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Questions Asked By Teachers

The following questions have been put to me so often by teachers, in my own country and in America, that I have thought it might be useful to give in my book some of the attempts I have made to answer them;

The following questions have been put to me so often by teachers, in my own country and in America, that I have thought it might be useful to give in my book some of the attempts I have made to answer them; and I wish to record here an expression of gratitude to the teachers who have asked these questions at the close of my lectures. It has enabled me to formulate my views on the subject and to clear up, by means of research and thought, the reason for certain things which I had more or less taken for granted. It has also constantly modified my own point of view, and has prevented me from becoming too dogmatic in dealing with other people's methods.

QUESTION I: Why do I consider it necessary to spend so many years on the art of story-telling, which takes in, after all, such a restricted portion of literature? Just in the same way that an actor thinks it worth while to go through so many years' training to fit him for the stage, although dramatic literature is also only one branch of general literature. The region of storyland is the legitimate stage for children. They crave drama as we do, and because there are comparatively few good story-tellers, children do not have their dramatic needs satisfied. What is the result? We either take them to dramatic performances for grown-up people, or we have children's theaters where the pieces, charming as they may be, are of necessity deprived of the essential elements which constitute a drama —or they are shriveled up to suit the capacity of the child. Therefore, it would seem wiser, while the children are quite young, to keep them to the simple presentation of stories, because with their imagination keener at that period, they have the delight of the inner vision and they do not need, as we do, the artificial stimulus provided by the machinery of the stage.

QUESTION II: What is to be done if a child asks you: "Is the story true?" I hope I shall be considered Utopian in my ideas if a say that it is quite easy, even with small children, to teach them that the seeing of truth is a relative matter which depends on the eyes of the seer. If we were not afraid to tell our children that all through life there are grown-up people who do not see things that others see, their own difficulties would be helped.

In his "Imagination Créatrice," Queyrat says: "To get down into the recesses of a child's mind, one would have to become even as he is; we are reduced to interpreting that child in the terms of an adult. The children we observe live and grow in a civilized community, and the result of this is that the development of their imagination is rarely free or complete, for as soon as it rises beyond the average level, the rationalistic education of parents and schoolmasters at once endeavors to curb it. It is restrained in its flight by an antagonistic power which treats it as a kind of incipient madness." It is quite easy to show children that if one keeps things where they belong, they are true with regard to each other, but that if one drags these things out of the shadowy atmosphere of the "make-believe," and forces them into the land of actual facts, the whole thing is out of gear.

To take a concrete example: The arrival of the coach made from a pumpkin and driven by mice is entirely in harmony with the Cinderella surroundings, and I have never heard one child raise any question of the difficulty of traveling in such a coach or of the uncertainty of mice in drawing it. But, suggest to the child that this diminutive vehicle could be driven among the cars of Broadway, or amongst the motor omnibuses in the Strand, and you would bring confusion at once into his mind.

Having once grasped this, the children will lose the idea that fairy stories are just for them, and not for their elders, and from this they will go on to see that it is the child-like mind of the poet and seer that continues to appreciate these things; that it is the dull, heavy person whose eyes so soon become dim and unable to see any more the visions which were once his own.

In his essay on "Poetry and Life" (Glasgow, 1889), Professor Bradley says: "It is the effect of poetry, not only by expressing emotion but in other ways also, to bring life into the dead mass of our experience, and to make the world significant." This applies to children as well as to adults. There may come to the child in the story hour, by some stirring poem or dramatic narration, a sudden flash of the possibilities of life which he had not hitherto realized in the even course of school experience.

"Poetry," says Professor Bradley, "is a way of representing truth; but there is in it, as its detractors have always insisted, a certain untruth or illusion. We need not deny this, so long as we remember that the illusion is conscious, that no one wishes to deceive, and that no one is deceived. But it would be better to say that poetry is false to literal fact for the sake of obtaining a higher truth. First, in order to represent the connection between a more significant part of experience and a less significant, poetry, instead of linking them together by a chain which touches one by one the intermediate objects that connect them, leaps from one to the other. It thus falls at once into conflict with common-sense." Now, the whole of this passage bears as much on the question of the truth embodied in a fairy tale as a poem, and it would be interesting to take some of these tales and try to discover where they are false to actual fact for the sake of a higher truth.

