Storytelling in the Social Studies Classroom, pp. 3 of 8

Let me tell you a story before you go. Two friends were walking along the river, and they saw a scorpion fall into the river. One of them took a branch to rescue the scorpion, and was stung in the process. Pain. Second time, the scorpion again fell into the river, the person took a branch to help it again. So his friend asked him, “Hey, you know the scorpion is going to sting you, right? You already kenna[i] the first time. How come the second time, you still go and help?” The kind person said, “To sting, is the nature of the scorpion. To help, is my nature. The scorpion will not change its nature to sting others. In the same way, I will not change my nature to help others.” So you can say, “Oh, Singaporeans are all like that. But how about you? Can you be the change? Eric [cynical student], can you be the change?”

Ravi likely told this story to show his students the meaning of behaving one way over another. Rather than telling students what they should or should not do, he ended the story with a question to be answered by the listeners themselves. They were to come to their own conclusions. Carrying a simple moral message, such stories are potentially effective because they invite students into a dilemma, bypassing the mental resistance that typically accompanies a more direct telling (Sunwolf, 2004). Through this story, Ravi added the dimension of integrity into the narrative of kindness. Stories like these can help students think how their own values fit in with or differ from societal norms or expectations.

Personal Story

Teachers sometimes tell personal stories, re-creations of experiences from their own lives (Miller & Mehler, 1994). The following story was likely told to inspire empathy and cultural understanding in students, and to reinforce the point of the chapter that maintaining harmony in society requires consistent effort and empathy from its citizens. Shuwen, a teacher from an all-girls Catholic school, told this story as she rounded up the chapter on “Bonding Singapore” in the secondary three syllabus. This lesson coincided with the Hungry Ghost Festival, celebrated by the Chinese Taoists in Singapore. According to traditional Chinese belief, the gates of Hades open during the seventh month of the lunar calendar for restless spirits to roam the earth to seek resources from their descendants. For a whole month, faux money will be burnt and food will be left out in the open to appease these spirits. The festival falls on the 15th of the seventh month and is often celebrated with chanting and opera singing. Shuwen had used this opportunity to reinforce her point on how common spaces can at times pose problems for the community. She first shared her personal frustrations with this practice and asked her students whether if given the opportunity, they would move to a place where these rituals were not practiced. The story follows,

“Now, this practice, we may not believe in it, but a lot of our cleaning uncles and aunties do. I know this because I was in school this month last year. So the uncles and aunties were very fervent. They said our school got what [ghosts]. They were very convinced. So on a Saturday afternoon, they brought their own paper money to burn and conduct these rituals for our school. But you see, their intentions were good. They actually spent their own money and they don’t earn a lot of money. They probably make about your allowance plus your tuition fee add together. That’s how much they are paid each month and yet they spend their money to actually organize this event. I bumped into an auntie last year in school. The auntie opened the door and I asked, ‘Where are you going?’ They were going out there. I asked, ‘To do what?’ They didn’t want to tell me. They did it secretly outside the school because our school is a Catholic school and we shouldn’t do things like that. It’s their way of saying let’s bless and protect the school. As much as we might want to criticize, I myself am annoyed by it, but at the same time, I respect that they are doing something of value. I may not do what they do, but I understand and appreciate what they do. Okay? Understand? So the truth is we live in a common space. Even if you stay far away from all the burning, even there, there will be people who are different from you.”

Shuwen not only took time to express and convey her compassion for the cleaning uncles and aunties in the school, but also helped her students understand that having different religious beliefs, in this case Catholicism and Taoism, does not mean that we cannot understand, appreciate, and respect one another. This story reinforces harmony as a national value and can help students consider what it means to live in harmony with people whose beliefs and practices are different from their own. This story also embodies the values of the school community by showing how members of the school, both academic and support staff, have the best intentions for the school and work together harmoniously despite their intentions being manifested in very different ways.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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