The Common Core of a Child’s Heart (Part I): The Art and Purpose of Storytelling

Zeal for a national curriculum is not new, nor is the appearance of an entire well-financed educational bureaucracy obsessed with finding (and controlling) methods to justify its educational schemes.  The educational sorcerers may feel that they have conjured up some novel idea in the Common Core Initiative.  They have not, anymore than Alfred Bosworth discovered how to sustain infant life by reconstituting dried cow’s milk with phosphorus salts and calcium.  Ironically, there has been, for some time, a “common core” for educating young people (if educating is the right word): that core is the long, organic development of literature—especially the great and good books.

On the foundational level (that is during childhood), a technological matrix, vast State expenditures, and million-dollar patrons have been traditionally unnecessary intellectual and moral development.  A few modest things were traditionally and still are needed:  A child or a group of children, a relatively quiet and comfortable place to sit, and rich stories—and a teller of stories, of course.  There is the rub.  Adults are so very busy today with important things like adding more “apps” to their smartphones or saving time and money by endlessly switching to new “rewards” cards.

Although some “educated” adults will need the “Whiterobes” of the University system and the National Institute of Mental Health to tell them so to be convinced, many parents know that story-telling continues to work its wonder on the lives of children and parents alike.  The great power of creativity is unlocked rather effortlessly when a child encounters marvelous tales—whether that child looks out upon the land of story from under shy brown locks or with the darting glances of a blond banditti.  Much of what we might lump under the rubric ADHD can be addressed by a few hours a week outdoors and perhaps a half an hour a day of real storytelling, but drugs are easier.

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Over the next two issues of The Civilized Reader, I would like to introduce you to a sensible voice from the early Twentieth Century—Sara Cone Bryant.  Bryant was a noteworthy member of the ancient guild of storytellers.  Like her near contemporary New Englander Ruth Sawyer, Ms. Bryant, understood that storytelling was the art which stood athwart the Progressive path towards systematized “education.”  As Sawyer observed:

No one questions the vivid effect a story well told can have on the imagination of a child.  Without purpose or effort young minds will be led out, stimulated, winged by the sharing of stories aloud, and to a far greater degree than when read alone and to oneself.  But I hold with Sir Walter Scott, who warned a hundred and fifty years ago against putting a child’s mind in the stocks, making it rigid, inflexible, by submitting to it only prescribed material.  The whole process of growing up is the process of reaching out avidly for the world, to gain experience, to learn, to evaluate.

If a child is ever to escape the Systematizers’s Stocks, then he will need the Wings of Story and Storytelling.

A current hard frost has settled over family life.  It grips it.  Good people are becoming more and more concerned with what children will learn and how they will learn.  Yet there is a paralysis over what can or should be done. If anything, the icy winds that blow from the Common Core Initiative have done a good service for startling more than the home school communities to the perils of contemporary education.  The political question of what to do with Common Core is just that—a political question.  Within the family, however, the answer is simple: the problems of Common Core and of any narrow regulation of the imagination must be met with decisive resistance.  The strategy of resistance on the political level is always complex and requiring of prudence and integrated leadership, but on the primary level of the family itself the “strategy” remains simple.  The defense of Imagination will rise or fall on stories and storytelling.  And we should make no mistake: the ramparts held by Imagination are but the advanced breastworks of the Faith.  A breach of the Imagination’s realm is a sign that the Faith will soon suffer full siege.

“Give ear, O my people, to my teaching,” says the Psalmist:

Incline your ear to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in parable;
I will offer dark sayings from of old,
Things that we have heard and know,
That our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from our children (Ps. 77:1-4)

Ever and ever grace builds upon nature.  In the growing contest to keep our Faith free from the tyrant’s grasp, little acts of resolve are needed.   When the Frog Prince and the Little Shoemaker are banished from a child’s life, we should not expect that the adult’s life will know and cherish conception of repentance or grace.  Is it not likely that the mother who fails to retell the fate of the Ugly Duckling or Red Riding Hood will later find herself struggling to defend her children’s innocence despite the mighty pile of books on the Theology of the Body?  Is it not likely that the father who yields the telling of Jack the Giant Killer to Hollywood and who knows not the Steadfast Tin Soldier will struggle to explain to his son why bullies and liars seem to flourish in the world?  No amount of seven-step planners will help him teach his son that virtue is its own reward if the soil of that boy’s imagination is barren.

But let us leave aside the contemporary squalls.  After all, the defenders of storytelling must not exchange the jewels of Storyland for the pottage of Systems and Reductionism.  Education, to be sure, has some need of curricula and schooling.  Stories, to be sure, will find their way into reading lists, classrooms, and studies.  Yet the direct end of storytelling is not to resist tyranny, but to open the heart to love and the imagination to wonder.  Later in life we may thank Andrew Lang and the Pied Piper of Hamelin for strengthening our resolve to keep our word and be on guard against psychological seduction.  Yet when the hearth fire glows and crackles, when the children swing from restlessness to an otherworldly attentiveness, then a parent knows the fairy magic of Story has descended upon them.  Let the stories work their magic not for some future career or even for cultural refinement, but just because it is so very cozy and so human and so right to tell stories to one’s own children.