Let us take, for instance, the Story of Cinderella: The coach and pumpkins to which I have alluded and all the magic part of the story, are false to actual facts as we meet them in our every life; but is it not a higher truth that Cinderella could escape from her chimney corner by thinking of the brightness outside? In this sense we all travel in pumpkin coaches.

Take the Story of Psyche, in any one of the many forms it is presented to us in folk-story. The magic transformation of the lover is false to actual fact; but is it not a higher truth that we are often transformed by circumstance, and that love and courage can overcome most difficulties? Take the Story of the Three Bears. It is not in accordance with established fact that bears should extend hospitality to children who invade their territory. Is it not true in a higher sense that fearlessness often lessens or averts danger? Take the Story of Jack and the Bean Stalk. The rapid growth of the bean stalk and the encounter with the giant are false to literal fact; but is it not a higher truth that the spirit of courage and high adventure leads us straight out of the commonplace and often sordid facts of life? Now, all these considerations are too subtle for the child, and, if offered in explanation, would destroy the excitement and interest of the story; but they are good for those of us who are presenting such stories: they provide not only an argument against the objection raised by unimaginative people as to the futility, if not immorality, of presenting these primitive tales, but clear up our own doubt and justify us in the use of them, if we need such justification.

For myself, I am perfectly satisfied that, being part of the history of primitive people, it would be foolish to ignore them from an evolutionary point of view, which constitutes their chief importance; and it is only from the point of view of expediency that I mention the potential truths they contain.

QUESTION III: What are you to do if a child says he does not like fairy tales? This is not an uncommon case. What we have first to determine, under these circumstances, is whether this dislike springs from a stolid, prosaic nature, whether it springs from a real inability to visualize such pictures as the fairy or marvelous element in the story present, or whether (and this is often the real reason) it is from a fear of being asked to believe what his judgment resents as untrue, or whether he thinks it is "grown-up" to reject such pleasure as unworthy of his years.

In the first case, it is wise to persevere, in hopes of developing the dormant imagination. If the child resents the apparent want of truth we can teach him how many-sided truth is, as I suggested in my answer to the first question. In the other cases, we must try to make it clear that the delight he may venture to take now will increase, not decrease, with years; that the more one brings to a thing, in the way of experience and knowledge, the more one will draw out of it.

Let us take as a concrete example the question of Santa Claus. This joy has almost disappeared, for we have torn away the last shred of mystery about the personage by allowing him to be materialized in the Christmas shops and bazaars.

But the original myth need never have disappeared; the link could easily have been kept by gradually telling the child that the Santa Claus they worshiped as a mysterious and invisible power is nothing but the spirit of charity and kindness that makes us remember others, and that this spirit often takes the form of material gifts. We can also lead them a step higher and show them that this spirit of kindness can do more than provide material things; so that the old nursery tale has laid a beautiful foundation which need never be pulled up: we can build upon it and add to it all through our lives.

Is not one of the reasons that children reject fairy tales this, that such very poor material is offered them? There is a dreary flatness about all except the very best which revolts the child of literary appreciation and would fail to strike a spark in the more prosaic.

QUESTION IV: Do I recommend learning a story by heart, or telling it in one's own words? This would largely depend on the kind of story. If the style is classic or if the interest of the story is closely connected with the style, as in Andersen, Kipling or Stevenson, then it is better to commit it absolutely to memory. But if this process should take too long (I mean for those who cannot afford the time to specialize), or if it produces a stilted effect, then it is wiser to read the story many times over, let it soak in, taking notes of certain passages which would add to the dramatic interest of the story, and not trouble about the word accuracy of the whole.

For instance, for very young children the story of Pandora, as told in the "Wonder-Book" could be shortened so as to leave principally the dramatic dialogue between the two children, which could be easily committed to memory by the narrator and would appeal most directly to the children. Or for older children: in taking a beautiful medieval story such as "Our Lady's Tumbler," retold by Wickstead, the original text could hardly be presented so as to hold an audience; but while giving up a great deal of the elaborate material, we should try to present many of the characteristic passages which seem to sum up the situation. For instance, before his performance, the Tumbler cries: "What am I doing? For there is none here so caitiff but who vies with all the rest in serving God after his trade." And after his act of devotion: "Lady, this is a choice performance. I do it for no other but for you; so aid me God, I do not—for you and for your Son. And this I dare avouch and boast, that for me it is no playwork.

