restricted access 2. Strengthening Community through Storytelling
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Strengthening Community through Storytelling •  2. Strengthening Community through Storytelling Where I come from, the words most highly valued are those spoken from the heart . . . —Leslie Marmon Silko This project began more than ten years ago when I read a book on a Native American approach to education, in particular, that of the Tewa Indians. One line in the book jumped out at me. Gregory Cajete (1994) wrote that storytelling should be part of the education of all children in American schools, not just Native American children. This line triggered my interest in studying children’s experiences with story­telling. I did not know then how much I would need to change my own thinking about storytelling or about knowledge more generally . Nor did it occur to me that I would also need to help re-educate others about storytelling and educational practices along the way. When many Americans think of storytelling, they think of someone reading a picture book to preschool children. The setting that probably comes to mind is the children’s room in a public library and the person telling the story is likely to be a librarian. Perhaps the librarian is also a skilled storyteller, telling the story so effectively that a storytelling trance is created. But the audience is still likely to be young children and the librarian’s main motivation is likely to be encouraging these young children’s interest in reading. Once American white children begin to read, they are lucky if they are still told stories by a relative or perhaps by a teacher with a particular interest in oral stories. If we go back far enough into history, European education was once based on oral teaching. However, after the development of the printing press, the standardization offered by written versus oral stories led to the diminished use of oral narratives. Being literate became an important marker of being “civilized” as a culture and being “upwardly mobile” as an individual. Many of the first immigrants to the United States brought these attitudes with them. America, more than most countries, became a place where schools were used for the advancement of individuals as well as to promote 7  • Life Lessons through Storytelling conformity to a standard way of thinking and acting for the ongoing waves of immigrants. The American educational system soon began to focus on academic learning for individual success as opposed to advancing the needs of the entire community. Social and moral learning remained important, but it largely encouraged conformity to mainstream values and behaviors. In contrast, many societies around the world and most Native American societies in this country believe that knowledge and community are interlinked. The lack of focus on community in many mainstream American schools has often created special problems for children from nonwhite backgrounds. Angela Valenzuela points out that many American schools are based on aesthetic caring, which focuses on impersonal and objective discourse and attention to things and ideas. Such schools can be challenging environments for students from Mexico, where most schools are based on teaching students to be socially responsible through respectful relations. In Mexico, educación refers to giving children a sense of moral, social, and personal responsibility. To most Mexicans, knowledge and skills are not enough. People also need to “know how to live in the world as caring, responsible, well-mannered, and respectful human beings” (Valenzuela 1999, 19). Valenzuela uses the term authentic caring to refer to this approach to teaching. In her study of a high school with mainly Latino students and a largely European American staff, Valenzuela found that students and teachers were often alienated from each other. While a few of the teachers in this school conveyed both types of caring, the majority of the teachers did not offer authentic caring nor understand its importance to students. This stance, in turn, led many of the Latino students to stop caring about school. She reports how one student considered the curriculum meaningless “because it is not helping him to become a ‘better’ person, that is, a socially minded individual who cares about his community” (1999, 94). Educación is one example in which knowledge and community are intertwined. Most Mexican people, along with people in many other societies, believe in the importance of teaching communal values and of conveying a sense of caring as a model for how to create stronger communities. The goal is to bring up children who will care for all members of the community and who will...


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