Volume II - 1994

Storytelling: A Way of Freeing the Imagination An Interview with Dvora Shurman
by Tova Ackerman

          Dvora Shurman is an American, retired and living in Israel. Shurman, who founded the Lillian Oppenheimer English Storytelling Center in Tel Aviv, is experimenting with innovative approaches to learning. She is well known in Israel and internationally for the teacher training seminars that she conducts. Tova Ackerman, director of the Puppetry in Practice Center at Brooklyn College, interviewed her in
January, 1994.

Editor's Note: This interview was conducted by Tova Ackerman for The Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning (JILL).

JILL: How do you use storytelling in teaching language?

Shurman: I use it simply. Telling stories in the classroom makes the experience of listening to a newly acquired language both pleasant and productive. Students enjoy listening to stories; they experience emotions, as they identify with characters and wonder if the hero will escape or be eaten. Listening to stories in a second language drives the listener to understand a plot, rather than individual words. The puzzle pieces easily fall into place. The best way to teach is not to impose teaching, but to allow the listener to become so involved in hearing a story that his "defenses" are no longer active. He is not bored. The listener is driven, prodded by his curiosity, imagining what may come.

JILL: What stories do you tell children?

Shurman: Folk tales make the best material, for they have a deep relation to every aspect of a child's life. Psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim studied Oedipal aspects of fairy tales, partly because the themes of wicked stepmothers and sibling rivalry appear in every culture. Aesop's animal fables, rooted in African lore, illustrate values and morals. In olden times, children heard stories when their parents brought them along to listen to the Wise Man or the Wise Woman, Medicine Man, Preacher or Sage. Stories were not designed for children to understand; they held messages for the tribe or group as a whole. And the children absorbed the messages though the story. Rascal stories, in which the mischief-maker wins out over the staid, overbearing "enemy," are lovely for small children who feel bossed and dominated by large adults. Peter Rabbit, Brer Rabbit, and Coyote stories are examples. The film cartoon character of "Wily Coyote" is adapted from Native American trickster legends.

      Using folk tales in the classroom is easy. The children have already had many such tales read to them in their native tongue; they have read them, seen them on TV and--on videotapes-- over and over. They have accumulated formats which apply to any language: hero, villain, quest, danger, solution - it is simple form. Of course we have quests with failures along the way, but language learning begins in the simpler format. The pattern transfers to the new language, as a kind of "grammatical structure."

      There is a place for more complex stories in a coordinated curriculum. An African tale from the Segu tribe illustrates this point. Kone, an old widow with a beautiful granddaughter, is supported by her village tribe, but in a time of drought they leave her to starve. She works magic and becomes a rhinoceros, a second Self which creates havoc among the village hunters. As the story develops, compassion saves the day, but the lessons absorbed are not a morality tale or fable. Along the way, the listener has absorbed the culture, the traditions, the geography, the economy--an all-inclusive picture of an African community in its jungle ecosystem.

JILL: What was your training in this approach to education?

Shurman: Perhaps I was born into it, for I had to be the voice of and for my deaf parents. I had uncles who wrote and told stories, and a father with a wild sense of humor. I would add humor to emotion as elements of learning. My formal education? I was foreign language teacher, majoring in Spanish, and minoring in ESL, which I taught in Israeli high schools. After I retired, Joseph Lukinsky, Professor of Education at Columbia Teachers College and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, led me to professors and institutions teaching and modeling different techniques of using stories in life experience, whether it's called teaching, psychology, or performance. In 1987, I became formally involved with storytelling in the New York City Storytelling Center and the Jewish Storytelling Center at the Lexington Y. But storytelling is not limited to the printed and spoken word. I also learned Dr. Ira Progoff's Intensive Journal _ Method, which provides tools to access the stories within our lives. This method makes use of a structured Journal notebook, with over 20 sections and subsections, and six colors for the dividers. Each section deals with a different type of narrative, such as "Experiences at School" and "Close Friends." The formal structure releases imagination in several ways. For example, it averts a tendency to go around in circles in keeping a diary; and the format still remains open, like a book. It has been used successfully in many school settings, for each of its sections can lead to deepening and opening of both the use of language and of understanding. A grandmother told of her seven-year-old grand-daughter who came home with a notebook in three sections. The child was already in touch with the various aspects of her self, of writing, of memory and use of language. She said her grandmother would have to help her with the part about her life, for she would not remember it all. She said the main part would be things that happen and stories she would write for school, but the last section would just be "nothing special." Queried by grandmother, she specified, "Just thoughts and maybe poems and songs and dreams." I call this reaching the goals we don't know we have.

      So there it is--a journal with different ways to approach our life, from the past, the present, and the inner life. This is a simplified version of the Journal, adapted for early language learning, and reaching within the child for inspiration. That inspiration is allowed to come, naturally, within the specific framework of the Journal, for we need not limit imagination. If the topic is "A Dialog with Mother" [or with wisdom or a hero we are studying], the "mother/wisdom/ hero persona" can express anything. We need not fear or limit our writing. We metaphorically "give the pen to the persona and let it write." Thus we escape any constraints on our own imagination, for "someone else" has been separated from us, like an actor on a stage, and that someone may say what he wishes.