But I am serving you, and that pays me." On the other hand, there are some very gifted narrators who can only tell the story in their own words. I consider that both methods are necessary to the allround story-teller.

QUESTION V: How do I set about preparing a story? Here again the preparation depends a great deal on the kind of story: whether it has to be committed to memory or rearranged to suit a certain age of child, or told entirely in one's own words. But there is one kind of preparation which is the same for any story, that is, living with it for a long time, until one has really obtained the right atmosphere, especially in the case of inanimate objects. This is where Hans Christian Andersen reigns supreme. Horace Scudder says of him: "By some transmigration, souls have passed into tin soldiers, balls, tops, moneypigs, coins, shoes and even such attenuated things as darning- needles, and when, informing these apparent dead and stupid bodies, they begin to make manifestations, it is always in perfect consistency with the ordinary conditions of the bodies they occupy, though the several objects become, by the endowment of souls, suddenly expanded in their capacity."[45] Now, my test of being ready with such stories is whether I have ceased to look upon such objects as inanimate. Let us take some of those quoted from Andersen. First, the Tin Soldier. To me, since I have lived in the story, he is a real live hero, holding his own with some of the bravest fighting heroes in history or fiction. As for his being merely of tin, I entirely forget it, except when I realize against what odds he fights, or when I stop to admire the wonderful way Andersen carries out his simile of the old tin spoon—the stiffness of the musket, and the tears of tin.

Take the Top and the Ball, and, except for the delightful way they discuss the respective merits of cork and mahogany in their ancestors, you would completely forget that they are not real human beings with the live passions and frailties common to youth.

As for the Beetle—who ever thinks of him as a mere entomological specimen? Is he not the symbol of the self-satisfied traveler who learns nothing en route but the importance of his own personality? And the Darning-Needle? It is impossible to divorce human interest from the ambition of this little piece of steel.

And this same method applied to the preparation of any shows that one can sometimes rise from the rôle of mere interpreter to that of creator—that is to say, the objects live afresh for you in response to the appeal you make in recognizing their possibilities of vitality.

As a mere practical suggestion, I would advise that, as soon as one has overcome the difficulties of the text (if actually learning by heart, there is nothing but the drudgery of constant repetition), and as one begins to work the story into true dramatic form, always say the words aloud, and many times aloud, before trying them even on one person. More suggestions come to one in the way of effects from hearing the sounds of the words, and more complete mental pictures, in this way than any other—it is a sort of testing period, the results of which may or may not have to be modified when produced in public. In case of committing to memory, I advise word perfection first, not trying dramatic effects before this is reached; but, on the other hand, if you are using your own words, you can think out the effects as you go along —I mean, during the preparation. Gestures, pauses, facial expression often help to fix the choice of words one decides to use, though here again the public performance will often modify the result. I strongly advise that all gestures be studied before the glass, because this most faithfully recording friend, whose sincerity we dare not question, will prevent glaring errors, and also help by the correction of these to more satisfactory results along positive lines. If your gesture does not satisfy you (and practice will make one more and more critical), it is generally because you have not made sufficient allowance for the power of imagination in your audience. Emphasis in gesture is just as inartistic—and therefore ineffective— as emphasis in tone or language.

Before deciding, however, either on the facial expression or gesture, we must consider the chief characters in the story, and study how we can best—not present them, but allow them to present themselves, which is a very different thing. The greatest tribute which can be paid to a story-teller, as to an actor, is that his own personality is temporarily forgotten, because he has so completely identified himself with his rôle.

When we have decided what the chief characters really mean to do, we can let ourselves go in the impersonation.

