Storytelling is an art, but it is also a means of communication, of expressing ideas, of illustrating points. It can be said that the majority of information we receive from others, whether through verbal communication or text, is transmitted as a story. We think about the past as a series of interconnected events played out by different characters. These stories we hear everyday – from other people, from the media – shape our reality; they shape what we know about the world. Thus, it seems strange that we, a species so inclined for stories and storytelling, would rely so much on rote learning when it comes to education. When characters and their actions are broken down into an arbitrary list of isolated words and definitions, reality itself seems to lose meaning.
Thankfully, Kathalaya, founded by Geeta Ramanujam, offers an alternative to our counterintuitive learning systems. For almost fifteen years, Kathalaya has worked with teachers, NGO representatives, and parents to spread the art of storytelling and use it to make an impact on society.
The motivation for the company came when Geeta was working as a teacher, and every day would observe the monotony of common teaching practices and the corresponding faces of disengagement among the students. “I wanted to think of something that would inculcate an interest,” Geeta explained. “As a child, my father taught me the best history lessons through stories.”
Today Kathalaya travels the country to both urban and rural settings, teaching parents, teachers, and NGO representatives how to tell an engaging and effective story. They hold story-telling sessions, workshops, and training sessions, provide materials necessary for engaging students in a story, even provide the stories themselves, designed around specific lessons. “Stories are full facts,” explained Geeta. “When we tell a story and we can integrate the facts with the story or tell the facts later. That wakes up the listener. Stories keep people interested in what happens next, it’s very dynamic, it keeps moving, it has a climax, a plot, and its full of surprises.”
As a result of the programs popularity and success, schools all over the country have begun incorporating storytelling into the curriculum. Kathalaya’s programs are focused on enhancing children’s understanding of and interest in the social sciences, but also include vocabulary, environmental awareness, and language development. To accommodate India’s cultural diversity, and also cater to the rural communities where English might not be as prominent, these programs can be set up in regional languages.
What results is a classroom in which students are engaged, active, having fun, and, most importantly, actually learning. “It creates an emotional bond between the listener and the teller,” Geeta explained. “It wakes up to the listener because it appeals to their emotional side.”
As effective as Kathalaya’s teaching strategy might be, with working to preserve and disseminate as ancient a tradition as storytelling comes the challenge of working against the ubiquity of digital communication technology in today’s society. Geeta has seen how a growing reliance on these technologies has affected the modern classroom. “[Students] are becoming islands, and they are often responding in monosyllable answers,” she explained. “They are not able to explain the text, or explain themselves… I think we are losing our communication skills.”
This makes the work that Kathalaya is doing all the more important. Recognizing this, Kathalaya set up the Academy of Storytelling, the first and only independent and globally recognized academy for storytelling, to supplement their work in the field. If you understand the Academy, you understand that the mission of Kathalaya extends far beyond the realms of education. The courses offered by the Academy are open to aspiring storytellers from any background, from teachers, to NGO representatives, to corporate professionals. “Each person has a choice,” Geeta explained. “They don’t have to take it as education but can take it as a value addition for the field they are working in.”
So for those who think Kathalaya holds no relevance to him or herself, think again. No matter who you are, no matter what field you work in, you are a storyteller. Anyone who cares about communication, about making his or her point not just heard, but understood and contemplated, might consider examining his or her own storytelling ability. Because as Geeta passionately expressed, “When you tell a story well and you know that there are people listening to it, and they are carrying something back in their heart, that is the most wonderful feeling.”
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