The Purpose of Story Telling in Education

Editor’s note: What follows is taken from Sara Cone Bryant, “The Purpose of Story Telling in Education,” in her How to Tell Stories to Children (originally published in 1910 by George G. Harrap & Company, London; a new edition with further materials is currently available by Sophia Institute Press).

Let us first consider together the primary matter of the aim in educational storytelling. On our conception of this must depend very largely all decisions as to choice and method; and nothing in the whole field of discussion is more vital than a just and sensible notion of this first point. What shall we attempt to accomplish by stories in the schoolroom? What can we reasonably expect to accomplish? And what, of this, is best accomplished by this means and no other?

These are questions that become the more interesting and practical because the recent access of enthusiasm for stories in education has led many people to claim very wide and very vaguely outlined territory for their possession, and often to lay heaviest stress on their least essential functions. The most important instance of this is the fervor with which many compilers of stories for school use have directed their efforts solely toward illustration of natural phenomena. Geology, zoology, botany, and even physics are taught by means of more or less happily constructed narratives based on the simpler facts of these sciences. Kindergarten teachers are familiar with such narratives: the little stories of chrysalis-breaking, flower-growth, and the like. Now, this is a perfectly proper and practicable aim, but it is not a primary one. Others, to which, at best, this is but secondary, should have first place and receive greatest attention.

Sir John Everett Millais_Boyhood_of_Raleigh 1870What is a story, essentially? Is it a textbook of science, an appendix to the geography, an introduction to the primer of history? Of course it is not. A story is essentially and primarily a work of art, and its chief function must be sought in the line of the uses of art. Just as the drama is capable of secondary uses, yet fails abjectly to realize its purpose when those are substituted for its real significance as a work of art, so does the story lend itself to subsidiary purposes, but claims first and most strongly to be recognized in its real significance as a work of art. Since the drama deals with life in all its parts, it can exemplify sociological theory, it can illustrate economic principle, it can even picture politics; but the drama that does only these things has no breath of its real life in its being and dies when the wind of popular tendency veers from its direction. So, you can teach a child interesting facts about bees and butterflies by telling him certain stories, and you can open his eyes to colors and processes in nature by telling certain others; but unless you do something more than that and before that, you are as one who should use the Venus of Milo for a demonstration in anatomy.

The message of the story is the message of beauty, as effective as that message in marble or paint. Its part in the economy of life is to give joy. And the purpose and working of the joy is found in that quickening of the spirit which answers every perception of the truly beautiful in the arts of man. To give joy; in and through the joy, to stir and feed the life of the spirit: is not this the legitimate function of the story in education?

Because I believe it to be such, not because I ignore the value of other uses, I venture to push aside all aims that seem secondary to this for later mention under specific heads. Here in the beginning of our consideration, I wish to emphasize this element alone. A story is a work of art. Its greatest use to the child is in the everlasting appeal of beauty by which the soul of man is constantly pricked to new hungers, quickened to new perceptions, and so given desire to grow.

The obvious practical bearing of this is that storytelling is first of all an art of entertainment; as with the stage, its immediate purpose is the pleasure of the hearer—his pleasure, not his instruction, first.

Now, the storyteller who has given the listening children such pleasure as I mean may or may not have added a fact to the content of their minds; she has inevitably added something to the vital powers of their souls. She has given a wholesome exercise to the emotional muscles of the spirit, has opened up new windows to the imagination, and has added some line or color to the ideal of life and art that is always taking form in the heart of a child. She has, in short, accomplished the one greatest aim of storytelling: to enlarge and enrich the child’s spiritual experience, and stimulate healthy reaction upon it.

Of course, this result cannot be seen and proved as easily and early as can the apprehension of a fact. The most we can hope to recognize is its promise, and this is found in the tokens of that genuine pleasure which is itself the means of accomplishment. It is, then, the signs of right pleasure that the storyteller must look to for her guide, and which it must be her immediate aim to evoke. As for the recognition of the signs, no one who has ever seen the delight of a real child over a real story can fail to know the signals when given, or flatter himself into belief in them when absent.

Intimately connected with the enjoyment given are two very practically beneficial results the storyteller may hope to obtain, and at least one of which will be a kind of reward to her. The first is a relaxation of the tense schoolroom atmosphere, valuable for its refreshing recreative power. The second result, or aim, is not so obvious, but is even more desirable; it is this: storytelling is at once one of the simplest and quickest ways of establishing a happy relationship between teacher and children, and one of the most effective methods of forming the habit of fixed attention in the latter.

