Storytelling in the Waldorf Inspired Classroom

Introduction

One of my favorite memories from a parent-child class we attended in the Chicago area at a Waldorf School was the first time I saw storytelling come to life with the figures on a table colored with silk scarves.

It was magical. The teacher told a fable to the two to five year-old class called “The Golden House on the Hill”. It was enchanting, colorful and magical. She had set up a table covered with green silk to represent the farm down below the hill and of golden colored silk to represent the sun reflecting on the hill above. I think she used large bunches of wool under the silk to create the hill. At the top of the hill was something shiny. At the bottom of the hill was a charming little wooden boy.

Now anyone who knows the fable, “The Golden House on the Hill” knows that there is a beautiful moral to the story. However, the teacher did not share the moral, nor was that what was the focal point of the story. The preschoolers only saw the small charming boy, the beautiful green meadows, the shiny house reflecting the rays of the sun, the journey he took to the top of the hill and the gentle voice of the teacher telling them a simple, short tale.

They were enchanted imagining that perhaps they were that boy and making a journey to the top of a hill to see something shiny. Perhaps some of them were recalling beautiful days spent in the garden with mother when the teacher talked about the boy’s life as a farmer.

Or, as the Fahkwang Waldorf Preschool in Thailand describes the experience, “When we tell a fable to children, we will use a smooth tone with acting by using our doll as an actor. not tell a fable by opening from Fable book. The teacher has to remember the whole story and intend in that fable to make the student more imaginative.”

Years later, when we worked on the Fable Block we told the same story, but this time it was experienced in a much different way. I told the story to my student, I drew a picture of the story in chalk on the board, and they copied picture of the fable in their Main Lesson Book.

The process of drawing the fable, rather than using the figures was one thing that brought the story more into the moral realm for the student, but it was also their age. For the second grade student’s heart needs to hear stories of saints, heroes and stories with morals and lessons. Since their heart craves this kind of story, this is what they will hear when the story is presented.

The process of drawing the story also made the same story a much different experience for the child. When we watched the teacher telling the story with ethereal silks, a gentle voice and gentle movements and colors it was enchanting and dreamy. When we picked up our block crayons and put colors and images on paper it was something solid and stable – like the moral itself.

In her evaluation of Steiner kindergarten classrooms, Waldorf teacher, Mary-Jane Drummond says, “…constructing an account of a children’s imaginative play, around the idea of a doorway, or rather doorways….through a third door, children pass into a world that they will share with a wider society than that of their intimate friends. Here they become part, as and when they choose, of their whole society’s enduring stories. Through this door traditional stories, poems and songs that communities have shared together over the centuries. This is the door that opens whenever an educator brings children together to tell them a story, implicitly inviting them to recognize the role of myth, fable, and story in humankind’s search for meaning, implicitly inviting them to join that search. The themes of these important stories appear again and again in the observations in my notebooks.” (4)

Appropriate Years for Story Genres

In each grade there is a recommended focus for the Main Lesson in the classroom. You can see those recommendations HERE.

However, as teachers we need to remember that there is a big difference between learning and play, direction and curiosity, and spirit and formula.

When we teach and follow the recommendations of a Waldorf-inspired curriculum we are teaching the child, guiding them and providing them with the age-appropriate tools for their growing spirit. We provide direction and learning and there is a formula set out to assist us in that journey.

However the direction, learning, and formula mean nothing without play, curiosity and spirit. When lessons are not being taught the child needs time to play and explore their own curiosity and interests. If this means that the Kindergartener wants to try to weave a Native American basket with their fourth grade sibling or participate in Roman historical play with their sixth grade sibling that is all part of their normal play and curiosity cycle. They are not being given a lesson in these topics. They are being allowed to play and be curious about the world around them. And if a preschooler or kindergartener listens to a fable or fairytale they are not having a lesson about fables and morals or a lesson about fairytales. They are simply being told and experiencing these stories within the spirit of their age.

Why do we hear stories differently at different ages?

Can I Tell a Fairytale to My Preschooler?

Can I tell fables to my kindergartener or first grader?

Can I tell an Aboriginal myth to my first grader?

Can I tell…?

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, the author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, says, “We all begin the process before we are ready, before we are strong enough, before we know enough; we begin a dialogue with thoughts and feelings that both tickle and thunder within us. We respond before we know how to speak the language, before we know all the answers, and before we know exactly to whom we are speaking.”

