Friday, September 06, 2013

Teaching Lao folktales in an American classroom

One of the questions I frequently field are requests from traditional Lao storytellers on how to be more effective in American classrooms. How do we teach the stories of our elders in a way that’s true to the traditions of Lao culture while still being academically rigorous and effective in building a greater audience for Lao culture in the future.

A whole book can be written on this subject, of course. My initial advice comes from my years working with principles of service-learning, primarily the concept of connecting to the curriculum.

Storytellers can assist our teacher colleagues tremendously when we understand that a story like Xieng Mieng will allow teachers to present students a new perspective, but also help the teachers meet their broader curriculum goals.

When we retell a story, we are already integrating two key elements of education: listening and speaking. We can go further with this. Of course, a lot depends on how much time you have to construct the lessons and how much information the teacher can give you ahead of time about where they are in their classroom lessons.

Throughout the period, as a storyteller, you can use this as an opportunity to introduce vocabulary and spelling. At the beginning, point out key words from the folktale students might not know. Aim to leave the students with greater comprehension of the words and their meaning, so that they will recognize the words when they hear them later in the story.

You can connect most traditional Lao stories to mathematics by creating word problems from the words or phrases repeated in the tale. You might ask the students: “How many phrases were repeated in this tale?” Or “How many characters were there in the story?” Or in the case of Xieng Mieng, a scene like: “If Xieng Mieng can clean up four pieces of chicken droppings every five minutes, how many can he clean up in one hour?” I wouldn't advise necessarily forcing the questions, but if you look closely, you can see where mathematics and logic problems come into play in the best of our stories.

Social Studies lessons can be used with these folktales by discussing the place where the story originated in, which was Laos. You can discuss how it came from Southeast Asia to America. Help your students use a map to see these places and let them trace the route to see how the tale arrived here. You can discuss the people who brought the tale to America. This helps develop students' research skills and their sense of history and geography.

When you discuss the climate of Laos you get the opportunity to teach a science lesson. Consider comparing the climates of Laos and the US and discuss their differences, and ask the students to make a chart as an illustration. Plants in Laos and America can also be discussed to see if any of the same plants that grow in Laos can be found in America.

Art lessons can be integrated by having students create a mural of the Laotian village that the tale was about. This further allows students to work in small and large groups. Encourage their imagination. They can discuss this village and how it compares to their own neighborhoods. You can have the students write and tell what they like about the village and why.

Improve the writing skills of the students by asking them to express their feelings about a character they like from the story. Have them write and tell what their favorite character looks like and ask them to discuss the role the character played in the tale. Was the character a positive role model or a negative one?

These are just some of the directions you can take a traditional Lao story.

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