Storytelling is one of the oldest traditions known to mankind. It is still the most common form of socialization. Recently we were gathered with a group of friends after a fowl supper. As usual, stories began to be swapped.
Stu is a fine storyteller who is able to build humorous, entertaining stories. Marcel was new to this particular circle of people but was a match for Stu and loved to embellish his history by telling engaging tales. He sat back for a few stories and then could hold out no longer. He leaned forward and said, “Say, you’ve been talking too long, let me tell a few.”
Until the 15th century, with the invention of the printing press, communication was oral. Children were considered to be adults at seven years of age when it was believed they had attained full control of oral language. Little difference existed between adults and children. The advent of the written word released people from the immediate and local. It gave them new things to talk about and new tools with which to think.
All of this changed the face of childhood. For the young to become successful adults, reading became very important. Schools sprang up. Success in life became dependent on the ability to read.
Shakespeare said that life’s a stage and all of us are actors. We all live in an improvisational drama that is acted out in the moment with whatever characters are present. The advent of school throws the child on to a stage that is very different, has structured conventions, and is extremely judgemental.
Here is Butch’s story. Butch’s eyes glow as he sits by the blazing fire, his mind actively creating the scenes being painted for him by the cowhands who are his heroes
“… and then that dog-goned, Roman-nosed cayuse took forthe tullies and I landed ass-end up in the Canada Thistle.”
“Well, I ain’t never bin throwed!”
“Ya ain’t rid many bad-uns then!”
I met Butch on a trail ride in the Rockies and a few weeks later, he showed up at the school where I was teaching. He became part of an innovative projects class of 23 failing students in grade three. The class was based in storytelling and the fine arts. Butch flourished! He became one of the most reflective students in the group. One day, in the library, he met Abraham Lincoln and a love affair ensued. He would stop me in the hall to tell me his latest story about Abe.
“I should be in grade four, but I failed grade one”, Butch would inform almost everyone. Butch had assumed responsibility for his failure.
The conventions of school and book learning have their own rules. The child who has achieved fluency with these conventions through extensive contact with books in the home is equipped for easy access to reading. But for the child who has experience that is not related to the abstractions of print, it is difficult for him to realize why he can’t be successful.
Most children come to school with confidence that they will learn to read. But their debut on the school platform is the first public and formal evaluation of what the world thinks of them. That is why it is so traumatic for the child who fails. Confidence is a flame that is easily extinguished and difficult to rekindle!