As a graduate of Anthropology with a minor in linguistics I took many classes on folktales, fairytales and fables. The one thing that all cultures have in common is that they tell stories to their children from the time they are born. These stories are often told in groups so that multiple ages of children and adults are listening at the same time. The fascinating thing is that many of these stories have the same lessons and characters but each different culture has their own version. For example, there are over twenty stories of “Cinderella” around the world including one from Native American literature and another from Persia.

The other thing that runs as a constant across all tales across the world is that the secret to telling a good story to the right audience is not in the story itself but in the storyteller.

Rudolf Steiner realized this when he recommended that fables and fairytales be used as “gentle reminders” for children that had behavior issues (1) – for children of any age. Although he recommended focusing on different genres of stories at different times in the child’s life he did not restrict the telling of different genres of stories for discipline or other reasons.

He knew, as all great storytellers do, that it is the telling of the story that contains the key – and that there is a difference between the physical practice of something and the spirit behind something. This is why he gave so many lectures to his teachers. He wanted them to understand the spirit behind his recommendations rather than handing out a ‘raw curriculum’ to their students based on a set list of requirements like was traditional in public schools then and now.

As teachers we don’t want to lose the meaning behind why we are telling the stories and we need to make that the central focus of our lesson.

In preschool and kindergarten children are experiencing the magic and fantasy realm of early childhood. Dreamy colors, gentle voices and stories they can relate to are repeated or include repetition. This being said, can you tell fables and fairytales to preschoolers and kindergarteners? Of course! Can you tell ANY fable and fairytale to preschoolers and kindergarteners in any manner you wish? No.

When telling fables and fairytales to early childhood classes they must be chosen carefully. For example, a gentle story of The Three Bears, modified for an early childhood classroom can be very successful. And as we have seen above, a fable can be told in a magical “early-childhood” manner.

The children around about seven years should have the concentration to build their own vivid inner pictures when being told a story, and through such imagery will continue learning in the following years. Fairy tales are told by the teacher then retold and dramatized by members of the class. This cultivates the children’s imagination.

Some parents, looking ahead in the curriculum ask me questions like, “Can I tell Native American stories to my child now?” or “Australia requires that we study aboriginal culture at this age.” A standard reply given to them by someone following an “abstract list” would be “No, those stories are for fourth grade.”

However, that reply does not honor the spirit of Steiner’s many lectures to his teachers.

In keeping with the spirit of the first grade year you can, indeed, tell such stories to the first grader! There are many fairytales contained in Native American and Aboriginal literature and they can easily be told with the spirit of the first grader in mind. They can then be re-told in a different way, with different lessons when fourth grade arrives. In fact, there are so many wonderful stories from the Native American and Aboriginal culture that you would not even need to repeat stories when the “appropriate time” arrived if you didn’t want to.

Fables in First Grade

The subject of fables will often come up in first grade as well. Steiner recommended using them for discipline, they are popular in many children’s books (mainstream and Waldorf), and they are part of the daily many cultures around the globe. So is it OK to tell first graders a fable? Of course!

However, when telling the story to a first grader, it is told in a different way than it is in second grade. When telling a fable in first grade we usually focus on the beauty of the simplicity of the story and what it can teach us about language. A first grader is learning the alphabet and is just starting to read. We use fairytales to teach the letters of the alphabet but we can also use simple fables to expose the child to a few sentences (most fables are one paragraph long) they can use to easily recognize letters and sounds.

Hearing fables at this age is a practice in language learning. It is a way to provide a child with a short bit of text that is far less daunting than the text of an entire fairytale. It does not cancel out the fairytales we tell to teach letters. It is a wonderful supplement and tool. And, just as we did with the preschooler, we tell the fable in a way that is suited to the first grader and we carefully choose our fables. For example, a fable about an animal wanting some grapes is simple and can be adapted to the first grader. However, a fable about an animal learning a harsh lesson through death or injury would not be suited to this age. Steiner actually encouraged using short fables for children ages 7-14, not as stories to teach (that was for second grade), but as a good way to practice sounds and language learning (2)

The Westside Waldorf School in California embraces this usage of fables. On their website they state that, “Learning is allowed to unfold, and early academics are not pushed. In First Grade, each letter of the alphabet is taught through images discovered in fables…”

What About Frightening or Graphic Stories?

First graders traditionally hear many fairytales during their first grade year and many teachers rely on The Brother’s Grimm for these tales. But what do you do with a tale that is graphic or potentially frightening to the child? This question comes up most often in first grade. However, it could also be in issue in other grades.

