Telling Stories as a Verbal Processing Strategy
There are many reasons children (and adults) love listening to a good story. It might be funny, or scary, or explain something we didn’t understand, or help us understand our heritage. Most of all, it is fun. A story has memorable characters, (often characters we have come to know and love), and a good plot with a satisfying ending. Even if the story ends with some kind of moral, we find that interesting.
There are also many reasons for telling stories.
The man in the picture is telling a story at a storytelling festival. It does look interesting, doesn’t it?
He is probably telling stories about the Native Americans that once lived in this area. He could be telling the stories they told their children, stories about their creation, and about the animals, and about great battles they had fought and won.
He might also be telling the stories told by early American settlers in this area in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Some of these stories had come originally from Europe, but as they were passed on from parents to children, from one generation to another, the stories changed.
The listeners who had lived in these mountains all their lives might remember their grandmothers telling a similar story. Listeners who had moved her recently would be eager to learn the stories of their new home.
Sharing Stories to Teach a Lesson
These include myths, legends, myths, parables (found in many religions) and fables. My parents told me the story of “The Boy who cried Wolf” to explain why I shouldn’t scream for help unless it was a real emergency.
Even our fairy tales usually contain some sort of moral or point they are trying to make. Little Red Riding Hood promised to stay on the path and go straight to her Grandmother’s house. But she took her time, left to path to pick flowers, and spoke to a stranger (the wolf). As a result, the wolf ate grandmother and nearly managed to eat Little Red Riding Hood. There is a lot to learn in this story.
I wasn’t afraid of wolves along a path, but I never forgot the story about the boy wh cried wolf. It made sense. I would never scream for help as a joke.
You can learn to tell stories to people of all ages in order to teach a lesson. I’ll never forget one story I told. We were having an all school assembly the week before the prom, to convince students not to drink and drive. The speaker was late and the Principal (who didn’t know what else to do) turned to me. “Do something,” he said. “Talk to them about drinking and driving.”
As I walked to the front of the auditorium, I had to think fast. If I’d had more time, I’d have found a true story. As it was, I had to invent one quickly. It was a story about a group of high school students who went to the prom. One person had volunteered to drive home, meaning that he would not drink. But, as it happened, friends encouraged him to have just one drink. It was the senior prom after all. He could drive home with one drink. But one drink led to another and another until he was so drunk he could hardly walk. The main character, I think his name was Mike, only had a few drinks, so when it was time to go home, the students all agreed that he should drive.
At this story, all the students in the auditorium knew what would happen. They be in a terrible accident and most or all of them would be dead. I knew my story had to be different, had to be something they’d remember. Mike’s date in the story was a beautiful girl who was the smartest kid in the class. She already had several college scholarships and was planning to go to Princeton. The accident happened, of course but nobody died. The drive only had a broken leg, but his girlfriend had broken her neck and was now a quadriplegic. She would be in a wheelchair the rest of her life, unable to move her arms or legs. The other students in that car spent the rest of their lives feeling guilty, wishing they had called a parent to pick them up, or called a taxi.
This story I invented in seconds, had a real effect of the students, a stronger effect that the main speaker who showed accident pictures. Some students told me it would be harder to live knowing you had ruined that girl’s future, than if someone had died. A good story can be powerful. It can change someone’s life.
We share our stories to get to know ourselves and others better.
We are our stories. We compress years of experience, thought and emotion into a few compact narratives that we convey to others and tell ourselves. That has always been true. But personal narrative has become more prevalent, and perhaps more urgent … when many of us are freer to seek a deep understanding of ourselves and our purpose. –Daniel Pink. p. 115.
I will share a little of my story. When I was young, we were involved in the Second World War. That made no sense to me. There was no television and I paid no attention to the radio newscasts.
I do remember living in a little house that may once have been a garage behind a much larger house. My father was a photographer but the only job he could get was as a milk man (delivering bottles of milk to people’s doorsteps.He often ran over rattlesnakes and brought them home for us to see. I remember squeezing small packets of yellow dye into the margarine which was white. That was a good job for a three-year old or four-year old. I didn’t understand food rationing, but I remember my mother’s story. She had gotten a dozen eggs and a pound of butter which was a months’ ration for a family of four. My father’s mother had come over to make potato pancakes for dinner. They must have been delicious. She used up the whole dozen eggs and the entire pound of butter for that one meal. My parents didn’t say anything, but they were shocked. They would have made those supplies last all month. I learned my frugal habits from my parents, not my grandmother.
