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Storytelling: law and a human tradition.

We don't know when human speech began, but we can safely assume that storytelling was not far behind ... stories of hunting exploits and new discoveries from fire, plants, and clay were undoubtedly told around the early campfires. Centuries before the Iliad and Odyssey were written down, their stories were being told by storytellers around the hearths of pre-literate Greece. While storytelling became an almost-lost art during the late 19th and 20th centuries in western cultures, it has always been a strong element in the lives and cultures of all other peoples.

Storytelling is at the heart of being human. People tell stories to entertain; we tell stories to teach the wisdom of our Elders to upcoming generations; we tell stories to remind all members of a family or community of our past, our traditions, our rules and customs; we even tell stories to give directions. The Icelandic Sagas, for example, give quite clear information on where to sail to travel from Iceland to Greenland and onward to Newfoundland.

In Canada, the Aboriginal people have a deep well of stories which gives a rich base to their cultures. These stories have been told for centuries, even secretly during those years when various Aboriginal cultural practices, like the potlatch, were banned. Indeed, Aboriginal stories are so important to those cultures that the Supreme Court of Canada has recognized oral traditional stories as valid evidence in cases as diverse as land claims and fishing rights (See LawNow 21:3 "Today's Trial" and LawNow 23:3 "Aboriginal Law"). One useful way to explore traditions, customs, and laws of Aboriginal people is through storytelling. This can also be used to compare using such traditions to solve conflicts with using our Canadian legislatures' laws.

Using Storytelling in the Classroom

Storytelling is a valuable resource in any educational environment. When starting to teach at a community college, I was faced with teaching technical writing to a class of students training to become park rangers and outdoor recreation leaders. Warned that these students "hated English", I visited their pre-semester field camp so I could introduce the English course on their territory. I sat with the students around the fire and suggested that as a way of getting to know each other, we each tell a story about a wild animal encounter. The only stipulation was that each story should have a moral, or rather a point to be made from the story. Of course, everyone had an animal story to tell; the morals ranged from the hilarious to the terrifying; by the end of the evening, I was able to point out that they had all done their first public speaking exercise, developed a thesis statement (AKA the moral of the story) and illustrated it with an example.

That was an informal way of using storytelling, first as a way of building rapport, but equally important as a way to introduce a concept. With more planning, a teacher can build a unit that could include social studies and law along with information about other cultures, basic narrative structure and public speaking.

A Sample Plan

A storytelling unit can be complex or simple depending on student skills and learning objectives. For now, let us assume that the class is a high elementary or low junior high group.

[Part 1 of 4]

Activity Materials required

Introduction overheads, film, video
 or audio tape
Storyteller presents up to storyteller
Teaching storytelling archival photos, overheads,
 handouts of narrative
 structure, tips for telling,
Assignment preparation
Student storytelling may include photos,
 drawings, other media
 depending on level
Debriefing discussion questions
 Looking at Conflict
 (Available from Legal Studies
 Program, 780-492-1751.)

[Part 2 of 4]

Activity People required

Introduction teacher
Storyteller presents storyteller from local
 Aboriginal nation
 or storytelling group
Teaching storytelling some storytellers may
 wish to do this,
 or teacher may
Assignment preparation teacher and students
Student storytelling students
Debriefing teacher and students

[Part 3 of 4]

Activity Time required

Introduction 5 minutes to 1 period
Storyteller presents 1 period
Teaching storytelling 1 period
Assignment preparation with lower levels 1 period,
 with higher levels, perhaps
 homework plus some
 class time
Student storytelling depends on class size
 and length limits on
Debriefing depends on teacher's
 sense of what is useful
 and necessary

[Part 4 of 4]

Activity Assessment


Storyteller presents debriefing with students,
 with or without
 storyteller present
Teaching storytelling
Assignment preparation
Student storytelling formative - debriefing
 discussion after story;
 learning logs;
 summative - assignment
 score card


Notes on Activities

* Each teacher will have his or her specific objectives for this storytelling unit

* Sample Objectives

* After this unit, students will have practised active listening, basic critical thinking, and public speaking.