I shall now take a story as a concrete example, namely, the Buddhist legend of the "Lion and the Hare."[46] We have here the Lion and the Hare as types—the other animals are less individual and therefore display less salient qualities. The little hare's chief characteristics are nervousness, fussiness, and misdirected imagination. We must bear this all in mind when she appears on the stage—fortunately these characteristics lend themselves easily to dramatic representation. The Lion is not only large-hearted but broad-minded. It is good to have an opportunity of presenting to the children a lion who has other qualities than physical beauty or extraordinary strength (here again there will lurk the danger of alarming the nature students). He is even more interesting than the magnanimous lion whom we have sometimes been privileged to meet in fiction.

Of course we grown-up people know that the Lion is the Buddha in disguise.

Children will not be able to realize this, nor is it the least necessary that they should do so; but they will grasp the idea that he is a very unusual lion, not to be met with in Paul Du Chaillu's adventures, still less in the quasi-domestic atmosphere of the Zoological Gardens. If our presentation is life-like and sincere, we shall convey all we intend to the child. This is part of what I call the atmosphere of the story, which, as in a photograph, can only be obtained by long exposure, that is to say, in the case of preparation we must bestow much reflection and sympathy.

Because these two animals are the chief characters, they must be painted in fainter colors—they should be suggested rather than presented in detail. It might be well to give a definite gesture to the Elephant—say, a characteristic movement with his trunk —a scowl to the Tiger, a supercilious and enigmatic smile to the Camel (suggested by Kipling's wonderful creation). But if a gesture were given to each of the animals, the effect would become monotonous, and the minor characters would crowd the foreground of the picture, impeding the action and leaving little to the imagination of the audience. I personally have found it effective to repeat the gestures of these animals as they are leaving the stage, but less markedly, as it is only a form of reminder.

Now, what is the impression we wish to leave on the mind of the child, apart from the dramatic joy and interest we have endeavored to provide? Surely it is that he may realize the danger of a panic. One method of doing this (alas! a favorite one still) is to say at the end of the story: "Now, children, what do we learn from this?" Of this method Lord Morley has said: "It is a commonplace to the wise, and an everlasting puzzle to the foolish, that direct inculcation of morals should invariably prove so powerless an instrument, so futile a method." If this direct method were really effective, we might as well put the little drama aside, and say plainly: "It is foolish to be nervous; it is dangerous to make loose statements. Large-minded people understand things better than those who are narrow-minded." All these abstract statements would be as true and as tiresome as the multiplication table. The child might or might not fix them in his mind, but he would not act upon them.

But, put all the artistic warmth of which you are capable into the presentation of the story, and, without one word of comment from you, the children will feel the dramatic intensity of that vast concourse of animals brought together by the feeble utterance of one irresponsible little hare. Let them feel the dignity and calm of the Lion, which accounts for his authority; his tender but firm treatment of the foolish little Hare; and listen to the glorious finale when all the animals retire convinced of their folly; and you will find that you have adopted the same method as the Lion (who must have been an unconscious follower of Froebel), and that there is nothing to add to the picture.

QUESTION VI: Is it wise to talk over a story with children and to encourage them in the habit of asking questions about it? At the time, no! The effect produced is to be by dramatic means, and this would be destroyed any attempt at analysis by means of questions.

The medium that has been used in the telling of the story is (or ought to be) a purely artistic one which will reach the child through the medium of the emotions: the appeal to the intellect or the reason is a different method, which must be used at a different time. When you are enjoying the fragrance of a flower or the beauty of its color, it is not the moment to be reminded of its botanical classification, just as in the botany lesson it would be somewhat irrelevant to talk of the part that flowers play in the happiness of life.

From a practical point of view, it is not wise to encourage questions on the part of the children, because they are apt to disturb the atmosphere by bringing in entirely irrelevant matter, so that in looking back on the telling of the story, the child often remembers the irrelevant conversation to the exclusion of the dramatic interest of the story itself.[47] I remember once making what I considered at the time a most effective appeal to some children who had been listening to the Story of the Little Tin Soldier, and, unable to refrain from the cheap method of questioning, of which I have now recognized the futility, I asked: "Don't you think it was nice of the little dancer to rush down into the fire to join the brave little soldier?" "Well," said a prosaic little lad of six: I thought the draught carried her down." QUESTION VII: Is it wise to call upon children to repeat the story as soon as it has been told? My answer here is decidedly in the negative.

