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     Volume 4 Issue 15 | October 2, 2004 |

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Storytelling as a Learning Tool

Novera Deepita

Once in a session with children at the Commonwealth Institute in London, a Gujrati girl asked Fahmida Monju Majid, 'What is your religion?' The question was inspired by Monju's story that used props representing different religions. Monju smiled, 'Well, I was born a Muslim.' Being curious the girl drew nearer and whispered in Monju's ears, 'What are you now?' 'I am a human being,' was the reply. The girl hugged Monju with a smile and said, 'I am, too. This is the best religion.'

This is how Fahmida Monju Majid, the only professional storyteller of the country, describes how broad a child's psychological horizon can be. Involved with activities on the psychological development of children since 1965, Monju works to help children project their latent talent and abilities. She also teaches them moral values and necessary social skills. Through storytelling she tries to ensure these basic lessons of life.

According to Monju, 'The importance of storytelling has been recognised by recent scientific research. Stories, told in an attractive manner, could be one of the best communicators for children.' And Monju has turned storytelling into an art as she uses instrumental and vocal sound effects, paintings, dramas, gigs, puppets and other props that appeal to children.

Monju prefers to tell stories at a pace easy for children to understand and enjoy. Her style also differs from the ordinary rendition of story telling. She describes an occasion: A puppet named Khukumoni introduces Monju on the stage. She takes several props with her. One of her props is a mask of a ghost, which she has made herself in such a simple manner so that a child can have the feeling that s/he can also make it. Sometimes Monju imitates a monster that shouts at the prince, 'Fi-fy-fo-fum! I smell the blood of a British man!' Sometimes she is the bee with a hard-to-hear voice. She sometimes becomes the fairy complete with wings. Through voice modulation she makes different sound effects to match the theme of the story.

Monju has conducted hundreds of storytelling sessions abroad and uses sarees as props with which she portrays different things--a sea with a blue saree, grass with a green one and the sun with a golden one. With her teep on the forehead, fresh flowers in her hair, draping Dhakai saree and glass bangles in her hands she always presents herself as a traditional Bangalee.

She tells the stories from Aesop's Fables, traditional folk or fairy tales in the improvised version and even she makes up stories on her own to teach the children some basic things. For instance, she tells a story about circles and squares to teach elementary geometry. Written by Monju, the story is about a group of squares that used to make fun of the circles saying, 'You are not that smart and beautiful because you don't have edges like us.' So, the circles try to find ways to change the notion of the squares.

Monju believes that children with special needs like the autistic children and children in uncommon circumstances need physical support or 'touch therapy'-- interactive sessions of story telling. In a television programme in London, she was once told not to hug and kiss the participating children. Monju contradicted asking the producer, 'Don't you hug and kiss your kids when you go home?' She explained to him how important it is for the children as they find support and shelter through affectionate touch.

Monju feels that children can be made responsible through entertainment. For example, if she wants the children to sweep the floor, she asks them, 'What do we need to clean the dirt?' Maybe, the children answered, 'A hand and a broom'; she then asks, 'What else do we need?' The children might look at each other and wonder what would it be. With a giggle she shouts in joy, 'We need the wish to do this," which is the most important thing because without it we cannot complete the task.' Then with the enthusiastic participation of the children the work is done!

About the therapeutic use of storytelling Monju says, 'This is a very effective technique to deal with children with social and physical difficulties.' Therapeutic stories give messages that deal directly with the unconscious mind of the listeners with directives about love, power and healing. She asserts that physically and mentally challenged children can be treated through such therapy. Game therapy, for example, for average children and touch therapy for the visually challenged can have positive effects. She says, 'By adapting characters like Ivan of the Russian fairytales who was very brave and Little Red Riding Hood who suffered for not listening to her parents, children can learn, realise and feel what is right and how to do it.'

Monju emphasises on this special technique: 'When all the child's wishful thinking gets embodied in a good fairy, all his or her destructive wishes in an evil witch, all his fears in a voracious wolf, all the demands of the conscience in an encounter on an adventure, all his jealous anger in some animal that pecks out the eyes of his arch rival--then the child can finally begin sorting out his contradictory tendencies. Once this starts, the child will be least and least engulfed by unmanageable chaos.'

For hearing impaired children, the therapeutic use of pictures can make them understand how the instruments play music and what is sweet music. Monju says, 'When I tell stories to the children who cannot walk, I do not say that the prince of the story was running and chasing the monster to kill him. I'd say the prince was flying instead.'

Monju, who has specialisation in child psychology, has written several books of fiction, fairy tales and poems. She also has been conducting integration programmes since 1965. She explains what is an integration programme: 'We put different things together to make the children understand things they should learn. There are no prejudices in such programmes.' Such integration programmes include interactive sessions with children with lots of paintings, puppets and other representative props.

Monju is a registered storyteller of the Commonwealth Institute, a regular host of programmes on the BBC radio and various other television programmes on children. The granddaughter of poet Gulam Mustafa and the niece of celebrated puppeteer Mustafa Monowar, Monju considers her birth in such a family as a blessing.

Emphasising on the three P's of child rights, Protection, Provision and Participation, Monju feels it is important for a child to learn with interest. She boldly says, 'Education with entertainment is more efficient than the old fashioned didactic system.


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