* After this unit, students will have learned about traditional Aboriginal justice.

* Give a general background to storytelling --its traditional base, importance in cultures, etc. and explain to the students what will be coming up. Within this general introduction, it may be useful to give one or two short samples of stories during the introduction. There are several sources for stories:

* Appleseed Quarterly- The Canadian Journal of Storytelling available from The Storytellers School of Toronto, 791 St. Claire Ave. W., 2nd floor, Toronto, ON, M6C 1B7. 416-656-8510.

* National Film Board: the NFB has partnerships with many public libraries where you may be able to borrow/rent some of their films or videos. The NFB can also be contacted through its web site where you can find information purchasing videos. One useful video is Box of Treasures. Although this video doesn't tell traditonal stories, it tells the story of the Kwakiutl people regaining their masks and other regalia from the government. It shows how important the stories and dances are to Aboriginal people. Excerpts of Box of Treasures are included in Video 3 of First Nations, The Circle Unbroken.

* Public libraries may have other videos, films, and audio tapes of storytelling.

* There are many books of stories that are suitable for classroom use. See Other Resources below.

Finding Storytellers

In each school area, there will be different sources of storytellers.

* For specific Aboriginal stories, the local Native Friendship Centre is often a good place to start a search for storytellers. Band offices of local reserves may also be a good source of information about people willing to tell Aboriginal stories.

* The Canadian Storytelling Directory is available from the Vancouver Society of Storytelling, # 13, 2414 Main Street, Vancouver BC, V5T 3E3, This Directory lists storytellers and storytelling organizations by province.

Storytelling Organizations

* Storytellers of Canada/Conteurs du Canada 3-3034 Stone Road West, Suite 411, Guelph ON N1G 4W4

* T.A.L.E.S. c/o Jennie Frost,9010 - 120 Street Edmonton, AB T6E 2T6 (780) 433-2932

* The Storytellers School of Toronto, 791 St. Claire Ave. W., 2nd floor, Toronto, ON, M6C 1B7. 416-656-8510

* Many storytelling festivals are held including the Yukon festival ( and festivals in Vancouver, several Alberta and Ontario cities, Quebec, and New Brunswick, plus many more. These are generally well-advertised in local papers and a good source of contacts for the future.

* A search of the WWW using the key word storytelling brings up a wealth of sites with storytelling contacts, suggestions, stories, and so on.

Briefing the Storyteller

There are several points that should be covered when making arrangements with a storyteller.

* Some storytellers are professional and will want a fee; others are amateur.

* The storyteller should be made aware of the unit objectives. For example, if the objective is that students understand more about the traditional justice of Aboriginal peoples, the stories chosen will need to reflect that.

* The storyteller will want to know the time and place; length of students' attention span; number of students; and other special details that might affect the interaction between teller, story, and students.

The Storyteller Presents

Each storyteller will have his or her own style of attracting students' attention and storytelling. It's time to sit back and enjoy.

Debriefing after the Story

Whether the storyteller is involved or not, most teachers will want to have a class discussion of the story before proceeding to other things. Some useful types of questions to start discussion might include the following:

* How did you feel about the characters in the story?

* What do you think was the main point of the story?

* Describe a conflict in the story

* How was the conflict solved?

* Were there customs or traditions that helped solve the conflict? How did they work?

* Are there other ways this conflict could have been solved? Other customs or rules that could have helped solve the conflict?

The publication, Looking at Conflict: a novel approach, (Margaret Ferguson, 1992) presents a useful approach to using young adult novels as a way of exploring conflicts and law. While it addresses written material, much of the process would be equally valuable with oral stories. (See LawNow 21:1 for a more detailed description of this approach). Another useful publication is Fair is Fair: World Folktales of Justice, by Sharon Creeden, ISBN 10 98765 43 21. This book looks specifically at the use of storytelling as a way of teaching law in the classroom.

