Run Bus Car Broken
Learning Through Storytelling
By Regina Cassidy
Confusion reigns when acquaintances learn that my
children are learning outside of school. They wonder about the lack of
structure; they are concerned about “socialization.” They want to know
just what kind of education unschooled children receive. First, I must
disabuse them of the notion that humans can “receive” education.
Education is not something given to anyone. Second, I must explain that
each self-directed person’s education will be, by definition, unique.
When we’ve cleared these hurdles, we get down to the nitty-gritty: How
in the world are my children learning without being forced to? Recently,
I realized that most of their knowledge comes from observing,
questioning, helping and, significantly, from listening to stories.
My partner and I are voracious readers. This
being the case, there is no need for us to interest the children in
books by pretending that reading is “fun.” Reading is not fun; the drive
to read is much more serious than that; it is a longing to know and to
connect with other minds in a profound way across space and time. We
have read perhaps more than a thousand books to our eager children, some
several times. We have spent long winter days reading the Little House
series, the Harry Potter books, Lemony Snicket, and tales of Greek
mythology. They have discovered books on tape for when Mom and Dad’s
voices or attention gives out. (And it took very little time for them to
learn to use the tape player!)
Has all this being read to dampened their desire
to read on their own? Perhaps. Currently, my five- and eight-year-olds
only dabble in reading...some street signs here and there, a few words
in a book, a letter from Grandma. However, they do not always have
access to the audiobooks they want or to Mom and Dad’s reading talents.
We encourage them to read themselves, but do not insist. We are betting
that their frustration at not being able to read what they want when
they want will motivate them to master the art of reading. Right now,
they are utterly hooked on storytelling and will seek out ways to
satisfy their hunger for stories.
My children beg to be told stories of when I was
a child or when they were babies. They savor phrases, words and names,
repeating them, singing them, and working them into their own
conversations. They make analogies of situations to stories they have
heard or read. Any offhand remark I make can end up in a storytelling
session. Where do things come from? How do I know this or that? Why do I
have a particular scar? If I were to scold them with a “When I was your
age…” statement, they would undoubtedly ask for the full story.
I have found that skilled storytellers can make a
previously uninteresting topic fascinating. History and science told as
series of stories are riveting. Natural phenomena and human tradition
are unforgettably laid out in story form. Far from the dry textbooks
that I experienced in my childhood, which simply list and date human and
natural events, stories bring important knowledge within the audience’s
grasp. I resent the stories being cut out of my education. Was this
intentional? Were my keepers trying to get me to “know” without feeling?
To accept “facts” without the complexity of human perspective? Or was it
that there simply wasn’t time in school to argue the implications
and point of view of any “fact?” There wasn’t time for real learning or
Having experienced the uncertainty – the humanity
– of stories, my children are used to thinking for themselves. Now when
they ask me why something happened, they can accept the possibility that
the answer is not easy or even known. They can continue to think about
something that is not cut and dried, dead on the page. And they compare
different versions of stories they have heard.
For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings
have been transmitting knowledge through storytelling. Around the
mid-winter hearth, shelling the peas on the front porch, while waiting
for that fish or that deer to show up, humans fill their time with
stories. Maritime navigation and optimum planting schedules are read by
the complex map of the stars. This map is transmitted through stories of
bears and queens and swans in the sky. Fairy tales are cautionary tales
to help children avoid dangerous situations – don’t let strangers into
your house; don’t stray from the task your parents assigned you to do.
Daniel Quinn’s book The Story of B has
an illustration of humans reading some tracks in the dirt. By doing so,
they tell the past and the future in the present. This is the ability to
create and read stories: How did things get the way they are? What would
things be like if something else had happened? How can you recreate the
past from what you experience now? What will things be like in the
future if some condition persists? Hunters read tracks. Pacific
Islanders read the stars. City dwellers read their fellow travelers on
the bus. Fortune-tellers read their clients. Parents read their
children’s moods (and vice versa). We make stories out of our
interactions and observations.
“Run bus car broken.” This amazing story was the
first string of words articulated by my then 21-month-old daughter.
Coming out of the library, we had discovered that our car’s engine would
not start. Seeing the bus go by, we made a dash for it: pregnant mom
toting toddler, books, and diaper bag. My daughter thought this was
great fun – the running and the bus ride. She blurted it out to her Dad
when he came home. It made a great story: run bus car broken.
We make sense of our experience through stories.
We impose a linear structure on confusing events. Human legal systems
involve recreating events that are unknown to us through pieces of
evidence. A legal trial is the creation of a story. If the story is
undisputed, the case is “open and shut “(notice the book terminology).
Only when we believe we have the story correct can we reach a verdict
and impose a sentence. If the story does not satisfy, the proceedings
Some people claim that humans are unique in their
ability to tell stories. However, I don’t think it really matters
whether squirrels tell squirrel stores or robins tell robin stories.
Storytelling is indeed a wondrous ability whether or not we share it
with other creatures.
A friend recently gave my eight-year-old daughter
a Shakespeare “treasure chest,” complete with key. It contains a few
plays, some historical notes, and a recreated cardboard Globe theater. I
find this to be a metaphor for the tragedy of great literature. It is
intellectually locked up – reserved for the upper class. Some public
school teachers and even some parents say their students don’t find
relevance in Shakespeare’s plays. I find this to be a failure of
imagination on the part of the teachers, parents, and students. Stories
resonate with humans. Despite the difficult language of Shakespeare, it
belongs to all English-speakers as our inheritance. The situations can
be compared to those we find ourselves in today. Do you love someone
your parents or peers disapprove of? Have you ever had the chance to
profit at the expense of someone else? Have you been treated differently
because someone thought you were someone else? These themes ripple
throughout the entire folio.
Shakespeare himself freely borrowed from the
stories of others, embellishing, combining, and refining them. They tell
truths about our humanity. They are the free treasures of our shared
existence. I am an enthusiastic proponent of Shakespeare in the Park and
have endeavored to bring it to my city: free, minimalist, open-air
theater. Park users can drop in for a scene or stay for the whole play.
They are under no pressure to behave like an experienced Shakespearean
audience. A play is a story that is not finished until it is performed:
the playwright, producer, director, actors, audience, scenery, and music
all contribute to the telling of the story. It is a living art form – to
borrow a Biblical term, it is the word made flesh – storytelling.
Religions, too, rely on the repeated re-enactment
and telling of important stories: the Seder and the Passion are vital
components of Judaism and Christianity, respectively. Animist religions
transmit values through stories of turtles and bears and rivers. All of
these stories are passed down through the generations in ceremonial
fashion. More than mere artifacts, they are the lifeblood of learning,
culture, and religion. The young have been learning from their elders
and continuing tradition through storytelling for hundreds of thousands
From the lofty spires of cathedrals to sleeping
bags around a fire, storytelling is an integral part of the human
experience and a fundamental means of human education. My children, as
life learners, are just like other humans in this way, but perhaps a
little more so.
Gina Cassidy is the mother of four
and a community college composition and writing instructor. She has
master degrees in English and Applied Linguistics and is a volunteer for
Illinois Radio Reader for the blind and an art docent with the local
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