They’re not just stories

I help teach religious education classes at our UU fellowship, which is a bit of a reach for me, because the amount of teaching experience I have is zero. Unless you’re counting my stint as a literacy volunteer, and those were grown-ups. Grown-ups are a lot easier to handle, because they probably won’t go running around the classroom on you. Just saying.

The fun part is storytime. There’s always storytime. We use various children’s books to illustrate whatever principle we’re talking about that week. I may not be the Roy Hobbs of volunteer teachers, but I can definitely read a story to kids. This past week we were discussing the search for truth in life, and our story was “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which I’ve always liked. Funny thing: The kids all said they knew the story, or some version of it, but when I got to the part where the naked emperor was about to go parading through the streets in his new “clothes,” they all gasped and giggled, like they’d never heard it before. Then they praised the little boy for finally telling the truth.

It seems like the storytime is a nice added bonus to the lesson, but to me, the story is the lesson. I can stand in front of the kids and lecture them about what they’re supposed to be learning, or I can read them the story and let them learn it for themselves. Obviously I have a preference there.

Children’s books are lessons even when they’re not designed to be lessons, even when they’re not parables or fables. Stories always hold truths in them, on some level or another, about the way we think and the way we live, and reading to children is effectively teaching them when they’re not expecting it. Sort of a stealth lesson.

But, as LeVar Burton used to say, don’t take my word for it. From the introduction to “The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature,” which I have just begun to have the pleasure of reading:

“The powerful cultural role of children’s literature cannot be denied: its ‘classics’ and best sellers have been absorbed into our bloodstream; they are cherished, revisited, and shared like secret toys and secret loves. Its folk and fairy tales have powerfully influenced our ways of thinking and talking about the human mind and social relations. Its characters, images, and narratives underlie much of what is seen on film and television. Children’s literature is life-enhancing, life-changing, and profoundly influential; it provides a new lens with which to see the world.”

And I am looking forward to the next lesson.


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