      Children who keep the journals in elementary school enjoy--no, love to write. Students in higher grades reach such deep understanding of the historical figures whom they study and then give their own voice, that the teachers are amazed. Even at university level, Professor Joseph Lukinsky tells of a student who identified with the rabbi-philosopher A. J. Heschel completely, because the student, like Heschel, was a refugee from Europe, and could "understand" his subject from within his own life experience.

      It is difficult to define hard borders between teaching, storytelling, writing and psychology; perhaps they will soon fall. These fields of study have become integrated naturally in my work --and my life.

      I also trained to be a "Mimesis" leader with Professor Sam Lauchli of Temple University, and his wife, Dr. Evelyn Rothschild, a family therapist. Lauchli, a professor of religion whose origins are Swiss, derived his technique out of his teaching of comparative religions, their myths and legends, and the work of Karl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and folklorists and researchers into story and religion. We learned to "play" stories in methods derived from "psycho-drama." As we rewrite myths, legends and fairy tales for our time, as we take a role and "enter" a story, it becomes clear that the traditional myths and themes are universal. The "playing," like the journaling, creates a persona, a role we play which allows us to "be someone else."

      But our self identifies with the role. No wonder Jung proposed that we knew ancient legends before we were born. We also have within us stories from every encounter with anyone who has ever been a part of our lives. A veritable treasury that awakens when we allow ourselves to "play," freeing our self unconsciously in the use of imagination. Students of drama? Peter Pitzele is another teacher who uses drama to work with the mentally ill, through stories. School counselors, teachers of special education, and physical therapists, as well as drama coaches, can reach students through this way of entering stories. Ms. Sally Smith, mother of a learning-disabled child, discovered that she could use music, rhythm, movement and storytelling to awaken her child's latent capabilities. "He can't spell C-A-T, but he can tell you a Navajo legend," Ms. Smith said.

      These varied approaches to storytelling all use imagination in many ways. They can also complement one another. I have seen many budding writers and painters who first awaken to their inner artists through this work.

JILL: Is storytelling best with young children?

Shurman: No, not necessarily. Stories are powerful and can even change lives. As classroom adviser to a 12th grade class, I encouraged the students to tell stories of their lives which, in turn, helped them make decisions about the future, and accept the inevitability of army service, or whatever lay ahead. A 12th grade girl, on the threshold of graduation, was sure that the only thing she wanted was to get married. But she worked through two days of journaling, "talked with work," and realized she wanted to be a teacher. She went on to teacher's college, even after she married two years later.

      My latest experience--I have them frequently--was with an adult, who had never had formal education, because of illness and her status as a refugee. Trying to learn a foreign language, Hebrew, she would read a word or sentence and tell herself: "I am not going to remember that." She succeeded very well in following her instructions. I suggested, playfully, that she leave out the word "not", and she retained her knowledge. We did it as a game, a story. Not only has she found a way to language learning, she sees that her learning is connected to her perception of herself. Her imagination had been non-productive and negating; she could not imagine herself speaking another language. That might be the subject of a very long article!

      In upper grades, I teach students to tell stories, as well as to listen; the storytelling process serves as a vehicle for cognitive thinking--recalling, learning, and re-viewing the stories, where we are in our lives. So imagination is also the key to reaching memories. Instead of saying, "We will learn so-and-so today," we let the story carry the listeners into their own learning process.

JILL: Are you talking about freeing creativity?

Shurman: No, about developing order, structure, and discipline! First of all, for the teacher/teller: to tell a story one has to learn and remember it, understand its structure, its inner meaning, its personal meaning and the relation of the story to the children's lives and learning. In Israel, this has been a crucial element in my teaching after terror attacks and during wars. During the Gulf War, I went back to work as a substitute teacher, for I knew many teachers had fled the country. I was given fourteen art classes, first through eighth grade, although I am not an "art teacher." I can elicit art through storytelling, and did so, choosing stories appropriate to expressing their fears and terror. I adapted a classic story, "The Rabbi and the Goat," and brought it from a European village to an apartment near the school. In the adapted ending, with the goat in the sealed room in which we waited for Scuds to fall, we discovered that even a gas mask is of no use against the imagined smell of a goat. Humor changed fear to a story they loved, a story they drew repeatedly and wanted to hear again and again, even in the upper grades.

JILL: Do you use specific learning devices?

Shurman: Humor, of course, and repetition, especially a rhythm or tune, to enhance memorization. Listening comprehension and memory free the listener's imagination. Sometimes I begin with a theme, then toss it out for the others to pick up. One time we told stories of forgetting things, and everyone had a story to tell. It's just for fun, but the process carried us to stories we did not know we knew. Then I control the speed of the storytelling according to how well the children seem to be comprehending. I may go back, slow down, ask questions to stimulate. None of this would be possible if I were tied to reading a text. I can watch as I tell. I can let the students repeat refrains. I can have characters, usually animals, repeat the same basic script.

