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The Power of Stories

his morning, a parent stopped in to tell me that she had listened in on her child’s teacher telling the Chanukah story. She said that she was moved by “the softness of the story-telling”. I asked her to elaborate. She said that she couldn’t quite explain but “it feels so different to the way I remember the Chanukah story told to me.”
Some background on the Chanukah story: Two hundred-fifty years before the Common Era, the Syrian-Greeks Empire controlled Israel and tried to force their Hellenist ideology on Israel's Jewish community. The Jews refused to be swayed from their ideals, and ultimately drove the mighty Empire from their land. This triumph, the unlikely victory of a weak minority against a world-class army, is celebrated on Chanukah. 
Here’s why I think the story-telling sounded “soft”…
1.      The story is infused with values and morals:
When our staff meets to plan how to tell the holiday story we focus on the messages and lessons that we hope the children will extract from the story. (I hope that our Thanksgiving video illustrated this.) For example, our older children are exploring the big ideas such as courage, strength of character, pride in one’s identity, etc.*
A story told around morals, and not around badly-behaving characters, is an effective way to teach morals (and sounds softer)…
2.      The wording is sensitive (even of less-than-impressive characters):
Careful attention is placed on the wording we use in telling the stories. Children learn to talk based on how they hear those around them talk. (Pretty overwhelming thought, no?) So, we want to be sure we are using words that would feel right when we hear the children using them.
Look at it this way: How do toddlers learn languages? By hearing people talk. Simple.
Likewise, children learn all language – the language of dignity, of respect, of not jumping to conclusions, of patience, of giving a second chance, of a soft tone, etc. etc. – all by how they hear those around them talk.
For example: We want to raise children who are DISCERNING human beings, as opposed to JUDGMENTAL human beings. So, we need to talk in language that reflects these ideals. When we describe a character who behaved badly, we are careful to distinguish between the person and his action, between the action and the motive. In retelling a story, it is important to clearly delineate between good and bad behavior. But no less important: We must clearly delineate between people’s behaviors and the actual person. Because, if a child hears judgment, he learns to… act judgmentally.
A story told with sensitive language, language that reflects the complexities of the character’s context, is an effective way to teach how to talk sensitively (and sounds softer)…
3.      We recognize the power of a story.
Stories offer a unique venue to learn social/emotional skills. Stories are about other people’s lives, so it feels “safe” to explore the choices and struggles they faced and how they overcame them (or didn’t!) If we include in our stories nuanced descriptions of the character’s struggles and choices, we leave room for the children to think, to feel and to discover. Stories – when explored deeply give us clues to our own psyches; they give us perspectives to draw from when faced with variations of these stories in their own lives. It is not likely that our children will face the same struggles of the Macabees. But they will face choices that’ll require of them personal bravery and integrity and a willingness to take risks. They will face situations in which they will need to muster a strong sense of identity.
A story told by a story-teller who appreciates the power of story, is an effective way to teach all sorts of social emotional skills (and sounds softer)…
What a powerful time to instill values, childhood years are! By incorporating values into our children from the get-go, this is the only way they know to look at the world. They don’t have to overcome judgment (for example); they never had that as their world view to start with!!
Happy Chanukah!
* Please take a look in the classrooms to see the children’s Chanukah work. Teachers will be posting their Chanukah messages on their blogs as well.
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