Come into my story house
Where in the kitchen lives a mouse
With twitching nose and listening ear,
He sits behind the stove to hear
While Grampa rocks in his rocking chair
And Grandma sits knitting some socks to wear,
Stories are visiting my little house.
So, sshhh, don't disturb my little mouse,
But come into my story house.
During my first year of teaching, I struggled to learn stories. I found it very difficult but also rewarding. Eventually, storytelling would become my favorite part of the teaching. But for the first year, I mainly told very simple fairy tales: Sweet Porridge, The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids, The Elves and the Shoemaker, and The Bremen Town Musicians. Most of these stories were stories that I had been familiar with from my own childhood. When I first starting learning longer stories and stories that were new to me, I would often write them out completely, copying them into a special notebook. It wasn’t that I was trying to memorize them word for word but I had found that by writing the stories out, I was bringing the learning into my own will forces. I have always learned easiest through my will, through doing. Later on, after I had told the stories over and over, I was able to remember the stories simply by reading them over once or twice and then picturing them as I told the story. This is a lovely way to learn a story by heart.
I learned to tell stories through my heart and my hands – NOT through my head!!
When I told a fairy tale, whether from the Grimm’s fairy tale collection or a fairy tale from another culture, I always told these stories for at least two weeks. Some of our more beloved stories would carry them three or even four weeks, though I rarely told a story for more than three weeks in a row! The children seemed to love hearing the stories day after day and I loved to tell them over and over. Even when a child grumbled at the beginning (“oh, it’s this one….again.”), I would see them sitting on the edge of their chair, taking the story in as though they could never get enough of it. Sometimes I would “introduce” the story in a new way, telling how the little forest friends had asked Grandmother Willow to tell them this particular story today because they had never heard it before.
And now, you must meet Grandmother Willow, too.
I also told simple nature stories. These were much easier for me as they were coming from me and not learned from a book. After 18 years of teaching, I can now close my eyes and see clearly Grandmother Willow’s willow tree house. I can walk through the door and know exactly what her kitchen looks like and I hear the tea kettle whistling on the stove. I look out her window and I see the little creatures that live near her home. There is a whole world there populated with little friends who have many adventures in the forest and the garden around the willow tree. This world made itself known to me slowly. I would never recommend that a teacher try to create this world all at once!! In fact, I don’t think that the teacher creates this world at all. I remember clearly when the first little fellow, Jack Ivy, suddenly made himself known to me. I was looking at the ivy growing on a wall and I could suddenly imagine this little ivy elf, climbing as high as he could and looking into the windows. It was easy to begin telling stories about this fellow who really didn’t want to go to bed too early in the fall and that meant, of course, that he liked to sleep in a bit in the spring. In fact, by the time Jack Ivy woke up in the spring, Daffodilly had been awake for some time and she teased him and called him a sleepy head! Now Jack Ivy had a friend! And this is the way it went. As I told the stories, other friends appeared and made themselves known to us all. Matthew Mousekin eventually became Jack Ivy’s favorite companion. Then one day we met Grandmother Willow and learned how she watches over all the forest friends. And throughout the years, I have gotten to know Thomas the squirrel, Rosy, Old Man Sage, little brown bird, the Magpie family, Matthew Mousekin’s whole family, white faced fox, a shy little garden snake, and of course, Stormy, the donkey. Stormy really is my little donkey and it is fun to include her in the stories. When I made dolls for each of the children in the class, it was from Grandmother Willow that they came and, until I was finished with the last doll, I told stories about their adventures in Grandmother Willow’s house and about their journey to the kindergarten. Before school let out for the summer, the dolls were prepared to go back to spend the summer with Grandmother Willow again.
There was an article in our newspaper the other day that talked about how good it is for children to have imaginary friends. They didn’t mention anything about adults, though. I realize that I have a whole world of imaginary friends now!
I don’t prepare for these stories as I would for a fairy tale. I don’t ever write them out or even plan them out in detail. To prepare for telling a nature story, I spend time out in my garden watching the animals and observing what is happening with the trees, the garden, even the weeds! Animals need to act like animals and live like animals. They aren’t cartoon characters that wear clothes and act like people (though Matthew desperately wanted some shoes after Jack Ivy had to visit the fairy shoemaker)! Their homes are animal homes. I have been fortunate that, while we live in the middle of a large city, we are also in a part of the city that is still considered “semi-rural”. We are allowed to have our donkey and may someday have chickens and geese again. Stormy really did make friends with a white faced fox and they spent an entire spring running around the yard together. We have quite a lot of wildlife that wanders through: foxes, squirrels, skunks, raccoons, and an occasional coyote. Mice, we have in abundance. The magpies often build their nests in our large maple and apple trees – huge nests that must be at least 2 feet in diameter – and the sparrows and finches nest in the smaller trees and under the eaves of the house. I tell about what I see. I would never try to include animals in my stories that I hadn’t ever observed. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t. I just couldn’t do that myself.
