Storytelling or Teaching with Turtles

How effective is our teaching in equipping children with the tools and desire to pursue meaningful lives and enabling them to make positive choices?

Sometimes we learn of the tragedies and triumphs children experience in their adult lives, but this is not necessarily an indicator of the outcomes of what we imparted to them. We may get direct feedback from them as adults; an acknowledgement of their love of the library story times they attended as toddlers, their gratitude for the extra homework help in primary school, the encouragement to follow their dreams or a particular career path. More often than not we will never know. We are left to trust that we are doing the best we can with what we have at that particular point in time.
The joy of being a storyteller is that above all else the immediate moment is paramount. If a listener takes the story itself or the experience of storytelling beyond the present moment to share in future contexts, then that is a bonus. It is enough to awaken the listener’s senses by enabling them to be present in the telling. Reflecting,  retelling and doing further inquiry are additional actions that the initial experience can generate. Creating an environment which fosters the desire to build on the primary activity is what most educators try to achieve. As to whether the listeners are receptive to the wisdom of our words, then, a story will have to suffice.
This tale can be found in many collections including The Panchatantra, Aesop’s Fables and The Jataka Tales. The endings of the stories differ in the manner of the death of the tortoise or turtle. It always falls to earth and its shell is either cracked on rocks, it is torn to pieces or eaten. The fall is the punishment for the tortoise being ‘talkative’ and not listening to the birds.
However I am posing a different ending to the tale here. Like the turtle we all fall by ignoring the words of our teachers, but its where we fall and what we do in our new circumstances.

There was once a turtle who lived in a pond at the foot of the mountains. He spent his days swimming around and around in circles in the water, chasing the fish and playing with the frogs. What he loved most of all were visits from his friends, the birds. He would sit on the bank of the pond and look up into the sky as the birds emerged from the clouds.

As soon as they landed he would ask them to tell him of their adventures. Where had they been, what had they seen and what news did they bring. For hours the turtle would sit, spellbound by the birds’ tales. They spoke of snow-covered mountain peaks, sandy deserts and the wide-blue sea. They laughed about the strange creatures they met and their different customs. All the while the turtle saw pictures of the birds’ journeys in his own mind, and a deep longing to see them for himself grew in his heart.

One day he ventured to tell the birds of his desire. They shook their heads and told him that unlike them, he had no wings and therefore could not travel to these distant lands. But turtle remained undaunted.

‘You could be my wings,’ he announced. 

The birds were puzzled. The turtle could not ride on their backs. Although they had claws but they could not grasp the turtle’s shell. The turtle thought and thought, but the birds finally came up with an idea. They collected a long stick and told the turtle that they would clasp either end of it with their claws and turtle was be in the middle of them and clench his mouth hard on the stick. In that way they could carry him through the sky.

‘Where do you want to go?’ asked the birds.

‘I want to cross the wide-blue sea,’ said turtle.

‘Then we shall,’ said the birds, ‘but you must remember to keep a tight hold, and that means no talking.’

The three set off, the birds flapping their powerful wings, lifted turtle up into the air. On they flew and turtle could barely contain his excitement as he looked down at the pond below him disappearing from view, as they rose higher and higher, catching the currents of the wind. Soon turtle realized he was far away from his home and was now looking down on the wide-blue sea. It was bigger and bluer than the sky. It was so beautiful he just had to express his amazement.

‘WOW!’ he said, and as he opened his mouth he fell down to the ocean below.

Plunging into the waves, turtle realized that here he could swim for ever and ever. The wide-blue sea became his new home and he swam across it,  sharing the stories of his adventures with whoever he met on the way. 


Photo by Roman W. Schatz

One thought on “Storytelling or Teaching with Turtles

  1. Pingback: Making a Difference… or Not – stories in my life

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