While fully appreciating the modern idea of children expressing themselves, I very much deprecate this so-called self-expression taking the form of mere reproduction. I have dealt with this matter in detail in another portion of my book. This is one of the occasions when children should be taking in, not giving out (even the most fanatic of moderns must agree that there are such moments).

When, after much careful preparation, an expert has told a story to the best of his ability, to encourage the children to reproduce this story with their imperfect vocabulary and with no special gift of speech (I am always alluding to the normal group of children) is as futile as if, after the performance of a musical piece by a great artist, some individual member of the audience were to be called upon to give his rendering of the original rendering. The result would be that the musical joy of the audience would be completely destroyed and the performer himself would share in the loss.[48] I have always maintained that five minutes of complete silence after the story would do more to fix the impression on the mind of the child than any amount of attempt at reproducing it. The general statement made in Dr. Montessor's wonderful chapter on "Silence" would seem to me of special application to the moments following on the telling of a story.

QUESTION VIII: Should children be encouraged to illustrate the stories which they have heard? As a dramatic interest to the teachers and the children, I think it is a very praiseworthy experiment, if used somewhat sparingly. But I seriously doubt whether these illustrations in any way indicate the impression made on the mind of the child. It is the same question that arises when that child is called upon, or expresses a wish, to reproduce the story in his own words: the unfamiliar medium in both instances makes it almost impossible for the child to convey his meaning, unless he is an artist in the one case or he has real literary power of expression in the other.

My own impression, confirmed by many teachers who have made the experiment, is that a certain amount of disappointment is mixed up with the daring joy in the attempt, simply because the children can get nowhere near the ideal which has presented itself to the "inner eye." I remember a kindergarten teacher saying that on one occasion, when she had told to the class a thrilling story of a knight, one of the children immediately asked for permission to draw a picture of him on the blackboard. So spontaneous a request could not, of course, be refused, and, full of assurance, the would-be artist began to give his impression of the knight's appearance. When the picture was finished, the child stood back for a moment to judge for himself of the result. He put down the chalk and said sadly: "And I thought he was so handsome." Nevertheless, except for the drawback of the other children seeing a picture which might be inferior to their own mental vision, I should quite approve of such experiments, as long as they are not taken as literal data of what the children have really received. It would, however, be better not to have the picture drawn on a blackboard but at the child's private desk, to be seen by the teacher and not, unless the picture were exceptionally good, to be shown to the other children.

One of the best effects of such an experiment would be to show a child how difficult it is to give the impression one wishes to record, and which would enable him later on to appreciate the beauty of such work in the hands of a finished artist.

I can anticipate the jeers with which such remarks would be received by the Futurist School, but, according to their own theory, I ought to be allowed to express the matter as I see it, however faulty the vision may appear to them.[49] QUESTION IX: In what way can the dramatic method of story- telling be used in ordinary class teaching? This is too large a question to answer fully in so general a survey as this work, but I should like to give one or two examples as to how the element of storytelling could be introduced.

I have always thought that the only way in which we could make either a history or literature lesson live, so as to take a real hold on the mind of the pupil at any age, would be that, instead of offering lists of events, crowded into the fictitious area of one reign, one should take a single event, say in one lesson out of five, and give it in the most splendid language and in the most dramatic manner.

To come to a concrete example: Supposing that one is talking to the class of Greece, either in connection with its history, its geography or its literature, could any mere accumulation of facts give a clearer idea of the life of the people than a dramatically told story from Homer, Æschylus, Sophocles or Euripides? What in the history of Iceland could give any more graphic idea of the whole character of the life and customs of the inhabitants than one of the famous sagas, such as "The Burning of Njal" or "The Death of Gunnar"? In teaching the history of Spain, what could make the pupils understand better the spirit of knight-errantry, its faults and its qualities, than a recital from "Don Quixote" or from the tale of "The Cid"? In a word, the stories must appeal so vividly to the imagination that they will light up the whole period of history which we wish them to illustrate and keep it alive in the memory for all time.

But quite apart from the dramatic presentation of history, there are very great possibilities for the short story introduced into the portrait of some great personage, insignificant in itself, but which throws a sudden sidelight on his character, showing the mind behind the actual deeds; this is what I mean by using the dramatic method.