Teaching Storytelling

Some storytellers include teaching storytelling as part of their school presentations. In other cases, this will be the teacher's task. There are a number of resources, both online and in print. One Canadian book, Telling Tales: Storytelling in the Family, (Gail de Vos and Merle Harris) gives many suggestions about how to develop and tell stories. It is available through many bookstores or online through It includes an excellent annotated list of other references.

One approach to teaching storytelling might follow these lines:

* Teacher brings in family or archival photographs (most cities have a municipal archives, and some have provincial archives as well. Plus a number of archives such as the BC Provincial Archives have online sites from which photographs can be downloaded for nonprofit use).

* A handout giving a formula for structuring a story could include a version of the following instructions:

* Name the people in the photo. Make a few notes about what they are like: for example, friendly, angry, kind, athletic.

* Choose one person and give him or her a goal: something he or she wants most in the world right at the moment of the picture.

* Think up all the things that could stop your character from reaching his or her goal. (These could be things like other people in the picture or something in nature.)

* Think of the rules, or traditions, or laws your character uses (or breaks) to help reach the goal and include these in your story.

* Make up the story of how your character overcomes the obstacles and reaches his or her goal. Make point form notes to remind you of your story.

According to Telling Tales, some key things to teach students about actually telling the story are the following:

* Look straight at your audience.

* Tell your story; don't read it. The exact words don't matter--no one else will know if you have changed the words.

* Use your body to gesture and help show your story.

* Use changes in your voice -- speed and pitch -- to show the exciting parts.

* Use pauses to add drama.

Variations on a Storytelling Assignment

* lower grade students may be asked to draw a picture that tells their story and then to describe what's happening in their picture.

* in some classes, it may be appropriate to have students bring family photos from home and to tell stories about incidents in their family lives where family traditions or rules have created or solved conflicts.

* higher grade students may be asked to research the traditions of a particular Aboriginal nation (preferably local if appropriate) and to ask how these show up in traditional stories. A teacher may ask higher grade students to tell a story in two variations: one showing how a conflict might be resolved using Aboriginal traditions and one showing how the same conflict might be resolved using our current Canadian laws.

Debriefing and Assessment

A similar approach to debriefing after the storyteller's story may be used after students' stories.

If a teacher wishes to give grades for the storytelling assignment, a relatively simple grading scale such as the following might be useful:

Narrative Structure /25
Character description 5
Establishing goal 5
Establishing opposition 5
Narrating conflict 5

Resolving conflict using some rules or customs 5

Any public speaking grading scale that is appropriate to the grade level would work, but a basic scale might work like this:

Storytelling Skills /25
Eye contact 5
Voice -- rate 5
variation in tone 5
loud enough 5

use of gestures 5

Other Resources

website for the National Council of Teachers of English statement on storytelling

Once Upon A Conflict: A fairytale manual of conflict resolution for all ages by Tom Leimdorfer, ISBN 0 901689 38 6, available through Marigold Bentley, Education Advisory Programme, Friends House, Euston Road, London NWl 2BJ.

Storyteller Storyteacher by Marni Gillard ISBN 1 57110 014 8

The Passionate Fact: Storytelling in Natural History and Cultural Interpretation" by Susan Strauss ISBN 1 55591 925 1.

Storytelling books by Canadian storyteller Gail de Vos, and available from Libraries Unlimited:

Storytelling for Young Adults: Techniques and Treasury Tales, Rumors and Gossip: Exploring Contemporary Folk Literature in Grades 7-12.

Making a Story

* Choose a name for your main character.

* Give your character a goal.

* Decide what problems there will be in reaching the goal.

* Decide what rules or traditions help/get in the way of reaching the goal.

* Make up the step-by-step story of how your character reaches his or her goal.

Telling a Story

* Look at your audience.

* Tell your story; don't read it.

* Use your body to show your story.

* Use changes in your voice to help tell your story.

* Use pauses to add drama to your story.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Legal Resource Centre of Alberta Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mildon, Marsha
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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