      My favorite repetition stories come from Africa. Elsa Joubert, a grandmother in South Africa, adapted some--like "The Peanut Boy"--for her own grandchildren. Don't let your imagination limit this story to a lower grade, for even adults love it. It works well in language classes. It becomes a game, as students repeat it faster and faster, shouting out the repetitions with the teacher. In the end, I can just hint, and the students tell it themselves. Yes, the simplest tools are sometimes the best. This is a concise version:

      Deep in the African jungle, a little boy tells his fisherman father: "I'm going to hide, and you won't find me."

      "I'll find you," says his father, and the little boy goes off. He finds a peanut skin, makes himself very small, crawls inside, and falls asleep. A wood hen comes, swallows him, and is in turn swallowed by a wildcat, swallowed in turn by a wild dog, a panther, and an enormous river snake. The snake swims into a fishing net and is captured and then cut open. Each animal is revealed in turn, and the students repeat the progression of animals backwards.

      The fisherman finally reaches the peanut, opens it, and says to the surprised boy, "I told you I'd find you." The teacher can use as many animals as she/he wishes, and as much or as a little detail as is required. The script lends itself to drawing, and to all the arts, even melodies for the animals to sing. It is an elastic story!

JILL: Do you always tell folk stories?

Shurman: My best stories are my own. I believe the greatest storytelling is being able to reach the stories within our lives. They become like a giant puzzle, the parts connecting in various ways to create a "new life."

JILL: That does not sound imaginative. Is this therapy?

Shurman: I "allow" students to work "creatively" and freely, using breathing exercises and movement first, to disconnect from the distractions of what we bring with us as we enter the stories. They focus on breathing, and let anything happen. This is the depth side of another phase of the work I do, based on Dr. Ira Progoff's Depth Psychology [developed in his books, The Death and Rebirth of Psychology and Depth Psychology and Modern Man, (1958 through 1963) and At a Journal Workshop, (revised in 1993), all published by or available through Dialog House Library, New York.

      The root word of psychology, "Psyche" in Greek, is the soul, not the mind; and my work with stories has an aspect of Eastern practices in this releasing of learning. I don't use or seek imagination as a specific goal. I free it, as we get involved in the story, forgetting ourselves and our classroom. We enter the stories and escape constraints on our thinking.

      "Therapy?" I did use stories in the classrooms as a tool to handle the terrible consequences of the Gulf War, but I prefer to call it "identification". I was assigned a school with classes from first through eighth grade. They were "exceptional" students from both ends of the spectrum of capability. All these children were either bombed out of their own homes or watched a neighbor's home being demolished by a missile. They entered the stories, to be freed of tension, or went beyond them with fantasy. That's normal behavior.

      Creativity and imagination are not to be understood to mean that we just let go of constraints and "let it happen." It is a misconception that creativity or imagination is a function separate from reason and analysis. Rules apply to the use of the imagination in language learning just as they do to science and geography.

      I "teach" indirectly. I give the participant/learner techniques to learn by himself. I am there to guide and inspire. We free our capacity to learn and to understand by focusing on the story, as we enjoy and are excited by it. Our emotions help us learn. Dr. Paul Dennison, an educator, developed a Shiatsu-based system of working with dyslexic children and called it "Brain Gym." It is a series of yoga-based exercises chosen for their effect on various aspects of learning [Brain Gym, Glendale CA, Edu-Kinesthetics, 1986]. He showed that the "trying" process blocks learning. We turn off the process of thinking; we bring it to a stop when we focus on "trying" rather than on what we wish to know or understand. It's like what happens when we misplace something, and can't find it until we stop looking. So we allow stories themselves to be vehicles for learning.

JILL: Do you mean by telling stories?

Shurman: "Telling" requires a listener! So storytelling is basically a dialogue, with the listener. A boy in California came up to a storyteller after a program, touched his arm, and said in surprise: "You're round!" Not just an electronic device that tells stories but doesn't know the little boy exists. My friend, Joseph the Storyteller, says he has all the stories he ever learned in his head, to suit whatever audience he finds. A story is not separate from the teller; it becomes his own when he tells it. He knows what stories to tell, letting story and audience seek and meet each other. The teller hears the listeners, too.

      When storyholder Teresa Pijoan learned to be a Pueblo storyholder, the process took nearly 20 years. First she had to learn all the traditional Pueblo stories, the same stories as told by each of eight other storyholders. After her initiation, she had to tell each story in her version, compiling those of the older holders out of her own understanding of the traditional story, which would be the stories retold for her generation. [This is a principle of Dr. Ackerman's work at the Puppetry in Practice Center in Brooklyn College.]

JILL: This sounds like work, too practical to be imagination.

Shurman: Society has defined imagination as impractical. But we use it every moment of the day, making choices. Even setting one foot in front of the other requires imagining where we want to go and what we will do when we get there. Imagination is the basis of all our lives, no matter how humdrum they seem. That only happens when we ignore what we are really seeking, when we put aside "trying" to "teach" structured learning. We want to go further, enhance learning possibilities.

      This is not a prescription or formula, nor a set of rules. I hope you understood what not to do. Let learning-through-storytelling happen, enhanced by joy and excitement.

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