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.
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 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.”
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.
“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?
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.
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?
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 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.”