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In fact it was those "different functions" that took up most of our attention, as we went looking for types of stories in cultures far-flung from the urban USA. Our students need to know that their neighborhood is not the only world on the globe. What kinds of stories are told in Ireland, West Africa, Japan, France, China, or Iran? Learning this does more than help decenter the USA; it encourages looking at the world from very different perspectives. For stories populate worlds and do so from perspectives. What are the concerns of children in Iran, for instance, and how are those concerns treated and valued? Stories open up different worlds as well as different ways of valuing the world. What we found, of course, was that these differences are often not so far-reaching after all. There are plenty of universals in the way stories are told because so much of human experience is common to us all. The interplay between similarities and differences in the stories we encountered makes for powerful teaching material.
Most of the stories we took up came to us through foreign films. It's not always an easy matter to locate appropriate stories in prose from other cultures; but the industry of foreign film distribution through film festivals and DVDs makes for a fantastic reservoir of stories that are available and about which one can learn a great deal. So our seminar became a forum for film analysis and criticism. In the units written for the seminar, most Fellows took up the challenge of incorporating films into their strategies and often into their objectives. Even those whose units focus on written or spoken tales were able to clarify their ideas about narratives and narration in our discussion of the films. It seems that films can be both attractive to students and can serve as terrific tools in helping them locate elements of stories. Even better, they provide images of those "worlds" that are laid out in filmed stories coming from elsewhere. We chose films that involved the lives of children, distinguishing those that seem told from a child's viewpoint, from others that were told by an adult narrator. And we looked into the special status of certain kinds of storytellers that some of our films either depicted literally or imitated. The African griot served as the example we spent most time on, in part because griots still tell (or sing) stories in contemporary Africa, and in part because their attitude toward the entire function of storytelling differs so markedly from the novelist we are used to in American culture, and in the West generally.
The units written for this seminar all combined questions about the nature of narrative with questions about the nature of other cultures. It's a great way to pair social inquiry and language arts making students travel to a world beyond their neighborhood and doing so in a vehicle (stories) that they live with all the time. This can only expand them. The cinema is a wonderful metaphor for this entire process for it projects stories for us while projecting us into the stories and the lives of the characters who make them up. It also lets us glimpse the source of light that makes this possible, the narrator or storyteller behind what we see. Language arts, as a subject, expands in the process. As happened in our seminar, everyone gains from attention to foreign stories. The results can be seen in units dealing not just with novels but also with art and social studies as subjects. More important the Fellows of this seminar were able to find new ways to engage their students in what counts more than subjects: the "expression" of language arts, the "creativity and freedom" of art, and the issues of "equality and respect" of social studies.
Number 16 of the periodical On Common Ground
Fourteenth Annual Conference
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