Now it’s your turn. Think about your early years. Write your story.
You can also think about who you are today. Imagine that you meet someone and spend tie getting to know each other and your new friend says to you, “I’d like to get to know who you really are. Tell me your story.”
What things should they know? What experience have made you who you are? What were the major turning points in your life, times when your life changed. Who influenced you most. What there a book that changed your life? I have several books that changed my life.
Writing down your story will not only help you answer that question, it will help you discover who you are.
The story of “Brother Blue,” a Father of Storytelling for our time
I would like to tell you a story. It is about the greatest storyteller I’ve ever known.His name was “Brother Blue.”
I had forgotten his real name until I googled “Brother Blue.” His given name was Hugh Morgan Hill. My daughter met him while attending a party in Boston, back in the 80’s. She came home, very excited about this wonderful storyteller she met.
She told her high school English teacher and they got permission to invite Brother Blue to visit Brockton HS for a day of storytelling. As I remember it, he stayed in the auditorium and, each period, the English teachers brought their classes to listen. I was there that day to meet Brother Blue and to listen to his stories.
On the left is a picture taken of a memorial mural showing Brother Blue. My memory of Brother Blue was as a middle-aged African-American man, dressed all in blue, with balloons and colorful ribbons tied to his arms and legs that day. (The news articles published after he died in 2009, at age 88, describe him as having pictures of butterflies on the palms of his hands and on his face. Perhaps that was later.) What surprised me most were the stories.
He told the stories of Shakespeare’s plays. While I was there, I heard him tell Romeo and Juliet and the Othello. He told them as if these stories were set in our time, perhaps in Boston. Shakespeare has never been as exciting to me as on that day.
Talia Whyte, a correspondent with the Boston Globe, wrote an obituary that I found online. She says that Hugh Hill “earned his bachelor’s degree in social relations from Harvard University, a master of fine arts in play-writing from Yale school or drama, and a doctorate in storytelling from Union Graduate School, … a collaboration between Harvard and Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. ”
According to “family friend and fellow storyteller, Laura Packer, … ” he changed her life. “He told me once, ‘You have the power,’ and that was it for me.”
“Fellow story-teller, Kevin Brooks of Malden, … described him as the father of modern storytelling, someone who sometimes walked around Harvard Square barefoot…. He lived his life as a storyteller, and taught others how to live their lives as well.
Storytelling as a Verbal Processing Strategy
Take a section of what you have read and create a story.
Let’s imagine you have been reading biology and learning about photosynthesis. Imagine that you need to explain what you learned to a five-year old.
You have just read about the early explorers. Take one, like Magellan. Turn it into an exciting story of adventure and discovery.
You are studying anthropology and have read about a primitive culture in the Philippines or in New Guinea. You can create a fascinating story.
You are studying literature. Do what Brother Blue did. Take one of Shakespeare’s plays and tell it so a teenager today would find it exciting. Take whatever you are reading and rewrite it as a simple story that
1. Begins with “Once upon a time…” Or “Let me tell you a great story. It all began when.” Or I just learned a fascinating story about a group of people who live a long way from here.” A story needs a great beginning.
2. You don’t want too many major characters but the major characters must all be very special… very smart, or very strange, or very important. They need to be memorable. They need to be exciting.
3. Every story has a plot. What did this character really want? What serious problems did they have? How did they overcome their problems and succeed? And, where relevant, which is this person or this group of people really important?
4. You should begin by writing the story but it will be much better if you can tell it. Tell it to a child, if possible. Tell it to a good friend. Tell it to your roommate. The more often you tell a story, the more it becomes part of your long-term memory.
The mother or older sister in the picture might sometimes tell the boy about Magellan, about Isaac Newton or Galileo, or about William Shakespeare. Why not? These are great stories.
5. Learning to take difficult material and simplify it so it becomes a story, will help you understand what you are learning. It’s like the idea o reading a vocabulary definition and putting it into your own words. But here, it’s not just a definition you are rewriting it in order to understand it better. It is the main ideas of your lesson.
6. The more difficult the material you are studying, the more helpful this exercise will be.
7. When you don’t have the time or energy to write a story, tell someone about what you just learned. In fact, if you and a classmate each sum up what you learned in a chapter in an interesting way, you will learn from each other.
Daniel PInk, in his book, A Whole New Mind, describes storytelling as a Key to your future. Learning storytelling skills could change your future.
Read about it in Storytelling Key to Your Future