Once in awhile something happens in the kindergarten. One day, a child became upset and instead of going to the teacher, he decided to walk home. So he carefully watched and waited till the teacher wasn’t looking and slipped out of the play yard. His friends gave him a head start and then realized that something wasn’t right and they came to tell the teacher. When we caught up with him, he was a block away from the school and very, very worried. A severe lecture would have further upset and shamed him so I chose, instead, to tell a story about a time when Matthew Mousekin had run away from Grandmother Willow’s house. To tell a story and allow their familiar characters to go through the same challenges helps to objectify the situation. I’m not giving a lecture, I’m telling a story. But everyone in the class hears the story and understands that it was very scary for Matthew to run away like that and they all know, especially Matthew (and especially the child who ran away), that he will never do that again. These familiar characters are my best helpers in the kindergarten.
There are other situations in the kindergarten when storytelling is not only helpful but also healing. When the mother of one of my children had a miscarriage, the child was very upset. An extremely sensitive little boy with very intellectual parents, he felt the loss deeply and was in need of a story to help him to digest this loss. An intellectual explanation wasn’t very helpful. At story time that day, I brought out one of our birthday candles and decorated it with a star. I had this child light the candle, something I don’t usually let the children do. (I ignored the 6 year old boy who looked puzzled and said quietly, “Uh, teacher, I don’t think that’s a very good idea. That doesn’t look good.”) Then I told a story, very simply, about the child who was coming over the great sea from the heavenly meadow to find his family on the earth when a storm suddenly came up and tossed the little boat from side to side. The child in the boat was beginning to be frightened because the storm was not letting up at all. Then the child’s angel came and took the child up out of the boat and brought the child back to the heavenly meadow. There the angel would watch over the child until it was time again to try to come to the earth. The parents told me that their son came home, lit the candle (with supervision), and told the story to the family. I know that he seemed lighter and less sad after that day.
I had another child who was having a terrible time at nap. Uh, I don’t have that right. She was actually having a WONDERFUL time at nap, dancing around the kindergarten, making noises and generally being such a distraction that no one could rest. I wasn’t in the classroom during nap time but I would often come down and see this little girl sitting in the front office with our secretary, next door to the kindergarten, because she had been so mischievous. Somehow, I had to find a way to turn this around. She was learning very well how to be mischievous but nothing at all about how to rest. So, the next time I came down and saw her in the office, I picked her up and put her on my lap and told her this story:
“When I was growing up, we used to visit our cousin on the farm and the first thing we did when we arrived on the farm was look for the cats. We knew that there would be at least one cat that had kittens. My cousin always knew just where the kittens would be found and soon we would each be happily cradling a kitten on our laps. Then we would wrap them up in our sweaters (and here I wrapped my sweater around the child) and carry them quietly into the house and play with them in my cousins bedroom. And we had to keep them very quiet because Aunt Maribelle didn’t allow kittens in the house at all and if she caught us, she would be angry with us and she might even make us scrub the kitchen floor. So we would put the kittens on our laps and pet their tummies till they fell asleep. Most of the time they would fall asleep but sometimes a kitten wouldn’t want to sleep and it would meow very loudly! Then Aunt Maribelle would come and we would have to take the kittens outside again. And then we’d have to scrub the kitchen floor.”
I then cradled the little girl and carried her back into the classroom and put her on her nap mat. I whispered quietly in her ear, “Now, be a quiet little kitty so Aunt Maribelle doesn’t hear you. I don’t want to scrub floors today.”
Two weeks later, the girl’s mother came to me and said, “WHO IS THIS AUNT MARIBELLE??!!” Every day for two weeks, her daughter would come home and say to her mom, “I was a quiet kitty at nap today and Aunt Maribelle didn’t even know I was there!”
My Aunt Maribelle enjoyed the story, too.
I have found that, for me, the most important element in preparing to tell stories such as these is trust. Trust that you will find the right images and words. Trust in yourself. Sometimes I would have very little time to prepare the story. It was needed NOW and I needed to be able to just be in the moment, in the NOW with the children. During the last year that I was teaching in the kindergarten, I had very little stamina and often could not plan anything in the evening, even birthday stories. I would think about the child before I fell asleep, often being able to do little more than just picture the child and commend the child to his or her angel. I learned quickly to just trust that as the child’s angel had every intention of making sure that the child heard their proper birthday story, I didn’t need to worry! The stories I told that year were the best I’ve ever told. And I think I had very little to do with that. When I woke up in the morning, there would be one image in my mind and it was this image that came into the birthday story.
Trusting in the help of the spiritual world doesn’t let us off the hook in our preparation, however! It doesn’t mean that we can blithely get through without preparing inwardly. Even when my stamina was low and I couldn’t do much outward preparation, I always needed to take the time to think about the child very consciously before I went to sleep at night.