Stories and Storytelling

 

Stories provide the gateways to personal imagination and shared love of local communities. It brings the young and old together.

 

Creating stories is a way to live in a world of imagination—and it requires no materials! CPI encourages this as a social activity through Storytelling Circles, storytelling Events, and acted out in plays. These ways of learning, and bringing the community together, are rarely part of a school curriculum.

In many societies, history and culture come alive through storytelling. Stories open up a world of imagination, uniting children and their communities, and allowing them to wonder at history’s ongoing drama. CPI encourages storytelling circles as a new way of learning that is rarely part of a school curriculum.

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CPI fosters passing down local stories, it ensures that local people are involved and that the method of recording and transcribing are reproducible at the local level. This involves finding and training local apprentices in skills such as film-making, and instructing local teachers to pass on to students an interest in how stories conserve culture. Students are encouraged to define their own relationship to the oral tradition by creating works of art that interpret that tradition and perpetuate it as a living practice.

What about societies where there is no concerted effort to collect, preserve, and study the stories that matter to their own self-definition? In these societies, elders tell stories perhaps for the last time, since the next generation – the children – are distracted by cell phones or, worse, by war. The task of preserving these stories – the whole oral tradition of a people – has fallen to individuals and organizations dedicated to that purpose.

Such dedication comes from the immensity of the need, that is, from what is likely to be lost without deliberate preservation. In a recent essay for Terralingua, Luisa Maffi wrote:

“In many societies, history and culture come alive through storytelling. Stories open up a world of imagination, uniting children and their communities, and allowing them to wonder at history’s ongoing drama. CPI encourages storytelling circles as a new way of learning that is rarely part of a school curriculum.”

The great anthropologist George N. Appell described storytelling as a basic human impulse, a cognate of religion that allows us to re-envision – and cope with – existence by situating all of life within of a narrative order. For Appell, oral literature is inescapably profound:

“It arises in response to the universal aesthetic impulse to provide narratives that explain the nature of life and human response to challenges. It retains knowledge to be passed on to succeeding generations. It contains the history of the society and its experiences. Thus in various forms this oral literature portrays the society’s belief systems and makes sense of life. It provides a guide to human behavior and how to live one’s life. . . As such this literature is a response to the universal human instinct to find balance, harmony, and beauty in the world and the need to understand pain, suffering, and evil. It functions to fulfill the need for religious belief and spiritual fulfillment necessary for human existence.”

Passing stories from the older generation to the younger, all at the level of creativity, is what distinguishes CPI’s methodology. Children are given tools – and the impetus – to envision this creativity as connected to previous generations. Such connection is presented as natural, and it becomes as much. In this sense, storytelling is a great leveler among societies, one skill that all children are able to share and cultivate using their own, indigenous stories. At the same time, storytelling is dynamic; it is both a way to interpret a child’s own society and a way to communicate with and understand children from other societies.

With the arrival of mass literacy and its technological concomitants, this repository of knowledge-as-art disappears in a generation . . . unless there are efforts to preserve it. Accordingly, an array of international initiatives has been mounted, including by UNICEF. Scholars from around the world have published numerous studies showcasing specific projects and outlining their sophisticated methodologies.

When ChildsPlay International records local stories, it ensures that local people are involved and that the methods of recording and transcribing are reproducible at the local level. This involves finding and training local apprentices in skills such as film-making and instructing local teachers to pass on to students’ interest in cultural preservation. Students are encouraged to define their own relationship to oral tradition by creating works of art – paintings, puppets, masks, plays – that interpret that tradition and perpetuate it as a living practice. These works of art are also collected and exhibited, enabling the children to see the direct connection of their own creativity to that of the past.


However, it has been clear from the outset that merely recording and transcribing these stories, without including local participants in preserving them, can be an act of cultural appropriation. Community-based programs of collection and transcription are becoming the norm. The Firebird Foundation, among others, has published extensive guidelines for collectors, emphasizing that the benefits of collecting should flow both ways. The goal is to increase the community’s respect for its own culture and encourage its own efforts at preservation.

This linkage among generations, at the shared level of creativity, is what distinguishes the methodology of ChildsPlay. Children are given tools – and the impetus – to envision their creativity as connected to previous generations. Such connection is presented as natural, and it becomes as much. The idea is to help indigenous children become self-sufficient in story-telling, a skill that children in developed societies take for granted. In this sense, story-telling is a great leveler among societies, one skill that all children are able to share and to cultivate using their own, indigenous stories. At the same time, storytelling is dynamic: it is both a way to interpret a child’s own society, and a way to communicate with and understand children from other societies.

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