Two years ago, a group of second graders managed to create a “green club” that identified a need (mulberry leaves for the silk worms that the class were studying), figured out a solution (plant a mulberry tree in the school yard) and reached this goal with a little help from their teacher and their parents. That class couldn’t reap the benefits of the tree, but the current first and second grades are feeding their silkworms from that mulberry tree.
This real life story has a parallel in a classic Jewish folktale preserved in the Talmud about a character named Choni who actually lived in the first Century BCE. It relates that Choni, seeing an old man planting a carob tree, asks the man how long it would take until the tree bears fruit. The man answered “seventy years.” Choni mockingly says “do you think you will live seventy more years?” The man answers “My ancestors planted for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”
Many of you know that storytelling has become a feature of our Monday morning Havdallah for kindergarten through fifth grades. Most of the stories are drawn from a very rich tradition of Jewish folktales – some are more than a thousand years old, others come from more recent Diaspora communities. The main characters include kings and queens, the familiar illusive Elijah, ordinary people and the silly characters like the Wise Men of Chelm. Every story provides an opportunity for a lesson.
This week the story was about a King and a very wise bird. The bird taught the king some lessons. Sometimes some of the lessons are straightforward and other times the stories create some tension around competing values. One of the lessons from the story this week – to avoid chasing unrealistic goals – created such tension. The question – how do we know that a goal is unrealistic - that was continued later in the day in a Judaic Studies class. For that class the question was what’s the difference between visioning or creating something of worth that no one ever thought possible verses “tilting at windmills?” It’s a great question and one that does not have an easy answer. Our school, with time for meaning of life questions like this and with such opportunities intentionally woven into the curriculum, is uniquely positioned to tap into this aspect of a child’s development.
Our own society seems to have marginalized fiction and folktales. Yet folktales are a valuable educational tool. The most direct value is that of teaching an easily applicable value. Folktales are also a window into a culture – their fears, their dreams, their values. The silly Wise Men of Chelm stories (attributed to the mid 1600’s and written and widely circulated in the 1800’s) might have been created to bring humor to a drab and frightening life or, as some speculate, to depict a rivalry among different villages. Whatever their source, we learn something about humankind and about history when we look at folktales with respect to their origin and setting. Raising ambiguous meanings, sparking the imagination and naming different emotions are serious benefits of encountering folk tales. As Pat Bassett, the former director of the National Association of Independent Schools, noted faith-based schools, like Wornick, are uniquely positioned to open up this avenue of thought and development for young children.