To take a concrete example: Suppose, in giving an account of the life of Napoleon, after enlarging upon his campaigns, his European policy, his indomitable will, one were suddenly to give an idea of his many- sidedness by relating how he actually found time to compile a catechism which was used for some years in the elementary schools of France. What sidelights might be thrown in this way on such characters as Nero, Cæsar, Henry VIII, Luther, Goethe! To take one example from these: Instead of making the whole career of Henry VIII center round the fact that he was a much-married man, could we not present his artistic side and speak of his charming contributions to music? So much for the history lessons. But could not the dramatic form and interest be introduced into our geography lessons? Think of the romance of the Panama Canal, the position of Constantinople, as affecting the history of Europe, the shape of Greece, England as an island, the position of Thibet [sic], the interior of Africa—to what wonderful story-telling would these themes lend themselves! QUESTION X: Which should predominate in the story—the dramatic or the poetic element? This is a much debated point. From experience I have come to the conclusion that, though both should be found in the whole range of stories, the dramatic element should prevail from the very nature of the presentation, and also because it reaches the larger number of children, at least of normal children. Almost every child is dramatic, in the sense that it loves action (not necessarily an action in which it has to bear a part). It is the exceptional child who is reached by the poetic side, and just as on the stage the action must be quicker and more concentrated than in a poem—than even a dramatic poem— the poetical side, which must be painted in more delicate colors or presented in less obvious form, often escapes them. Of course, the very reason why we must include the poetical element is that it is an unexpressed need of most children. Their need of the dramatic is more loudly proclaimed and more easily satisfied.

QUESTION XI: What is the educational value of humor in the stories told to our children? My answer to this is that humor means so much more than is usually understood by this term. So many people seem to think that to have a sense of humor is merely to be tickled by a funny element in a story. It surely means something much more subtle than this. It is Thackeray who says: "If humor only meant laughter, but the humorist profess to awaken and direct your love, your pity, your kindness, your scorn for untruth and pretension, your tenderness for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the unhappy." So that, in our stories, the introduction of humor should not merely depend on the doubtful amusement that follows on a sense of incongruity. It should inculcate a sense of proportion brought about by an effort of imagination; it shows a child its real position in the universe and prevents hasty conclusions. It shortens the period of joy in horse-play and practical jokes. It brings about a clearer perception of all situations, enabling the child to get the point of view of another person. It is the first instilling of philosophy into the mind of a child and prevents much suffering later on when the blows of life fall upon him; for a sense of humor teaches us at an early age not to expect too much: and this philosophy can be developed with cynicism or pessimism, without even destroying the joie de vivre.

One cannot, however, sufficiently emphasize the fact that these far- reaching results can be brought about only by humor quite distinct from the broader fun and hilarity which have also their use in an educational scheme.

From my own experience, I have learned that development of humor is with most children extremely slow. It is quite natural and quite right that at first pure fun, obvious situations and elementary jokes should please them, but we can very gradually appeal to something more subtle, and if I were asked what story would educate our children most thoroughly in appreciation of humor, I should say that "Alice in Wonderland" was the most effective.

What better object lesson could be given in humorous form of taking somebody else's point of view than that given to Alice by the Mock Turtle in speaking of the Whiting— "You know what they're like?" "I believe so," said Alice. "They have their tails in their mouths —and they're all over crumbs." "You're wrong about the crumbs,: said the Mock Turtle. "Crumbs would all wash off in the sea." Or when Alice is speaking to the Mouse of her cat, and says: "She is such a dear quiet thing—and a capital one for catching mice——" and then suddenly realizes the point of view of the Mouse, who was "trembling down to the end of its tail." Then, as an instance of how a lack of humor leads to illogical conclusions (a condition common to most children), we have the conversation between Alice and the Pigeon: ALICE: "But little girls eat quite as much as serpents, you know." PIGEON: "I don't believe it. But if they do, why then they're a kind of serpent, that's all I can say." Then, as an instance of how a sense of humor would prevent too much selfimportance: "I have a right to think," said Alice sharply.

"Just about as much right," said the Duchess, "as pigs have to fly..

Reference book: The Art Of The Story-Teller

Tags: Speech, public speaking, story telling, stories, ,

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