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September 2005 - Issue No. #58 (p. 8-10)
Teaching through stories is a tradition as old as humankind, and much older than written language. The world's great wisdom traditions have always used stories to illustrate abstract concepts in a way easy for anyone to understand and remember. Such "wisdom stories" as Jewish mystical tales, Christian parables, Sufi teaching stories, and the riddles of Zen Buddhism have a timeless appeal that extends beyond the boundaries of their traditions. There are many ways in which stories can be used in the teaching of peace, as well, in order to help listeners develop empathy or look at a familiar situation from a new point of view. We will explore some of these techniques here.
A storyteller can "reframe" a familiar situation by providing a different point of view. Parables - stories using symbols and parallels to convey spiritual truth or moral lessons - are a time-honored example. A story can often work its way past people's carefully constructed psychological defenses; an ancient example comes from the Hebrew Scriptures (2 Samuel 12:1-7), in which a prophet "speaks truth to power" by using a parable to call an unjust king to repentance.
Another form of reframing consists in condensing a complex, large-scale issue into a more easily imaginable form. One example of this is "If the world were a village", a well-known article (Meadows, 1990) made into a children's book (Smith, 2002) showing how languages, cultures, religions, wealth, and education would be distributed if the world were a village of 1000 or 100 people.
This Strange Creature Called Man
One other common form of reframing is satire, recasting a situation in a way that makes it appear ridiculous. For example, an unusual perspective on human affairs is offered in the following story by Peace Pilgrim entitled, "This Strange Creature Called Man" (Friends of Peace Pilgrim, 1982, pp. 106-107). (This and other stories here are given in "story skeleton" format giving only the essential elements of the story in abbreviated form, leaving it to the individual storyteller to supply further details.)
"No society that feeds its children on tales of successful violence can expect them not to believe that violence is rewarded."
- Margaret Mead
One of the reasons that teaching stories is so effective is that listeners can identify far more readily with people than with abstract concepts. If a character in a story is likable to listeners, described admiringly by the storyteller, and rewarded at the end, hearers will respect the values that character represents. By contrast, characters who act in a despicable or foolish way, and suffer as a result, serve as a warning to listeners not to be like them.
The world's folklore, ancient and modern, is full of stories whose heroes are valiant warriors, defeating their enemies through superior strength and courage. To create a culture of peace, more stories are needed in which the heroes are peacemakers, finding creative ways to resolve conflict, and in which those who resort to violence are cast in the role of villains or of fools.
The Appalachian story of "Old Joe and the Carpenter" (retold in MacDonald, 1992, pp. 76-78) is an example of a tale where the peacemaker is the hero:
Old Joe and the Carpenter
Other stories portray warmongers as fools, such as this Sufi tale featuring the bumbling folk hero Mullah Nasruddin (retold in MacDonald, 1992, pp. 21-22):
For students in elementary, junior high and high school, stories featuring heroes their own age, in similar situations, who find creative solutions to conflict are particularly useful. One collection of such stories is Wilde (2003). In one story, a boy resists a bully's attempt to provoke his anger by concentrating on a ridiculous mental image; the protagonist succeeds in keeping his cool under pressure, and the bully, frustrated by his failure to provoke him, looks foolish and ends up in trouble. The stories are geared for a U.S. audience, but teachers could take inspiration from them and recast them in a setting closer to their students' daily lives.
"An enemy is someone whose story we have not heard."
- Gene Knudsen Hoffman
Stories can give "the enemy" a human face, showing members of a group singled out for hatred or discrimination as individuals, with the same hopes, fears, joys, sorrows, and foibles as the listeners. At the height of the Cold War, two storytellers visiting a U.S. public school introduced the Russian folktale "The Stubborn Turnip" and were dismayed to hear a first-grade student respond with "Yuck!" During a follow-up activity, however, they received comments such as, "I thought of Russian people as being mean and evil, but they didn't seem like that in the story" and "The story was funny! I never thought of Russian people as being funny before" (Hamilton and Weiss, 2002, p. 84).
At present, there is a great deal of fear and little knowledge about the Muslim world, particularly Iraq, among many in the West. Stories told from the point of view of Iraqis and other Muslims are scarce, and the need for them is great. One rich source is the American Friends Service Committee's collection of stories from Iraqi civilians during the first and second Gulf Wars, at:
Another story illustrates the suffering and vulnerability of a real-life character not often seen as a likely candidate for human sympathy:
One more function of stories in peace education is to provide real-life examples of peaceful resolution to conflict. History provides many examples of nonviolent movements that changed the world: Gandhi's campaign against British rule, the Danish resistance to the Nazis, the civil rights movement in the American South, the democratic ouster of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the "Peace People" movement in Northern Ireland, the "Rose Revolution" in the Republic of Georgia, and ongoing campaigns such as those of the Dalai Lama for Tibet and Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. Any of these could yield plentiful material for a storyteller.
Other historical episodes can be retold as stories, such as the Christmas Truce of 1914, when British and German troops stopped fighting and reached out to each other across No Man's Land. A ready-to-tell version is online at: www.aaronshep.com/storytelling/GOS21.html.
On a smaller scale, stories of how individual acts of peacemaking, forgiveness, or reconciliation changed the shape of a community, a school or workplace, or a single person's life can be sources of inspiration for aspiring peacemakers. A collection of true stories about peacemaking in daily life, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories for A Better World, has just been published and is available online at
These are a few of the many ways that stories can be used for peace education. Stories retain the power today that they had in ancient times: to bring new insights; to impel listeners to sympathy, anger, or reflection; and to convey profound truths in a way that will be remembered forever. In addition, stories from other cultures can make the world seem smaller and friendlier, and illustrate the hopes and fears common to all human beings everywhere. In these, and in many other ways, stories can become instruments of peace.
Do you use peace stories in your language teaching? Do you have peace tales or class activities you'd like to share? If so, send them to and we'll include them in a future issue of the newsletter.
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