(The following article originally appeared in Today’s Catholic Teacher magazine.)
Once upon a time, there was a treasured and beautiful art. It was held in high esteem by all, and practiced wherever people gathered. This beautiful art was known as storytelling.
The early Christians lived in a storytelling culture. In fact, in her book Around the Year with the Trapp Family, Maria AugustaTrapp says that “It is quite probable that there was story-telling going on in the evenings in the little house in Nazareth.” Certainly, it is easy to imagine St. Joseph telling Old Testament tales to the attentive Child Jesus on his lap, while Mary listens nearby. Perhaps it was this storytelling tradition that helped form Our Lord as a superb storyteller. The parables he told – the Prodigal Son, the Lost Coin, the Good Samaritan – touched the hearts of his listeners in a way that simply stating the parables’ core lessons could not. It’s no wonder that, in instructing the people, Jesus “did not say anything to them without using a parable.” (Mark 4:34)
Many generations later, storytelling still held a respected place in society, both as an art form and as a means of passing down values. In the Middle Ages, the principles of the Faith were communicated in the form of stories called exempla (from “example). Exempla made use of everyday people, places, and things to illustrate points of faith and morals. The popularity of exempla to teach catechism was based on belief in the adage “Verba docent, exempla trahun”: “Words instruct, examples illustrate.”
Today, the universal Church still recognizes the usefulness of stories for religious instruction. According to the Asian Catholic newspaper UCA News, religion teachers in Indonesia have adopted a teaching method that incorporates storytelling and folklore. The article reports that “teachers´ experiences are the most effective means to transfer religious values to schoolchildren.”
Catechizing from Scripture
While Indonesian catechists are engaging their students with folk tales, Christian LeBlanc is telling stories to his sixth grade class at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina. LeBlanc, an AmazingCatechists.com columnist, is the author of The Bible Tells Me So: A Year of Catechizing from Scripture.
LeBlanc’s method of Bible-based catechesis is unique in that it involves plenty of give-and-take between teacher and student. LeBlanc believes that a child’s experience of listening to a story read aloud from a book – although famously compared to “tangible wealth untold, caskets of jewels and coffers of gold” (Strickland Gillilan) – is “passive,” and thus less effective when it comes to learning the faith.
“Reading aloud is fine,” he says. “I used to read to my kids too. But only half of storytelling is the telling, the other half is the personal witness of the storyteller. The kids need to know that the story matters to the teller.”
“Remember that Bible stories all started off as oral accounts and then had to be edited way down for practical reasons,” says LeBlanc, “so you should plan on not reading them straight from the book without lots of commentary and embellishment.”
To parents who aren’t used to interactive storytelling, LeBlanc offers these tips for spinning a stirring story:
- Let the kids chime in with what they know and can tell. They’ll love to actively participate.
- Ham it up! Become the characters in the story by changing your voice and demeanor.
- Draw pictures, or have the kids draw pictures. Include the illustrations in the storytelling process.
- Ask the kids questions that pull them in and cause them to think. Make some of the questions silly and some serious.
- Connect themes/lessons in the story to their everyday life. The Parable of the Mustard Seed, for example, can be related to the child’s own experience of planting a garden and watching the seeds sprout.
Catechizing from Life
Catholic educator and storyteller Alyssa Bormes agrees that real-life experiences can be powerful educational tools. Bormes’ book is an example of a narrative that teaches the faith. It tells the incredible story of the 1980 Men’s Olympic Hockey Team and its unlikely gold medal win over the Soviet Union team. According to Bormes, the account is “the story of every underdog, full of suffering, doubts, and determination.”
Bornes believes out that, in order to learn, we need concrete, relatable examples. She uses The Catechism of Hockey to illustrate the power of example in storytelling.
“Just imagine Grandpa telling this story to his grandchild. Imagine him taking the child on a virtual ‘pilgrimage’ to the arena where it all happened, and ‘hearing’ the crowd cheering ‘U.S.A., U.S.A!’ The account is, in essence, the David and Goliath story, and it has now made an indelible mark in the mind of the child, who can draw upon it later in life when facing overwhelming odds.”
Observes Bormes, “Jesus found ways to express age-old truths in new stories. We can do the same in the midst of the everyday goings on.”
Catechizing from the Church
In his article The Birth of Catholic Evangelism, Deal Hudson stated: “The Catholic version of Christianity has far more stories ready-to-hand than any other denomination – from its 2000 year history and its role in the creation of Western Civilization to the stories of its saints, martyrs, clergy, and religious. If it’s true that good storytelling is the basis of effective evangelism then the Catholic Church is the most fertile soil one could imagine.”
