Wisdom Tales:
Planting the Seeds of Character

Telling pedagogical stories in the classroom that foster self and social awareness, and positive change

“It’s not fair,” cries Mary with her daily mantra. “She always gets to line up before I do!”

No doubt every teacher and parent has heard this wail for justice; and how many times have children heard the parental remark: “Well, life isn’t fair. Get used to it.

”Yet there are other ways to impart wisdom to our children without hammering in our views. In Waldorf education, where storytelling pervades the curriculum, teachers are taught the use of the educational or pedagogical story to plant seeds for character development. In this way, the child is allowed in freedom to germinate in their soul moral kernels of truth, which will come to fruition in their own time.

It is not, “You better change or else,” which is not freedom but coercion. When we lecture we confront or in-formWhen we tell tales we offer gifts.

The following is an Indian tale for the woes of “not fair.”

A farmer asks a rich moneylender about the secret of becoming rich. The moneylender tells him to find the god, Ram. So with three cakes under his arm, the farmer sets out. He meets a Brahmin priest who eats one cake and later confesses he does not know where Ram lives. He meets a soldier and the same happens. Hungry, the farmer is about ready to eat when he sees an old, starving man. He gives this poor stranger his last cake.

The old man transforms and Rama reveals himself, giving the farmer a magical conch shell that will manifest anything one wishes, with the instructions not to tell anyone about the shell. Later the moneylender wheedles out the truth and steals the shell, only to find he cannot blow a note. He gives the shell back on the condition that whatever the farmer wishes the moneylender will get twice as much.

A win-win situation, since both are getting nothing at this point.

At first, the farmer enjoys what he manifests; yet after a while, even though he becomes filthy rich, resentment grows that the other receives more than he does. Finally, the farmer makes one last wish…that he would go blind in one eye.

Without any lecturing, this story gives a universal truth of finding contentment with what one has; if not, one suffers needlessly.

After telling the story, it is allowed, like rain permeating the soil, to just soak in overnight, without any intellectual discussion afterward. The following day a discussion may arise with the question: “If you were the farmer what would you have done?”

In this way, the child becomes less self-conscious by speaking as a character in a story. It is less direct than: “What would you do?”

What about reading a story instead of telling it?

Reading books to children is great to do. It is important to foster a love for books. Reading can be a very special time between adults and children.

With that said, telling a tale can be powerful, inviting the listening child to enter the story with imagination. The child has the freedom to imagine the story in his or her unique way.

If you have a picture book of Cinderella for example. The child will see a “beautiful white girl” who looks like a Barbie doll. With the telling of the tale, each child will imagine her in a unique way.

Also, when you are telling a tale it has the flexibility to change. There becomes a living interaction between the teller and the audience. I never know what is going to happen when I tell a story. It takes on a life of its own.

At the end of the school year, in our distance learning, I made videos for my 2nd grade class. You can see them here on YouTube.

A pedagogical or wisdom story need not be an established tale.

I have made them up on the spot, often using my past with a lot of license with reality (an artist’s prerogative) or someone else’s past, perhaps a family member or a historical figure (with full creative freedom). Exaggerating a life event to address some disharmony in the class, such as students making fun of differences, I might tell the class during our lunch together:

When I was young there was a boy in my class who we always picked on, we made fun of his food and what he wore. One day he disappeared. He ran away from school. All of us felt so bad. When he came back to school the next day we gave him a group hug. He became my best friend. And guess what, I even tried his sushi, and I liked it.

I make sure the story is not too obvious, waiting for a time when the issue fades into the background, perhaps changing sexes, using different age groups than those I am targeting.

Another example was when discipline became an issue in my Fourth Grade class. When I taught the local history block, I used Captain Hypolito Bouchard’s childhood, who was a French pirate who raided Monterey (local history), to paint a picture of the importance of discipline. From the first-person perspective, I described his severe hands-on-education as a boy on a man-of-war. Without such discipline, he surely would have died. I embellished most of it.

They loved him and stood at attention and cried, “Viva la France!” whenever I came in as the Captain with my outrageous French accent.

I could say things as his character that I could not have gotten away with as myself. Speaking as a character we all became characters in the story. They played their part by pretending I was the Captain. It became fun.

I could have stood in front of the class and lectured about the need for discipline. Blah, blah, blah, and many eyes would have rolled upward in the “whatever gaze.” No creativity there. Just the replaying of tapes I heard from my parents and teachers.

With any tale, we never know how deep they will take root.

We may not see any immediate benefit or perhaps we may witness change with only a portion of a class. Still, we can tell the tales, learn from them ourselves, and trust in divine timing.

Nancy Mellon, a Waldorf teacher, and storyteller, related a tale of a teacher who had told the Norse story of Loki eating the heart of a witch to a class in Fourth Grade. Years later at a party, one of the students was offered some crack cocaine. Instantly she saw Loki eating the heart and fled the party. She called her old teacher and said, “Now I know what the witch’s heart was” and thanked her.

It is no accident that stories have been told by teachers from all faiths and cultures to inspire us to work on our character traits. So, instead of wagging our fingers at our children’s shortcomings, (I, for one, do not like to be lectured) give them a gift of a story.

And trust that the seeds from your story will grow in their own time, and our classrooms and families will blossom into a garden of brilliant, smiling colors— A place where we are all free to grow.

--Janaka Stagnaro

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