If you have never seen an indifferent child aroused or a hostile one conquered to affection by a beguiling tale, you can hardly appreciate the truth of the first statement; but nothing is more familiar in the storyteller’s experience.

The surrender of the natural child to the storyteller is as absolute and invariable as that of a devotee to the priest of his own sect. This power is especially valuable in the case of children whose natural shyness has been augmented by a rough environment or by the strangeness of foreign habit. And with such children, even more than with others, it is also true that the story is a simple and effective means of forming the habit of concentration, of fixed attention; any teacher who deals with this class of children knows the difficulty of doing this fundamental and indispensable thing, and the value of any practical aid in doing it.

More than one instance of the power of storytelling to develop attentiveness comes to my mind, but the most prominent in memory is a rather recent incident, in which the actors were boys and girls far past the child-stage of docility.

I had been asked to tell stories to about sixty boys and girls of a club; the president warned me in her invitation that the children were exceptionally undisciplined, but my previous experiences with similar gatherings led me to interpret her words with a moderation that left me totally unready for the reality. When I faced my audience, I saw a squirming jumble effaces, backs of heads, and the various members of many small bodies—not a person in the room was paying the slightest attention to me. The president’s introduction could scarcely be said to succeed in interrupting the interchange of social amenities that was in progress, and which looked delusively like a free fight.

I came as near stage fright in the first minutes of that occasion as it is comfortable to be, and if it had not been impossible to run away, I think I should not have remained. But 1 began, with as funny a tale as I knew, following the safe plan of not speaking very loudly, and aiming my effort at the nearest children. As I went on, a very few faces held intelligently to mine; the majority answered only fitfully; and not a few of my hearers conversed with their neighbors as if I were nonexistent.

The sense of bafflement, the futile effort, forced the perspiration to my hands and face—yet something in the faces before me told me that it was no ill-will that fought against me; it was the apathy of minds without the power or habit of concentration, unable to follow a sequence of ideas any distance, and rendered more restless by bodies that were probably uncomfortable, certainly undisciplined.

The first story took ten minutes. When 1 began a second, a very short one, the initial work had to be done all over again, for the slight comparative quiet I had won had been totally lost in the resulting manifestation of approval.

At the end of the second story, the room was really orderly to the superficial view, but where I stood, I could see the small boy who deliberately made a hideous face at me each time my eyes met his, the two girls who talked with their backs turned, the squirms of a figure here and there.

It seemed so disheartening a record of failure that I hesitated much to yield to the uproarious request for a third story, but finally I did begin again, on a very long story that, for its own sake, I wanted them to hear.

This time, the little audience settled to attention almost at the opening words. After about five minutes, I was suddenly conscious of a sense of ease and relief, a familiar restful feeling in the atmosphere; and then, at last, I knew that my audience was “with me,” that they and I were interacting without obstruction. Absolutely quiet, entirely unconscious of themselves, the boys and girls were responding to every turn of the narrative as easily and readily as any group of story-bred kindergarten children. From then on, we had a good time together.

The process that took place in that small audience was a condensed example of what one may expect in habitual storytelling to a group of children. Once having had the attention chained by crude force of interest, the children begin to expect something interesting from the teacher, and to wait for it. And having been led, step by step, from one grade of a logical sequence to another, their minds—at first beguiled by the fascination of the steps—glide into the habit of following any logical sequence.

My club formed its habit, as far as I was concerned, all in one session; the ordinary demands of school procedure lengthen the process, but the result is equally sure. By the end of a week in which the children have listened happily to a story every day, the habit of listening and deducing has been formed, and the expectation of pleasantness is connected with the opening of the teacher’s lips.

These two benefits are well worth the trouble they cost, and for these two, at least, any teacher who tells a story well may confidently look: the quick gaining of a confidential relationship with the children, and the gradual development of concentration and interested attention in them.

These are direct and somewhat clearly discernible results, comfortably placed in a near future. There are other aims, reaching on into the far, slow modes of psychological growth that must equally determine the choice of the storyteller’s material and inform the spirit of her work. These other, less immediately attainable ends, I wish now to consider in relation to the different types of story by which they are severally best served—The Fairy Tale (to be continued).

Editor’s note: The image above depicts the boyhood of Sir Walter Raleigh painted by Sir John Everett Millais in 1870.


  • William Edmund Fahey and Sara Cone Bryant

    William Edmund Fahey is the President and a Fellow of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (Merrimack, New Hampshire). With his wife, he co-edits The Civilized Reader. Sara Cone Bryant was born in 1873 and attended Boston University. She pursued some advanced work on childhood development and elementary education in Berlin. In 1908 she married Theodore Franz Borst, a New England horticulturist. In the early twentieth century she taught both on the collegiate and elementary level, while editing dozens of volumes of children’s literature. In the years before and after the First World War, she was a popular lecturer on the subject of story-telling. Bryant authored eight books under her maiden name, largely on story-telling and education.

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