Adding that “the very simple can be the key to the very mystical,” Bormes advises parents to look close to home for storytelling inspiration.
“The Church has given us all the tools to catechize our children,” she says. “We, as parents, just need to know the Story!”
Bornes offers these suggestions to parents:
- Take your kids to your parish church. See how many symbols they can find in the windows and art of their own parish. What and where are the symbols of baptism in your parish? Why does the baptismal font often have eight sides? Where are the symbols of the Eucharist? What does IHS stand for?
- Find out which saint is the patron of your parish. Get the whole story of that saint, including the atmosphere of the world at the time the saint was on earth. Tell the children the saint’s story with the passion due to it! Then, go on a pilgrimage to your own church, or across town, to the side-altar with that saint, thereby meeting the saint and giving the child a new friend for the journey of life.
- Talk about the stories behind the feasts of the Church year. Are there any ethnic traditions relating to your family’s observances of feast days and holy days? Does your family enjoy special foods on certain holydays? Does your parish have special customs relating to the liturgical year? Find out the stories and share them!
- Prop it up! The Church in Her wisdom uses “bells and smells” to help engage all of our senses and connect us to Heaven. Parents can make use of practical, everyday things to help children grasp the truths and beauty of the Faith. Bornes says, “I often use stick figures to explain the Trinity; I use a baseball diamond to explain actual time that we live in, and God being outside of time; I use a bag of holy cards to explain chastity.”
Bormes stresses the importance of having children do more than just listen to a story. By encouraging their children to walk through the church, finger the baptismal font, or sample a feast day meal, parents have “attached the story to more senses than just hearing. The children have touched the story…and it has touched them.”
Perhaps you still just can’t picture yourself as a storyteller. Maybe you’re afraid that, in your first attempt at sharing a Scripture story, you’ll mix up Dathan with David, or confuse Jericho and Jeroboam. Perhaps a verbatim reading of The Poky Little Puppy is all you think you can handle.
If that’s the case, then repeat after me: “I think I can, I think I can.” The fact is that you don’t need to be a LeBlanc or a Bornes – or a Grimm or a Geisel – to tell a good story. Here are a few jumping-off points for the reluctant storyteller:
- Take off your “parent” hat
Remember when, as a child, you met your teacher at the grocery store or the mailman at Mass? You were surprised that the teacher and the mailman had lives outside their respective workplaces. Delight your kids by telling them about demure Mother’s adventures as a competitive skier, or staid Father’s antics as the class clown. I guarantee that your children will be thrilled to hear about Mom and Dad before they became Mom and Dad.
- Tell the “Story of You”
Kids love to hear about their baby days, and many mothers love to recall the details of their children’s births and earliest days. What was the weather like on the day the child was born? What did Mother say when she first saw him? Tell about his Baptism. Did he cry when Father poured water over his head? At home, was he content or cranky? Did he sleep much? When did he first smile? These minutiae are bound to captivate the child who is the story’s central character.
- Go with what you know
Take a tale that you loved as a child and personalize it for your kids. I’ve had fun retelling the beloved story of “The Glorious Whitewasher” from Tom Sawyer, replacing Tom’s name with that of the entranced young listener, and the names of Tom’s compatriots Ben Rogers, Billy Fisher, and Johnny Miller with those of the listener’s siblings and friends. The child will enjoy imaging himself the owner of Tom’s amassed “wealth” – which included a kitten with only one eye
twelve marbles, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, four pieces of orange-peel, a dilapidated old window sash, and a dead rat and a string to swing it with.
- Begin with “When I was a kid …”
”And then my dad took off his shoe and smacked it against the window, shattering the glass.” That’s the climax of a story about my family getting locked out of our house some forty-odd years ago. I must have told it to my own kids, by request, a thousand times over the years. Part of the story’s appeal lies in its quaint details, e.g. Cell phones didn’t exist, so we couldn’t call our neighbors for help. Bonus interest-clincher: Mom, who was thirteen at the time, was mortified that the episode had been witnessed by the boy across the street, whom she liked.
“You become a great storyteller by telling stories,” says Bornes, “and over time honing your craft.”
Adds LeBlanc, “Don’t just tell the story. Share it so that your listeners will be imbibed with it.”
And everyone lived happily ever after.