Does the famous Panchatantra tale of the blue jackal have any relevance in an algebra class? Can a concept of physics be taught through a tale from the epic Mahabharata? Most unlikely, most of us would say.
But this is exactly what Kathalaya, an organization based in Bangalore, is doing: Using storytelling as an educational tool. Kathalaya, or the House of Stories, uses folktales, myths, legends, biographies and stories from the epics not only to teach subjects like history or the languages, but also complicated science and Math concepts.
The idea has worked so well that today, Kathalaya's storytelling method is being followed by 50 rural schools and 10 urban schools across South India. Its curriculum for storytelling - from kindergarten up to Class 7 - is being implemented in some government schools in and around Bangalore, in Madurai and in some rural schools. Even the Bangalore wing of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (national literacy programme) has introduced this concept in their Chaitanya Training Programmes in villages.
"Everyone in the world has used storytelling only as a performance. Our idea is not to simply start a lesson with a story but to tell the lesson as a story so that children can retain and recall a concept taught to them,' Geeta Ramanujam, co-founder of Kathalaya, told Women's Feature Service in an e-interview.
In her 27 years as an educationist, Ramanujam has worked as a teacher at the Aurobindo Memorial School and as a librarian with the Krishnamurti Foundation School.
Now in her 50s, Ramanujam explained how the idea of storytelling as an educational tool emerged: "I was asked to teach history and geography to children from Class 4-8, and I found it very boring. The only way to make the subject interesting was through stories and project work. Later, at the library, I noticed the children were not motivated to take a book and read."
She added, "The best way to introduce an author or a good book was through reading aloud and telling stories." She took the children around the school to various spots and told them stories - about the lake, the tree, and other familiar sights. Village children passing by the school would often pause and listen.
Ramanujam realized that all children, shy or naughty, concentrated in the same way when a story was told. Inspired, she and a friend organized a week-long workshop to help children learn concepts through stories based on myths, fables, legends and fantasies. The workshop also had clay modeling and toy-making as follow-up activities. "The workshop was a success. We had found the universal medium that would generate interest in the child and revive the desire to learn," said Ramanujam.
Besides, Ramanujam had a mission: "I wanted to prove that just like Gandhiji, who rose from among the people, any teacher or a librarian with love and compassion can rise to facilitate change in society."
In 1998, along with friends Lalu Narayan and Sujatha Pai, Ramanujam began Kathalaya. Within a year, Kathalaya was registered as a trust. Besides running programmes, members of Kathalaya perform stories in bookshops, libraries and public places.
How does Kathalaya integrate storytelling into the classroom? "Let's say we take a typical 40-minute class for maths or social studies for Class 3 or Class 4 students. We study the syllabus and find stories suited to the concepts or vice versa. Then we edit/re-edit the folktale and make a lesson plan. Our story educators (storytellers) are trained to tell the story and then follow it up with an exercise ï¿½ oral or written. Even complicated mathematical concepts like permutations and combinations can be taught in this manner," said Ramanujam.
Kathalaya prepares an educational kit of several lessons and gives them to teachers in schools where they have introduced the storytelling programme. Teaching a concept in five periods is reduced to three if it is told using stories, claimed Ramanujam.
But do teachers welcome such ideas? "It is only those teachers who are rigid who refuse to try anything new. Our training always begins with the internal mindset of the teacher and addresses their patterned thought process." Sometimes, Kathalaya assists teachers in finding similar stories for other concepts and trains them in how to introduce the subject - through narration, puppetry, drawing or pictures.
Kathalaya also trains teenaged school students to make modules ï¿½ like toy theatre workshops ï¿½ to use as an effective communication tool to express issues.
While dealing with the hierarchy-bound and apathy-ridden education system, Ramanujam and her team have often found the going tough. It has taken them seven years to introduce the storytelling method in 10 urban schools. Although Ramanujam maintains children from urban and rural backgrounds respond in a similar manner to the programme, private schools are not very enthusiastic.
"Perhaps because there is a choice. They have not yet realised the impact of how important it is to not only address the intellectual quotient of the child today but also the emotional one. Also, because storytelling is not measurable in terms of 100 per cent marks or examination oriented to get a seat in a professional college, both parents and school managements do not give it as much attention," felt Ramanujam.
Still, Ramanujum believes storytelling can form the backbone of all learning. Memory skills, problem solving and all the multiple intelligence in a child can be addressed through the power of stories.
"Policymakers must make storytelling a compulsory subject, without homework and examinations. In today's rat race, storytelling is actually a pause to stop, listen, observe, feel ï¿½ something that is largely missing in our lives."
Kathalaya's recent focus has been Kathothsava-2005, India's first international storytelling festival, held in Bangalore from June 24-July 10. The festival brings together some of the best storytellers from Japan, France, USA, besides some Indian states. It provides a glimpse of storytelling forms used in various parts of the world. Ramanujam got the idea for the festival while traveling through Tennessee, US, where an entire town was evacuated for the festival. "It has been happening there for the last 30 years," said Ramanujam. She would like to make the festival an annual event.