Tuesday, 22 April 2014

S is for Stories

#atozchallenge
After all that serious and "Reason-able" talks from yesterday, today we speak of something that is more fun. Stories.

From the timeless oral traditions to the present written texts, from the heard and spoken word to the read and written word, India has always been a land of storytellers and poets. [Click here for a previous post on Indian folktales on this blog.]

Our epics, mythologies, folk tales and contemporary narratives blend the fine art of storytelling with the essence as well as the rich and varied hues of our lives. Whether told by a traditional kathavachak,  the village or town storyteller, or a fond grandmother – as children most of us (I may be speaking mostly of Indians of my generation, around 40-50 years of age) learned values, morals, and finer aspects of our culture from the uniquely rapt, otherworldly experience of a perfectly narrated tale. The tale could have been about a grandmother's friend, real or imaginary, or about a local vegetable-seller, or about Lord Krishna, it didn't matter. What mattered was how the story-teller and the listeners engaged with the tale being narrated.

But for some reason, we really haven't found a way to incorporate this great tradition of storytelling in the mainstream Indian educational thought and practice as prevalent today in majority of schools. Perhaps as a culture, we have been gradually losing this art of creative storytelling. Or like other creative arts, here too we are seeing more of an imitation as far as fictional genres and styles of writing and telling stories are concerned. [A side-effect of this is perhaps seen in the fact for a long time now we haven't really seen many powerful stories or scripts in mainstream Hindi cinema. Of course, many may disagree with me on this point, and I respect their right to their opinion on this matter!]

Geeta Ramanujam is a Bangalore-based academician and a storyteller and founder of “Kathalaya: The House of Stories” – an organization aimed to revive the ancient art of storytelling and to use it in schools as a cultural tool in education. She says: "In India, the story has always been the learning tool par excellence. All our great teachers taught through the story, whether it be Shankara, Auvaiyar, or Akka Mahadevi, giving pleasure, indulging in the paradoxical, giving listeners a chance to explore meanings. The beautifully taut poems of the Bhakti poets demanded one to look deeper."

A couple of years ago, I met a young bright woman, Deepa Kiran, who is also working on bringing the art of storytelling into educational practice. (Recently I came across this delightful read about another young storyteller Vikram Sridhar who is doing his part in the revival of this great art of storytelling while also teaching children about wildlife conservation.)

Perhaps the most important way to engage learners and have them actively participate in their learning is by keeping them interested. A teacher's work is more than half done if students are interested in the topic being explored in the classroom. Storytelling can be a wonderful way to keep the learners' interest high, especially in situations where children's attention span or concentration may be otherwise limited or dispersed.

#indianeducationAs we saw in an earlier post, stories can also be creatively used to provide necessary intellectual encouragement to the learners for their moral and character development. We all can remember from our childhood how we felt inspired or uplifted through certain stories of great men and women from our rich and diverse mythologies and histories. When such moments become part of children's formal educational experience, going to school becomes an act of joy, learning about the world becomes a process of discovering the inner worlds, a peek into another's life becomes a stepping stone into knowing the layers of oneself.

Folktales and stories from diverse regions and backgrounds can help learners develop a greater appreciation of the rich diversity and pluralism of India. Carefully selected and creatively told stories from mythology and oral traditions can help create a deeper understanding of how traditions are kept alive in a culture and how collective memory facilitates transmission of cultural knowledge and traditions. Educators should also help facilitate learners to tell stories from their lives and that of other people in their lives. This helps build imagination and creativity.

In addition to a careful selection of age-appropriate stories from diverse ethnic, cultural, linguistic, religious traditions - from India as well as other cultures, educators must also encourage learners to engage constructively with the stories. Multiple interpretations and perspectives must be allowed when discussing the story. Diversity of opinions should be valued, and learners should be encouraged to come up with a higher synthesis of diverse perspectives. This helps encourage flexibility in mind, an important aspect of a good mental education.

While educational thinkers and innovators in many other parts of the world are recognizing the value of storytelling in education [see here and here as examples], we in India have been slowly forgetting this art in the name of making our education more "professional" and "career-oriented." Efforts of individuals like Geeta Ramanujam and Deepa Kiran are noteworthy in this context and much necessary for bringing back this tradition into our mainstream education system, as regular part of children's learning experience.

Performing arts like dance, drama and ballet as well as carefully selected age-appropriate films can also bring in the much needed element of learning through stories. It requires some creative thinking and careful planning on the part of the educators, but practically a storytelling approach can be used to teach pretty much any subject or topic. What matters is how a story is woven around the topic that has to be presented to the learners. Personally speaking, I have found some ways to use stories in my undergraduate and post-graduate classes in the past, short stories that I read out to the students. And these were not classes on literature or folklore or other such topics. These were classes in disciplines as diverse as sociology, teacher education, conflict resolution, management and Indian culture. I have used music videos from Hindi films - that speak of something like a story - in my post-graduate classes on Research Methodology to bring home the point about subjectivity in research and other related aspects. The point was well made, in my opinion, as we discussed the plot that we imagined being played out in the song video. And the class had some fun too while reflecting on some dense topics. I have also used (in silent mode, and with no subtitles) selected clips from a popular Hindi movie to get teacher education students to reflect upon the value of learning via mother-tongue and the debate surrounding bilingual education in the US public school system. I can share several examples like these from my own experience as an educator, but the larger point I want to make is that such an approach to make learning more interesting and joyful experience for learners is possible at any level of education.

I can't end this post on Stories without telling my readers a story, that wouldn't be fair. So here is a wonderful story by none other than Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, titled The Parrot. Read it. You will love it if you haven't read it earlier. And if you have read it before, you will love it even more.

Or if you are more of an audio-visual type, click here.

A helpful video resource for storytelling traditions in India may be found here. 

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This post is written for the A-Z Challenge, April 2014. The theme I am exploring is - Putting India back in Indian Education

Click here for the previous post in this series.