June 14, 2013

The Illusion of Authority

I'm pretty sure that the reason my kids love history, is that it's simply an exciting, never ending story.  It's like a good book with no final chapter, so you always have more coming.  But I noticed something this week, as I chose Medes and the Persians as a bed time read-aloud book, and then had the kids listening to the Story of the World on CD in the van.

When I tell them stories from my childhood, their eyes get big and they learn forward and smile and enjoy hearing it from the authority.  I am the authority on my childhood and as close to an authority on my parents' and grandparents' lives as they can get, so it has a different energy when I tell those stories.  But when I read non-fiction to them, I'm just reading someone else's account.  It's good, but since I'm reading it, I'm obviously not the authority.  Their eyes aren't as big and they lean back and relax into it rather than sit forward in eager anticipation.  

When I put the Story of the World on in the van, they listened like I was telling the story of my life to them.  I thought this strange at first, because I've read them that book aloud and I didn't get the same listener's energy from them when I read it as this narrator was getting.  And then it hit me.  They can't see that he's reading a book.  They way his voice lulls and lilts like a grandpa around a campfire, they are hearing these stories like they're being told by the authority from memory.  

They read with that same eager anticipation, presumably because it was the authority who put those words on the paper.  But having me read non-fiction aloud is like having a third party mediator telling the story.  It's like reading the transcripts from the court hearing - far less exciting that sitting in the court room.  

This is, of course, just my current working theory.  But I'm going to roll with it for a few weeks and see if there's not some way to get more distance out of our read aloud time than I have been.  Story telling, after all, is becoming a lost art and if you've ever been with an excellent story teller, you know how entrancing it can be.  My plan to engage them a little more in history stories that I would read to them rather than have them read for themselves, is to to read them ahead and really study them, and see if I can't tell them rather than read them, with lots of expression and on my feet rather than seated - as if I'm the authority and I saw it for myself - and see if I can get that eyes wide open energy with history stories at bed time.  

I took a brief story telling class in college (from that same professor who was obsessed with Freudian psychology and fairy tales) and it was really eye opening.  Lots of planning and energy go into telling an engaging story.  We were assigned mundane tales that everyone has hear before, but we had to tell them before the class in a way that would make our classmates really engaged.  I had Little Red Riding Hood and I told it like I'd never told it before.  As a result, I tell it to my kids with crazy energy and clawing hands and terrified faces.  It's a winner!  So now, I want to apply that same tactic to get the illusion of authority when I tell them about the Trojan horse or Cleopatra and Caesar.    

So let the literary experiment begin!  Can kids retain even more history details if the art of story telling is employed and the illusion of authority created?  We shall see, my friends.  We shall see.  

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