Second graders are at the age when they begin to have strong likes and dislikes. Eight year olds react strongly to imagery in the fables and in stories of saints. They hear fables and stories of legendary characters such as saints. These stories teach of human fallibility and present a model for overcoming adversity. Some of these stories can also be very graphic or contain strong subject matter. In addition, fairytales continue to be told in second grade.

Why?

They are not usually used for the Main Lesson (although some well-chosen and thematic ones can be) but this does not mean they are forbidden to a second grade child. Second graders love fairytales as much as we all do. It would be a tragedy to the genre of fairytales to limit them to only one year in a person’s life. It would also detract from their power and purpose.

By the third grade, children are beginning to comprehend the difference between self and other and wonder where in the scheme of things they belong. To fortify their growing personal identity, they read creation and Old Testament stories. These also have strong themes. In each grade there is a recommended focus for the Main Lesson in the classroom. However, as teachers we need to remember that there is a big difference between learning and play, direction and curiosity, and spirit and formula.

So what should a teacher do with all these strong themes?

The first thing to remember is the reason the story is being told. You can re-visit the page “Rhythms and Stages in Waldorf Education” HERE to find reasons and themes for each year.

In first grade, for example, children around seven years of age have the concentration to build their own vivid inner pictures. So, in first grade fairytales are told to help cultivate the imagination. It is also important that the children are introduced to one of the core storytelling archetypes of “good overcoming evil”. One cannot illustrate this archetype without including a bit of the “evil” in the story. However, how much you include is up to you, as a teacher.

Jens Bjorneboe writes, in the Waldorf Journal: Project 8, “When a fairy tale is told properly, fear begins to move. It remains for awhile in the form of uneasiness, fright, and then the excitement intensifies, their mouths open, their eyes become larger and then, then the troll is killed and the evil is once again removed from the surface of the earth. Until the next time the world is a safe home, a place where goodness always conquers.”

Being raised in a society that is surrounded by books we often forget that these stories do not really come from books. Many people have collected these stories over the years, but the real stories can never be captured on paper. The real stories must always be told.

In fact, did you know that the written version of Grimm’s Fairytales was originally published for adults? In fact, Grimm’s Fairytales didn’t belong to the Grimm’s brothers in the same way that Aesop’s Fables didn’t really belong to Aesop.

In a classic publication of Aesop’s Fables from 1912, G.K. Chesterton explains this quite eloquently when he says, “Aesop embodies an epigram not uncommon in human history; his fame is all the more deserved because he never deserved it. The firm foundations of common sense, the shrewd shots at uncommon sense, that characterize all the Fables, belong not him but to humanity. In the earliest human history whatever is authentic is universal: and whatever is universal is anonymous.”

Chesterton goes on to explain that Aesop’s Fables, just like the Grimm’s Fairytales were collected works and in the collection process they changed. Because his introduction is part of the public domain I have included the entire excerpt below, after my list of references. I highly recommend reading what he has to say.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, an expert in storytelling says, “In our family, which is a deeply ethnic family, who mostly couldn’t read or write, we had an oral tradition, which is to tell stories. They not only told stories; they didn’t tell them the way one finds them in old books written about stories. The Grimm brothers, as you know, took stories from storytellers who were exactly like the family I grew up in…The tellers were unschooled people, often farmers or what they used to call “peasants” back in the 1800s and 1900s. So the Grimm brothers and others from the upper classes went to the homes of the old tellers, asked after and listened to their stories, and wrote them down. Then they took them back home and rewrote the farm people’s stories according to their religious and socio-economic beliefs and ideas of the time. So a reader of Grimm’s gets a literally “Grimm version” of the fairy tales. But, if you hear them from living old people from the Old Countries, especially people who come right off the dirt, off the ground where you pull your food out of the ground every day, the stories are slightly different to a great deal different, for story is a living, growing thing in and of itself.”

Telling Stories in Different Ways

One of my favorite examples of how storytelling can be different comes from Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. She explains how her family tells one classic story in a different manner than we are most familiar with. I have shortened her explanation below but you can find her full story HERE.

She says, “That’s why I like this story The Emperor’s New Clothes. But, the story is often told in a disparaging manner, like this: “The Emperor was conceited, so these guys came to him saying, ‘We’re going to make you a beautiful suit of clothes…and the Emperor is shown to be a fool. That is how the story is usually told. In our family, The Emperor’s New Clothes is told with the emphasis on the fact that people are afraid. That it isn’t conceit of the Emperor that causes him to go blind to those who take advantage of him and who actually cut off his avenues to showing his true gifts. Rather, it’s fear of being thought inferior and it’s fear of being criticized. It’s fear of being found wanting, inadequate. Our family story of the The Emperor’s New Clothes tells that the Emperor actually sees and is a wonderful, delightful, jovial person and full of life… but he has taken on the trappings of being “the Emperor.” But when he is in his private chambers, he is funny and fun and silly and creative and inventive–constantly making things up and making people laugh and enjoying himself and having all kinds of wonderful plans for how the kingdom would be one day if he could only get people to agree with him.”

