Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Telling Folktales in Schools

I am spending the week in Mesa, AZ telling stories to wonderful groups of students.  Yesterday, after I arrived at the gig and before I'd done any sets, a woman came up to me to find out what I was doing there.  She was the curriculum coordinator for the school.  I told her I was a storyteller and she asked if I was going to be doing original pieces or if I was going to 'read' folktales.

I explained that when I am in schools I always tell folktales.  I never do original stuff except with middle school.  I tend to tell seventh grade family stories, but there is a developmental reason for that and I inevitably end their sets with traditional material.  She was interested in that idea, but I must confess, her response was something I rarely find.

Normally, after I tell someone that I am committed to doing folktales in schools, they assume this is because I lack the creativity or writing skills to come up with my own stories.  I am sometimes dismissed by the person I am speaking to as 'less than'.  It is not uncommon for the person to mention one of the many tellers who tells personal or original tales and insinuate that I ought to be living up to their example.  I've learned to smile at people when they respond to me in this manner and go on about my business.

You can't please everyone and I don't intend to try.  No matter what anyone else says or thinks, when I look in the bathroom mirror in the morning, I'm there by myself and it is that image I have to face everyday, not the folks who disapprove of the choices I make.

Of course, that begs the question I am often asked.  Why don't you tell original tales in schools?

I am a big believer in telling stories in schools that will drive kids towards books.  I want them to find the 'original' of the story I told or at least try.  I want kids to run across references to the story I told them or find different forms or even see them referred to on their cartoons and say, "Hey!  I know about that!"

Much of our culture in terms of entertainment be it story lines on television, commercials, video games, and literature of all sorts have a basis in basic folklore.  The ideas in folklore permeate our culture, but many of us are not literate in the basis of these tales.  Most people have no idea that the phrase, 'You have to pay the piper' comes from the Pied Piper of Hamlin.  When I was a little girl if I woke up with dried slobber on my face, my grandmother would say, "A witch rode you around last night!"  She knew this small bit of folklore, but she did not know it had anything to do with the tale called The Boo Hag which originated in the swamps.  Nat King Cole sang a song about a buzzard giving a monkey a ride and trying to throw him off his back.  Most people don't know that story is based on an African folktale.  Occasionally a politician will come out with the phrase, 'slapping the tar baby'.  It is a phrase from one of the most famous Brer stories, but most people have no idea why they would use that saying.  I suspect they got the phrase from their grandmother or mother depending on the age of the politician.  Sometimes they don't know where that phrase came from or why people might get upset if they use it.  They also don't know how to explain what it is.  Most storytellers do.

Our kids know even less about the folktales that pervade our society than most.  We don't tell them these stories anymore.  If it is not written down in a picture book, or Disney didn't make a big deal out of it, then for many kids it doesn't exist.

So, when I go into a school...they're getting folktales.  I want them to soak in the stories that are the building blocks of so much of our day to day lives.

After I leave a school, I want to get one of those emails from a librarian where she has run out of tongue twisters, Brer books of all sorts, stories from India, Africa, China and anywhere else the tales originated.  I like to get emails from parents, bewildered as to what I might have done to their kids to make them beg to stop by the library to see if Tiki Tiki Tembo is there.  I love it when I get to a school a year later and the kids are still quoting my stories, singing Sody Saluradus or telling me they've read books with the stories I introduced to them.

So, to everyone who has wondered why I am a big stickler for folktales, this is the answer.   We stand on the shoulders of giants and see far beyond every horizon, but unless we know what is beneath the feet of those giants, we move forward without understanding.  We might as well be blind.

In other words, if you don't know where you came from, how can you truly know where you are going?


  1. VERY interesting post Donna, extremely insightful! Just left a message on FB. Call me, I want to take you to dinner whiles you are in the Valley!

  2. Great post, Donna! As someone who loves the folktales and generally prefers them over personal stories, it's always nice to hear these words of encouragement and solidarity! Thanks for this. It was great to have dinner with you and Mark while you were visiting. I hope our paths cross again!