Storytelling and Teaching History

The Ancient World of Egypt - It's fascinating Stuff.

The Ancient Empires of Egypt last for thousands of years.   We are still finding out about them.
The Ancient Empires of Egypt last for thousands of years. We are still finding out about them.

Most children are not interested - maybe it's because of the way we teach it.

Most children are not interested in History. It seems that the majority of us develop a sense of being a ‘Part of it All,’ a part of History, in our later years. The membership of the majority of historical societies bears this out. So many are retirees, or people approaching retirement. There aren’t many young ones. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. History can be made interesting for the young. Moreover, I suspect this change could come about quite rapidly if those who teach children History taught the way many teachers used to deal with the subject when I was a lad in 1940’s England.

Ready for battle: A Phalanx of Ancient Greek Soldiers.

History, Mythe, Legend.  Another thousand or so years of riveting history.
History, Mythe, Legend. Another thousand or so years of riveting history.

We would be swept away in reverie by the stories told.

In our primary school we were exposed to a lot of Storytelling. I’m talking here of Oral Storytelling. For example, on the last period of a Friday, our class had the privilege of our teacher reading out loud, for perhaps as long as thirty minutes, popular stories such as Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn. We would be swept away in reverie as our teacher not only read aloud but would stop, every now and again, to explain to us the meaning of a word, or to elaborate on a situation. I recall to this day our teacher, Mr. Retallick, asking what we children thought about Tom Sawyer getting his friends to whitewash a fence. All thought provoking stuff. And, of course, points in history would be explained, as would geography.

In teaching history, one English king who really made his mark

He did a bit more than have six wives.  He founded his own religion.
He did a bit more than have six wives. He founded his own religion.

Our teacher, Mr. Wisdom, was wise indeed.

Story – yes, it is so powerful. In primary school on a bleak, freezing cold and rainy day Sport had been cancelled due to the weather. Instead, we were all gathered in the school hall to be addressed by Mr. Wisdom, an English Teacher. Well, Mr. Wisdom was indeed wise. More than that, he was an excellent storyteller. I recall to this day a story he told and how he told it. It had me enthralled, riveted. This was just prior to Christmas in 1946 or 1947.

The story? The Fourth King – a Christmas Story.

The Ages of Discovery. Captain Cook was just one of many explorers.

The explorers of our watery world were at it for a long, long, time.  Tremendously interesting.
The explorers of our watery world were at it for a long, long, time. Tremendously interesting.

Do not make the mistake of thinking stories onl appeal to the young.

Strange as it might seem, this was not just a tale for kids. Some sixty years later I was asked to present a Christmas story to a group of around sixty men ranging in age from their forties into their eighties. This was done in a church, with me standing up towards the altar area, microphone in hand. And the story I told? The Fourth King. I know it went over well not only from the hearty approbation, but the many congratulatory remarks made to me and – better still – the overheard remarks between others as they said to one another how much they’d enjoyed it. It made me feel proud to have been able to do that.

For thousand of years we wanted to fly - and now we can.

From attempts to fly with eagle's wings, hot air balloons and machine propelled airships, we eventually made it into the skies with a heavier than air machine.
From attempts to fly with eagle's wings, hot air balloons and machine propelled airships, we eventually made it into the skies with a heavier than air machine.

Every story has something to teach the listener.

Of course the story is was probably fictitious. That does not matter. This tale brought home its strong message to the listeners by enabling them to create in their minds’ eye the way they imagined it would have been. Storytelling of this type enhances the creative faculties. It strengthens the ability to visualize. And, of course, it teaches. Every story has something to teach those who are listening to it.

Two great world wars, all in the space of one century.

Millions of stories and counting, these two world wars greatly advanced our current ways of now looking at the world.
Millions of stories and counting, these two world wars greatly advanced our current ways of now looking at the world.

How lucky to be born before the advent of Television.

I count myself very lucky to have lived the first twenty years of my life before the widespread advent of television. In fact, I’d have been twenty-five by the time it became a ‘most evenings’ habit with me. For in my days leading up until the time television began to dominate, when going to the movies was a once-a-week affair, just about everything was geared to the imaginative abilities of a listening public. Radio theater , radio plays, recorded stories on gramophone record, and lots and lots of storytelling. These years, I believe, gave me – and a lot of my generation – the ability to read, write, and tell in ways that those who have come afterwards do not have.

From the first heavier than air flight to a Moon landing in 68 years.

Born in the age of carriages and carts, when the steam train was the ultimate in commuter technology (1900) my mother lived to see men walking on the Moon.
Born in the age of carriages and carts, when the steam train was the ultimate in commuter technology (1900) my mother lived to see men walking on the Moon.

The video game will need to give ground to the orally told story.

This is not to say that those abilities and skills can’t be regained. I’m sure that they can. But our younger generations will need to shift away from the ‘ready made’ to the ‘self-created.’ The video game will need give ground to the story ‘told in the ear’ rather than that which is always told to both the eye and the ear.

Told well, a story really is "better than the movie."

Is it worth the shift reversal? Some would say not. Others might think it both onerous and old fashioned. Whether it is or not, I can remember quite clearly being told, on the completion of a well known story which I’d told orally to an audience, “Wow, Tom. That was better than the movie!” And why wouldn’t it have been? For when a storyteller tells a story the listener has actually created it. All the storyteller has done is to provide the words to keep the listener on track.

I hope you enjoyed reading, Storyelling and Teaching History.

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