Storytelling Research

I don’t normally turn on the internet before school, but today I had a burning question: Is it appropriate to tell a story which assumes the knowledge of guardian angels to a multi-cultural class?

For school kids, I try to be careful. I don’t want to devalue their beliefs, or compete with their family’s teachings, or for them to feel left out. I want them to be aware of diversity, learn a bit about their new home’s dominant culture, learn about other cultures, and feel included. For adults, I’m less cautious. They probably already know enough background to enjoy the story, and no one can claim I’m teaching them religion against their parents’ wishes.

[Fine print: All research done in five minutes online. Close enough for the purpose, but no more than that.]

My kids’ school has many Muslims. Some have adapted well to our culture, others less well. By that, I don’t mean leaving their own faith and rituals, but knowing the culture of their new home well enough to make informed decisions. One girl didn’t have a bathing suit and thought her brother’s Tshirt was suitable to swim in. Fortunately, the teachers noticed before it got wet. Another girl wore a full-body swim suit, which worked much better.

I like to have a special story to tell at Christmas. This year, it’s Jane Lebak’s Rent an Angel. It includes Gabriel, some lesser named angels, and an un-named guardian angel.

I try to be aware of religious differences. When a woman in a blue dress appears in a vision, I tell the young audience that the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, almost always wears a blue dress. It’s enough for them to recognize that this isn’t just any woman in the vision, without bogging down the story or challenging their faith.

Likewise, when I tell Jean Little’s Pippin the Christmas Pig, I sometimes begin with the manger story. Pippin is a great story even if you don’t get the references to the manger story, but it’s even better if you do.

I often emphasis traveling that Mary and Joseph were traveling, and didn’t want to be — many of the kids are from Afghanistan. It brings the kids together. I love how Pippin’s story weaves around and brings new meaning the manger story. Muslims believe Jesus was an important messenger from God, but not God’s son. That’s similar enough that Pippin’s story doesn’t compete. Jesus’s mother is Mary, and he was born under a palm tree, not in a stable. The story has similar importance, but a very different feel and emphasis. God is there for Mary, despite the questions raised by her pregnancy. It’s worth reading for yourself.

I like the palm tree story, but Pippin’s story needs the animals and manger. I simply state “Little assumes listeners know the manger story,” and go right to a very tired Mary, riding the donkey. I don’t mention the source, just that it’s a well-known story. Some day, I’d like to be know enough about the palm tree story that I’m comfortable telling it, and then pair it with a secular story, the same way I pair Pippin with the manger story.

Pippin’s story shows welcome and caring, which many of these kids can identify with. Also, Pippin’s story shows how one small, insignificant, under-valued pig can make a difference. It’s an inclusive story, even though it’s based on a Christian tale.

Gabriel and guardian angels, though, worried me. How would kids whose families believe guardian angels don’t exist feel?

Then, duh, I thought of Googling “Muslim” and “angel”. Facts are always a good place to start.

It turns out Muslims are more into angels, including Gabriel, and guardian angels, than the average Christian-by-default. I can tell the story without modification for that group.

That still leave agnostics, atheists, and a whole host of others, so I’m not out of the woods just yet. It’s a typical Canadian small city school, between two very different socio-economic neighborhoods. Many immigrants stay for a year or two to get their bearings then move on. I may add an extra sentence for the kids who haven’t heard of guardian angels.

One sentence will be enough to bring those who don’t know into the loop, without boring the rest. Or maybe the existing wording will work: “I want to see this man’s guardian angel.” It implies there is a specific angel assigned to guard the man. One angel (or in Muslim, two — one for day, one for night) per man isn’t critical. A few paragraphs down it’s made clear the guardian angel has the time to concentrate on individuals. Earlier parts of the story show angels do more than physically guard people. Regardless, it will work for those who haven’t heard of guardian angels.

While researching this, I remembered the elderly neighbour with the turban, and a few boys with topknots. Sikhs? Possibly. Another bit of research to be done.

This is one of the many reasons I love storytelling, especially to this age group. To do it right, I have to learn about my neighbours. I have to know where they’re starting from, and where I can comfortably travel with them. It also lets the kids experience similarities and differences for themselves, without setting up “us” vs “them”. It’s a great way to create a community that celebrates both similarities and differences.

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