be lost.
Empower Children through Cultural Preservation and Playful Learning
DrG: One time, I took the children through the old city (Jacmel). I explained to them the stories of all those old buildings and the people who used to live in them. The next day, the principal of the school asked them to write a story about what they saw and heard from our field trip the previous day. She informed them that they will have a little quiz. Oh man, you should have seen that. The children were so eager to talk about it. And the principal told me I should come back from time to time because I think it’s a good influence for them to have that activity.
The Young Girl Who Became Pregnant
DrG: At the Storytelling workshop, I told them about the story of the lady in Jacmel who went to school with another lady and that woman, she became crazy. Because she had a bad thing that happened to her. She was pregnant (while in school). And she lost the baby at birth, and it was her love child. And she became crazy because, for her, that child was the bond that linked her to that boy.
So, the baby died. And then she went into a depression. They would give her medicine or traditional medicine. Over time, she got back some of her faculties, but she was totally crazy, kind of hyper. And one of her friends from high school kept in touch with her because that was a bad story, what had happened to her… the woman felt solidarity towards her. So every day she left food for her. And then sometimes it was just a big bowl of veggies and dumplings, and all kinds of fruits and vegetables.
One day she left her a bowl of ground corn; grits. Okay, great. And then she doesn’t like grits. And she becomes mad because she had grits two days in a row from that friend’s house. She wrote on their wall: “These people only eat grits”. And when her friend saw this, she told the lady there was no more food.
The (crazy) lady said: “How come there is no food? You know that I only eat here. I’m hungry.” Her friend said, “I don’t care, here we only serve grits!” The crazy lady said: “Today I’m so hungry.” The nice friend said okay, and they give her a bowl of Haitian couscous (millét). And then she was so happy. So, she reconciled with her friend because it was all about a misunderstanding. And so is that was what the story was about. The lady lived in Jacmel.
Everybody from my generation knows her so it was very interesting to find that story in a book. That’s incredible for this is a true story
The Moral of the Story
The moral of a story is the lesson that stories teach us about how to behave in the world.
CPI: Did you ask the children what the moral of the story was?
DrG: Yes! The moral of the story is to forgive your friends and keep living with them and accept them the way they are. So, the kids understood that right away, and it was very interesting for them. She didn’t get married. But later she had another child when the child died early, when she was 14. But she did have a child.
Relatude is a collection of short stories revolving around the theme of the loneliness of human relationships. Being with the other and never knowing if the other is with us! Which sometimes leads to alienation, intense heartache and makes life miserable.
Read our blog ChildsPlay Continuing Its Workshop For Children In Haiti Amidst The Chaos here.