I left the Celebrating Salish conference two days early to be able to spend family time this spring break. I still got to attend three workshops that made a deep impression on me, even beyond the inspiring keynotes and cultural evening sessions.
The first of those workshops was an introduction to weaving TPRS into Salish storytelling, presented by Janice Billy and Kathryn Michel. I felt very much at home in a room where we learned an elementary-level mini-story that would lead to a a longer cultural story. So many elements of the workshop were those that TPRS beginners need to hear, and experienced folks must repeat: the need to limit vocabulary, to focus on meaning rather than grammar, and to use repetition as a key piece of compelling, comprehensible input. Kathryn gave a beautifully concise overview of TPRS in her limited time.
One of the points that resonated with me was that Kathryn was suggesting a form of what Laurie and I might label Embedded Readings, if they were written. (Blaine might refer to the continuing practice as “Digging Deeper.”) Kathryn said that sometimes elders grow impatient with the simplicity of stories she prepares for the youngest beginners, but she explains that this is just a first step. The original stories can last 45 minutes, and there’s no way a young beginner can listen that long, much less comprehend the level of language. Kathryn rewrites stories so as to use comprehensible language and to communicate just the most critical parts of the story. Even then, she might reduce the story to smaller chunks that might take weeks to teach. But she emphasizes that each story part still has to have a logical beginning, middle and end, because humans are hard-wired to understand narrative with this structure.
Over time, Kathryn introduces more and more details into the story. She pointed out what we all know about ourselves: we hear and tell a good story many times. We like that repetition. But Kathryn’s increasingly longer versions of the stories come to the students over a period of years! I absolutely loved hearing this concept, as it crystallized for me what some of us have been doing: using the same stories in all levels. The only difference is that Kathryn gives us permission here to keep using the same stories over years.
Laurie taught me to separate versions of Embedded Readings with activities; knowing that the story can potentially spread over years makes it much easier to spread out retellings or re-readings. I can relax, not worry about always “getting through” a certain number of story versions in a specific amount of time. If students like a story and enjoy the acting and telling, leaving it for a longer period might make it even more exciting to return to.
Besides introducing TPRS, a crucial point of Kathryn’s presentation was that we use cultural figures as heroes in our stories, and if we are adapting stories, not to change the underlying message. Children learning Salish find out that Coyote is a trickster, that Bear is kind, if not smart in the same way as Coyote. Over time, students can not only begin to predict how those characters will act in a story, but they can identify their own behavior and that of others in terms of the cultural figures. The reason not to change the message (but without having to state a moral) is that “children are smart. They absorb messages with stories.”
In TPRS classes, we often personalize our stories by using characters that students suggest from modern-day American culture. But when I introduce Russian cultural figures to my students, students start bringing those characters into the stories, and the heroes typically act within the confines of their stereotypes. What a wonderful way to easily address cultural concepts with storytelling! I had never thought about using the folk heroes on purpose in a story. As with my use of “accidental CI” in my years before TPRS training, I had never considered using those characters in stories on purpose.
It occurs to me that as the stories grow in length and detail, part of that detail will include comments about the folk heroes’ personalities. It will be a natural “aside” to add to the telling.
We often talk about bringing authentic resources into the classroom, and we don’t always don’t know how to bring TL culture into storytelling. Now I feel I have another intentional tool to add to my teaching. From now on, including Russian folk heroes as participants in stories is not going to be an accident in my classroom.