You can read about a different way to look at Little Red Riding Hood HERE. In this beautiful article she talks about how many people see Little Red Riding Hood as a tale that is meant to scare children from talking to strangers and illustrate the fragility of the young girl, but that it is really a tale of feminine wisdom and power. Reading examples like these from The Emperor’s New Clothes and Little Red Riding Hood can help inspire teachers to find their own voice when telling fairytales, fables and other stories to their students.

Maria Tartar, the author of Enchanted Hunters: The Powers of Stories in Childhood says, “I am deeply committed to the idea of our creating our own versions of these stories. That is, if you’re not comfortable with Gretel getting behind the witch and pushing her into the oven, tell it in a different way, or rewrite it. Or you know, look at another cultural production that takes the story in a different direction….And so there is a certain kind of wisdom encapsulated in the tale. But for centuries I think we’ve made the mistake of trying to pin a single message or moral on the story….Yeah, Charles Perrault did this in France. He ended each story with a moral. William Bennett did this in The Book of Virtues…”

Ullrich Heiner, in his book, Rudolf Steiner, says, “The Waldorf curriculum is not intended to be a mechanical aggregate for different series of content that stand in relation to the child’s development. Rather, the long-term organic structuring of content through the teacher is to ensure that ‘the child does not experience individual areas of knowledge as separate, but as a wonderfully, ordered, unified, cosmos (3).”

So teachers, remember your sacred role as a storyteller and feel confident bringing the stories your students need to hear to life! If you need tips on becoming the best storyteller you can be check out this wonderful lecture HERE.

References

 

  • Steiner, Rudolf. “Faculty Meetings with Rudolf Steiner: 1919-1922”
  • Steiner, Rudolf, “Discussions with Teachers, August – September 1919”
  • Heiner, Ullrich, “Rudolf Steiner”
  • Drummond, Mary-Jane. “Another Way of Seeing: Perceptions of Play in a Steiner Kindergarten.”

 

Additional Reading and References

 

Bjorneboe, Jens. “Waldorf Journal: Project 8: Fairytales and Legends

 

Chesterton, G.K. “Introduction to Aesop’s Fables” 1912.

Giles Marshall, Tess. “Once Upon a Time…” http://www.pilgrimsmoon.com/2012/03/09/once-upon-time/

 

Meyer, Rudolf. “The Wisdom of Fairytales.” Edinburgh, 1995.

 

Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., Clarissa. “Women Who Run with the Wolves.” 1996.

 

Sharratt, Mary. “Through a Dark Forest: On Fairytales as Women’s Stories” http://www.marysharratt.com/about_two.html

 

Tatar, Maria. “Interview with Maria Tatar.” http://www.onbeing.org/program/maria-tatar-the-great-cauldron-of-story-why-fairy-tales-are-for-adults-again/transcript#main_content

 

 

 

 

On Aesop’s Fables

By Chesterton, G.K.

Aesop embodies an epigram not uncommon in human history; his fame is all the more deserved because he never deserved it. The firm foundations of common sense, the shrewd shots at uncommon sense, that characterize all the Fables, belong not him but to humanity. In the earliest human history whatever is authentic is universal: and whatever is universal is anonymous.

 

In such cases there is always some central man who had first the trouble of collecting them, and afterwards the fame of creating them. He had the fame; and, on the whole, he earned the fame. There must have been something great and human, something of the human future and the human past, in such a man: even if he only used it to rob the past or deceive the future. The story of Arthur may have been really connected with the most fighting Christianity of falling Rome or with the most heathen traditions hidden in the hills of Wales. But the word “Mappe” or “Malory” will always mean King Arthur; even though we find older and better origins than the Mabinogian; or write later and worse versions than the “Idylls of the King.” The nursery fairy tales may have come out of Asia with the Indo-European race, now fortunately extinct; they may have been invented by some fine French lady or gentleman like Perrault: they may possibly even be what they profess to be. But we shall always call the best selection of such tales “Grimm’s Tales”: simply because it is the best collection.

 

But whatever be fairly due to Aesop, the human tradition called Fables is not due to him. This had gone on long before any sarcastic freedman from Phrygia had or had not been flung off a precipice; this has remained long after. It is to our advantage, indeed, to realise the distinction; because it makes Aesop more obviously effective than any other fabulist. Grimm’s Tales, glorious as they are, were collected by two German students. And if we find it hard to be certain of a German student, at least we know more about him than We know about a Phrygian slave. The truth is, of course, that Aesop’s Fables are not Aesop’s fables, any more than Grimm’s Fairy Tales were ever Grimm’s fairy tales. But the fable and the fairy tale are things utterly distinct. There are many elements of difference; but the plainest is plain enough. There can be no good fable with human beings in it. There can be no good fairy tale without them.

 

Aesop, or Babrius (or whatever his name was), understood that, for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess must move crooked. The sheep in a fable must march on, as the pawn in chess must march on. The fable must not allow for the crooked captures of the pawn; it must not allow for what Balzac called “the revolt of a sheep” The fairy tale, on the other hand, absolutely revolves on the pivot of human personality. If no hero were there to fight the dragons, we should not even know that they were dragons. If no adventurer were cast on the undiscovered island—it would remain undiscovered. If the miller’s third son does not find the enchanted garden where the seven princesses stand white and frozen—why, then, they will remain white and frozen and enchanted. If there is no personal prince to find the Sleeping Beauty she will simply sleep. Fables repose upon quite the opposite idea; that everything is itself, and will in any case speak for itself. The wolf will be always wolfish; the fox will be always foxy. Something of the same sort may have been meant by the animal worship, in which Egyptian and Indian and many other great peoples have combined. Men do not, I think, love beetles or cats or crocodiles with a wholly personal love; they salute them as expressions of that abstract and anonymous energy in nature which to any one is awful, and to an atheist must be frightful. So in all the fables that are or are not Aesop’s all the animal forces drive like inanimate forces, like great rivers or growing trees. It is the limit and the loss of all such things that they cannot be anything but themselves: it is their tragedy that they could not lose their souls.

This is the immortal justification of the Fable: that we could not teach the plainest truths so simply without turning men into chessmen. We cannot talk of such simple things without using animals that do not talk at all. Suppose, for a moment, that you turn the wolf into a wolfish baron, or the fox into a foxy diplomatist. You will at once remember that even barons are human, you will be unable to forget that even diplomatists are men. You will always be looking for that accidental good-humour that should go with the brutality of any brutal man; for that allowance for all delicate things, including virtue, that should exist in any good diplomatist. Once put a thing on two legs instead of four and pluck it of feathers and you cannot help asking for a human being, either heroic, as in the fairy tales, or un-heroic, as in the modern novels.

But by using animals in this austere and arbitrary style as they are used on the shields of heraldry or the hieroglyphics of the ancients, men have really succeeded in handing down those tremendous truths that are called truisms. If the chivalric lion be red and rampant, it is rigidly red and rampant; if the sacred ibis stands anywhere on one leg, it stands on one leg for ever. In this language, like a large animal alphabet, are written some of the first philosophic certainties of men. As the child learns A for Ass or B for Bull or C for Cow, so man has learnt here to connect the simpler and stronger creatures with the simpler and stronger truths. That a flowing stream cannot befoul its own fountain, and that any one who says it does is a tyrant and a liar; that a mouse is too weak to fight a lion, but too strong for the cords that can hold a lion; that a fox who gets most out of a flat dish may easily get least out of a deep dish; that the crow whom the gods forbid to sing, the gods nevertheless provide with cheese; that when the goat insults from a mountain-top it is not the goat that insults, but the mountain: all these are deep truths deeply graven on the rocks wherever men have passed. It matters nothing how old they are, or how new; they are the alphabet of humanity, which like so many forms of primitive picture-writing employs any living symbol in preference to man. These ancient and universal tales are all of animals; as the latest discoveries in the oldest pre-historic caverns are all of animals. Man, in his simpler states, always felt that he himself was something too mysterious to be drawn. But the legend he carved under these cruder symbols was everywhere the same; and whether fables began with Aesop or began with Adam, whether they were German and mediAeval as Reynard the Fox, or as French and Renaissance as La Fontaine, the upshot is everywhere essentially the same: that superiority is always insolent, because it is always accidental; that pride goes before a fall; and that there is such a thing as being too clever by half. You will not find any other legend but this written upon the rocks by any hand of man. There is every type and time of fable: but there is only one moral to the fable; because there is only one moral to everything.

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